Part Three


JFK skeet shooting with Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams, Palm Beach, 1958.

However, gay men played a second role for Kennedy: they were part of an avant-garde cultural world that Jackie Kennedy cultivated. In 1958, Vidal, a relative of Jackie’s by marriage, took playwright Tennessee Williams to the Kennedy home in Palm Beach, FL. Williams, a handsome gay southerner, had already written seven hit plays. He claimed he had no idea who the Kennedys were, but they wanted to meet Williams, and Vidal produced him. After cocktails, Jackie and JFK proposed some skeet shooting and, legend has it, Williams was a better shot than Jack. As the then-Senator stepped up for his turn, Williams admired his body. “Get that ass!” he said to Vidal. According to author Christopher Bram (2012), Vidal told the playwright “he shouldn’t cruise our next president, then repeated the remark to Kennedy. ‘Now that’s very exciting!” said Kennedy with a grin.”

Lem Billings also became Jackie’s confidant and the trusted recipient of her views about the other women who populated her husband’s life. Could he have been the third leg of what was clearly an unconventional marriage? He had clearly been adopted into the larger Kennedy clan, and Jackie drew him into her family circle as well. Billings worked on the 1960 campaign, and then lived at the White House for long stretches of time, with a room permanently set aside for his visits. In Jackie’s absence, Lem managed the President’s dinner parties, social life and children. On March 4, 1961, The New York Times reported, Billings even escorted two baby hamsters, Debbie and Billie, from New York to Washington, for young Caroline.

When Billings learned “that the love of his life was dead” on November 23, 1963, Pitts writes, “It was as if he had been struck by lightning;” he was “consumed by grief.” Lem was the second person Jack’s sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, called after reaching her sister Pat Lawford. A Princeton friend and former business partner confided to Pitts about Billings that after Jack’s death, “He didn’t want to live anymore.” Other friends claimed he never recovered. Lem outlived his friend by eighteen years; he died in 1981, and left his papers to the JFK Presidential library in Boston, MA.

The story of Jack and Lem opens a window into the presidency, but it also suggests that historians of heterosexuality might want to look more closely to see which gay lives are lived near, but outside the conventional frame, of heterosexual families. In addition, gay and lesbian people often have reasons for not coming out, or not seeking the liberation of living in queer communities, that are worth exploring for what we might learn about their milieu.

JFK’s sex life, and his attachments to men, also needs to be better understood for what it reveals about his inner life, and for a moment in United States political history when sex itself was undergoing seismic changes. His social intimacy with gay and bisexual men, and his comfort around homosexuality, is remarkable at a time when gay and lesbian people were still prohibited from working on most federal jobs. Like many gay men of his generation, Lem may have been very comfortable with his own sexuality and the privacy of his relationship to Jack. However, he avoided the notoriety of coming out even after Jack’s death, perhaps because it would have drawn more negative attention to the Kennedy family, soon struggling with a range of scandals. Perhaps, however, he simply chose not to come out for  his own reasons, as he devoted much of the rest of his life to JFK’s memory. “Because of him, I was never lonely,” he said once. “He may have been the reason I never married.” Knowing that, like many men who lived double lives, he “could have had a wife and family,” Billings said, being close to the President until his death in 1963 was a gift.