Kirk LeMoyne "Lem" Billings (April 15, 1916 – May 28, 1981) was a prep school roommate and then lifelong close friend of President John F. Kennedy. Billings took leave from his business career to work on Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign. He had his own room in the White House and declined Kennedy's offers of official positions.
Billings was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 15, 1916, the third child of Frederic Tremaine Billings (1873–1933) and Romaine LeMoyne (1882–1970). His father was a prominent physician and a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. His mother was a Mayflower descendant and had ancestors who were prominent abolitionists linked to the underground railroad and negro education. The Billings family was Episcopalian and Republican.
Billings, a 16-year-old third-year student, and Kennedy, a 15-year old second-year student, met at Choate, an elite preparatory school, in the fall of 1933. Billings as a teenager was 6' 2", weighed 175 pounds, and was the strongest member of the Choate crew team. They became fast friends, drawn to each other by their mutual distaste for their strict school. From Billings's first visit with the Kennedy family for Christmas in Palm Beach in 1933, he joined them for holidays, participated in family events, and was treated like a member of the family. The Depression had hurt the Billings family financially, and Lem Billings was at Choate on scholarship. Billings repeated his senior year so that he and Kennedy could graduate from Choate together in 1935. They spent a semester together at Princeton University until Kennedy withdrew for medical reasons. While attending college, they frequently spent weekends together in New York City.
Billings and Kennedy took a summer trip through Europe in the summer of 1937. Between Munich and Nuremberg, they bought a dachshund they named Offie, after State Department official Carmel Offie who helped host them in Paris, but had to give him up because of Kennedy's allergies.
In 1941, Billings failed medical tests required by the military. In 1942, supported by a recommendation from Joseph Kennedy, Sr., his friend's father, who called him "my second son," he won admission to the American Ambulance Field Service, where his poor eyesight was not a disqualification. He saw action in North Africa in 1942–43. In 1944 he received a commission in the U.S. Naval Reserve and served in the South Pacific until being discharged in 1946.
From 1946 to 1948, Billings attended Harvard Business School and earned an MBA. He later had several jobs, including selling Coca-Cola dispensers to drugstores and working at a General Shoe store. As Vice President at the Emerson Drug Company in Baltimore, he was responsible for inventing the 1950s fad drink Fizzies by adding a fruit flavor to disguise the sodium citrate taste. In 1958, he moved to the Manhattan advertising firm Lennen & Newell as an advertising executive.
In 1960, on leave from his job, he worked on Kennedy's presidential campaign. He managed the campaign in the Third Congressional District in the Wisconsin primary and then served as general troubleshooter and coordinator of television in the West Virginia primary.
In 1961, Billings declined Kennedy's offer to appoint him the first head of the Peace Corps or director of a new agency to promote tourism, the U.S. Travel Service. He later said: "I realized that I did not want to work for the president–because I felt it would change our relationship." One historian speculates that Billings preferred to avoid a security check. In September 1961, he accepted an appointment to the board of trustees of the planned National Cultural Center, which later became the Kennedy Center. The next year, Kennedy named him to a board to plan America's participation in the New York World's Fair of 1964–5. He represented the President when the alumni association unveiled Kennedy's portrait at Choate in May 1963.
Billings visited the White House for most weekends during the Kennedy Administration. When a butler commented on the fact that Billings was leaving his belongings in one of the third-floor guest rooms, the First Lady replied: "He's been my house guest since I was married." Sometimes he stayed for longer periods. When the First Lady was away, Billings organized White House dinner parties for the President and old friends, and when the President traveled he kept the First Lady company. One presidential aide later said that "some people saw him so much they thought he was the Secret Service." Billings never had a White House pass and said: "Jack and Jackie were so nice about this that I didn't even have to tell them whether I was coming or going." Historian Sally Bedell Smith compared him to Zelig, the character in Woody Allen's film who is always present in the back row at major events. He sat with the President's family at the Kennedy inauguration and walked not far behind his widow at the Kennedy funeral. When the Kennedys arranged small gatherings at the White House, they avoided pairing people they knew did not like one another, like Billings and a few other friends.
The press frequently reported on his presence at Kennedy family events, such as the arrival of the Kennedy children in Washington in February 1961. He accompanied the President to church, launched a kite for the President's daughter Caroline, and delivered pet hamsters to the Kennedy children. He joined the President's entourage for his tours of Europe in both 1961 and 1963. In 1962 he escorted two of the President's sisters, Eunice Shriver and Jean Smith, around Europe for more than 2 weeks. When the Kennedys spent the weekend at Glen Ora, their Virginia estate, Mrs. Kennedy invited Billings to join them more often than the President did. She needed Billings to keep the President company while she went horseback riding.
Billings' role as "first friend" was assessed by many observers at the time and since. Ted Sorensen called him "an admirer–almost a fawning admirer–of his friend." Arthur Schlesinger thought Billings "used to glare at me when we occasionally encountered each other in the company of JFK, and for a time I took this rather personally. Soon I discovered that he glared with equal suspicion at anyone whose friendship with JFK postdated his own." Another said: "Members of the president's staff thought of him as a 'handy old piece of furniture.'"
Most recognized that Billings and Kennedy had been friends from youth and did not question their relationship or Billings presence. Ben Bradlee, a Kennedy friend who worked at Newsweek during the Kennedy Administration, and no friend of Billings, said "they were childhood friends and stayed loyal to each other forever." Billings, he said, "had a natural jealousy. He didn't want to share his friendship with Jack." Gore Vidal, who was banned from the White House after a run-in with Billings, offered various opinions at different times. He described Billings as Kennedy's "Choate roommate and lifelong slave" and "the principal fag at court." He also thought Billings played an important role as an aide to Kennedy, who was often ill or in pain. "He needed Lem Billings to get around–better than a trained nurse" that would have made his political career impossible. He thought Mrs. Kennedy thought Billings "was kind of a nothing....but Jack needed him and she was practical."
Many testify to Billings wit and ability to help the President relax. He once described the Kennedy family's lack of business awareness: "Listening to the Kennedy brothers talk about business was like hearing nuns talk about sex." Billings also served the President as an artistic adviser, selecting scrimshaw for display in the Oval Office and, on one European tour, quickly assembling a selection of artworks to be presented as gifts.
Billings spent less time with the President in the fall of 1963. One of their friends thought "that Jackie was trying to close Lem out." Billings spent the last weekend of October 1963 with the couple, the last time he saw them together. Billings saw the President for the last time when they dined at the White House with Greta Garbo on November 13, 1963.
In 1964, Billings was named to head a ten-person committee to select a memorial to Kennedy to be placed in the Kennedy Center.
After the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968, Billings became depressed and started to drink. He maintained close ties to the Kennedys and their children through the rest of his life. The elder Kennedys at some point discouraged the younger Kennedys – Robert F. Kennedy Jr., David Kennedy, and Christopher Lawford – from keeping company with Billings, feeling that he drank and used recreational drugs too much. In reality, the Kennedy children were already using recreational drugs. After Robert Kennedy's death in 1968, Billings became almost a surrogate father to Bobby Jr.
Mrs. Kennedy included Billings as a guest at a party marking the birthdays of her children Caroline (21st) and John (18th) in 1978.
In 1987, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin described how Billings structured her interviews with him. She had to submit questions in advance. Billings then prepared responses and read them aloud to her.
On May 28, 1981, a day before the 64th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's birth, Billings died in his sleep in his Manhattan apartment following a heart attack. He is buried in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His dying wish was for the young Kennedy men to carry his coffin to its final resting place. When they arrived at the cemetery, it was already in place to be lowered. The young Kennedys took the coffin and carried it around the grave site before returning it to the burial plot.
Friends from the 1970s confirmed that Billings was homosexual, but not open to discussing it. In 2006, looking back to the Kennedy Administration, Ben Bradlee said: "I suppose it's known that Lem was gay....It impressed me that Jack had gay friends." At the same time, he admitted that no one ever expressed the idea aloud during Kennedy's White House years. Red Fay, a friend of the President from his World War II service, said of Billings: "I didn't see anything overtly gay about him; I think he was neutral." One historian wrote that after the 1963 assassination Billings was "Probably the saddest of the Kennedy 'widows.'" Though newspapers often mentioned Billings attendance at major social events, they identified him either as the escort of a member of the Kennedy family or included him in a list of Kennedy friends. Otherwise he attended without a female partner.
Some historians believe that Billings expressed his sexual interest in Kennedy in writing in 1934 and that Kennedy rebuffed his advances. Kennedy knew Billings had rightly been accused of homosexual behavior by a fellow Choate student during their years there. Charles L. Bartlett, a journalist who introduced Kennedy to Jacqueline Bouvier and friend of both Billings and Kennedy, described their relationship: "Lem was a stable presence for Jack. Lem's raison d'être was Jack Kennedy. I don't think it's true that he did not have views of his own, as some have said. He had a very independent mind. He had interests of his own that Jack didn't necessarily share. He certainly didn't have the same interest in politics and women that Jack had." Though Gore Vidal thought Billings was "absolutely nobody," he also believed "it was a good idea that Jack had somebody he could trust like that around him." He believed Billings loved Kennedy. "Jack made a big difference in my life," Billings said. "Because of him, I was never lonely. He may have been the reason I never got married."
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- "The agency, which was the 13th largest in the United States in 1971, went bankrupt the following year, listing almost $11 million in liabilities. It remains the worst such failure in the history of advertising agencies. In its final year, Lennen & Newell had domestic billings of $140 million, and Mr. Toigo had said that the agency was worth between $12 million and $15 million and that he owned about 95 percent of the stock. New York Times: Alfred E. Clark, "Adolph Toigo, Ex-Chairman of Advertising Agency Dies," January 1, 1982, accessed January 25, 2011; "Lennen & Newell, which had 690 domestic employees in 1970 and 25 at the end of last year, has today between 40 and 50....So that pretty much marks the end of Lennen & Newell, the agency that began in 1916 as the J.T.H. Mitchell Agency, became Lennen & Mitchell in 1924 and under its present name rode into the top 15 of United States ad agencies. It will not be forgotten by those who worked there, nor by an industry that has been badly shaken by its financial failure." New York Times: "End Comes at Lennen & Newell," April 12, 1972, accessed January 25, 2011
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- New York Times: "Miss Jean Ann Kennedy Married," May 20, 1956, accessed January 23, 2011
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- New York Times: "Kennedy Names Friend," September 20, 1961, accessed January 23, 2011
- New York Times: "U.S. Board Formed to Advise on Fair," January 12, 1962, accessed January 23, 2011
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- Smith, 433-4; see also: Smith, 113: "The only counterbalance to the [Kennedy] family's philistinism had been Lem Billings, whose passion for art and antiques had begin with his Princeton theses on Tintoretto, a precociously sophisticated study."
- Smith, 510
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- New York Times: "Friend of Kennedy Named To Head Memorial Group," July 8, 1964, accessed January 23, 2011
- New Haven Register: Luther Turmelle, "Book details JFK's friendship with gay man," May 16, 2007
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- Find a Grave: Kirk Lemoyne "Lem" Billings, accessed January 21, 2011
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- For example: New York Times: "Huntington Hartford Weds Diane Brown in New Jersey," October 8, 1962, accessed September 23, 2011; One instance of Billings engaging in homosexual sex in the mid 1940s has been documented. Vidal, 380; Pitts, 202
- Perret, 38, 405n.; Pitts, 22-3
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- TIME: "Women: Jackie," January 20, 1961, accessed January 18, 2011
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- Peter Collier and David Horowitz, The Kennedys: An American Drama (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002)
- Nigel Hamilton, JFK: Reckless Youth (NY: Random House, 1992)
- David Michaelis, The Best of Friends: Profiles of Extraordinary Friendships (NY: Morrow, 1983)
- Geoffrey Perret, Jack: A Life Like No Other (NY: Random House, 2002)
- Sally Bedell Smith, Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House (NY: Random House, 2004)
- David Pitts, Jack and Lem: The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship (NY: Carroll & Graf, 2007), ISBN 978-0-7867-1989-1
- Gore Vidal, Palimpsest (NY: Random House, 1995)