Lem Billings Is JFK's 'Go-Between' During Courtship with Jackie as Imagined in New Novel
What if Jacqueline Bouvier had chosen differently?
This is one of the questions Louis Bayard raises in his upcoming novel Jackie & Me, which will be published by Algonquin Books in June 2022. Bayard explores the beginnings of the romance between the future Mrs. Kennedy, then the inquiring photographer for the Washington Times-Herald, and young Congressman John F. Kennedy, with Jack's best friend, Lem Billings, serving as a "go-between" for the lovers in 1950s Washington, D.C.
In Jackie & Me, both Jackie and Billings are devoted to the future president — and it comes at personal cost. (See below for an exclusive excerpt.)
Bayard, the bestselling author of Courting Mr. Lincoln and The Pale Blue Eye, tells PEOPLE he was "agnostic" about the Kennedy clan until he learned about Billings' personal history.
"I just became fascinated with Lem because he was a closeted but as they used to say 'practicing homosexual,' and he was very much part of the inner Kennedy circle from very early in his life," says Bayard, who did a deep dive into the Kennedy archives and biographies while doing researching for the book.
"He [Billings] was a witness to so much of what was going on. But as I began to research him, I realized he was also very good friends with Jackie," the novelist says. "And he also played a very important role in the courtship between Jackie Bouvier and Jack Kennedy."
"I thought, 'What a great cat-bird seat he would've had, and wouldn't he make a great narrator?' " Bayard says of Billings. "The result is this book, which looks at Jackie before she was Jackie — the Jackie that we all think we know. But it also looks at her through this particular prism of another outsider, Lem Billings. Somebody who was also not of the Kennedys, but very much wanted to be one of them. And it's a kind of interesting love triangle between these three fascinating people."
Bayard's novel takes place primarily in the months leading up to Jack and Jackie's wedding on Sept. 12, 1953. But Bayard says that the reality of their marriage — including years of reporting about Jack's infidelities — gave him a "degree of empathy" for Jackie when approaching her character in the novel.
"I think she went into this thinking that she was getting the conventional husband, even though her own father was a complete philanderer and she knew that," Bayard says. "And she knew, at some level, that she was marrying another version of her father."
Bayard learned something else about Jackie during his research. "It's very clear to me, too, from the research, that she was absolutely besotted with Jack Kennedy," he explains. "Because he was so handsome, and he was so charming, and he just had that way about him."
In both the book and real life, Bayard explains that Billings played a key part in the couple's romance.
"You learn a lot about how he met Jackie, about how intrigued he was by her, how intrigued he was by them," says Bayard of listening to Billing's testimony stored in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
"He also reveals that there was this crucial moment," says Bayard. "At one point he was sent by Jack to give Jackie the low-down about what she could expect once they were married. Because Jack had no intention of ever being a faithful husband. And it was pretty common, of course in those days and that culture, for men not to be that way."
Bayard says it was a "gas" creating fictional narratives for these historical figures. And, for once, Billings, who serves as the story's narrator, has as big a voice as the Kennedys.
"I loved the idea of Lem being the go-between for the two lovers and being broker for Jack but also a confidante for Jackie," he says. "And I think he might have been, honestly. I'm sure there were moments where they drew aside together and talked about this problem called Jack Kennedy — because he was a problem for a young woman that was looking for love and attachment."
Beyond love, Jackie & Me is also about how decisions can define us.
"The book posits the idea that there are these given points in our lives ... where we're making a really important choice," says Bayard. "And we could have made a very different choice. If we had made that very different choice, we would've gone down a completely different road. And so the book is full of alternative outcomes, the different roads that these three characters might have taken, particularly Jackie and particularly Lem."
Keep reading for an exclusive excerpt from Jackie & Me.
It's the weekend before St. Patrick's Day, 1952, and there's still a late-winter nip in the Virginia air, but Jack always keeps the top down because, by age thirty-four, he knows how dashing his hair looks in high wind. We're due at Bobby and Ethel's that night, but Jack instead cuts across Chain Bridge. I shoot him a look, and he says—imagine the offhandedness—that we have an additional passenger.
"Oh, yes?" I say. "And who should that be?"
"A Miss Bouvier."
Mind you, there's nothing in that honorific Miss to signify a lady of distinction. He refers to virtually all his girls that way. She might be a cashier at the Montelle Pharmacy or Finland's deputy chief of mission, and you won't know until you've pulled up in front of her apartment building and seen her tottering through the front gate, a blonde in a crew-neck cardigan or a brunette in a bullet bra, and it's always the latter who raises her hand for you to kiss and the former who comes at you straight on like an encyclopedia salesman, and whoever it is remains "Miss" in our conversation until such time as the business is consummated, at which point she devolves into her component parts.
There is nothing, in short, about a "Miss Bouvier" to separate her from her predecessors. Were I to search his face—his soul—down to the most granular level, I would find no clue, for there is perhaps none to find. Miss Bouvier is a destination. And now that we've crossed into Virginia, the only thing left to figure out is where she might live. Clarendon? Cherrydale? A group home in Fort Myer, maybe. But we speed past all those destinations before steering up Old Dominion Drive. Nature rushes forth, and the car dealers and the Hot Shoppes fall away before dogwoods and tulip trees, tatters of forsythia.
"Have you known her long?" I ask.
"Not so very."
"Define not so."
"A year. Off and on."
"More off or more on?"
"Young or old?"
"Engaged," he says. "Or was."
I glance at him. "To you?"
"Don't be disgusting."
"Will we be chauffeuring her fiancé, too?"
"We'd have to drive clear to New York for that. I understand he's not worth it."
By now, my glasses are fairly crusted over with pollen, so I'm making windshield wipers of my index fingers as I ask what it is that Miss Bouvier does with her days.
"Journalism," he says.
"Is that how you met?"
"Oh," he says. "I'm not on her beat."
There's something half buried in that remark, and I don't know how to disinter it. Forests of redbud and magnolia are thickening around us, and somehow they're all in on the secret, and Kay Starr sings "Wheel of Fortune" on the radio, and, during the second chorus, I sneeze, and Jack says, "Perfectly in tune, Lem," and then the song is over, and we're pulling up in front of . . .
Well, where? I can't even tell. All I can make out through my encrusted specs are a row of white pilasters and a front portico. Where sits a girl.
Doesn't she hear the car's tires on the gravel? Or see our headlights slicing through the trees? When we first happen upon her, her face is angled away, as though she's cocking her ear for a nightingale. Her knees are drawn protectively to her chest, and there's something quite exposed about her. I mean, she doesn't look like she belongs there any more than I do, and I briefly wonder if she's a housemaid or a nanny, taking her one allotted evening out. Abruptly, she stands and gives us two quick waves and then, as she jogs to the passenger side, comes briefly ablaze in the headlights.
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By now, of course, I'm extricating myself from the front of the car and inserting myself with no great grace into the back, and the operation is so consuming that, for a second or two, I lose all consciousness of her, and then I hear her say—in that voice, like a ghost whispering through the pipes—"You must be Lem."
I mutter something on the order of yes, I must be, and she smiles. A wider smile than I would have guessed possible. The eyes even wider. Goat's eyes, that's my first churlish thought, or a madwoman's, but maybe that's to forestall the sense that I'm being seen through a wider lens. All in all, there's a certain relief in being able to retreat into the Crestline's back seat. A planetarium-like darkness, with the two of them swimming like moons. She has dabbed herself with Chateau Krigler 12 (I consider telling her it's my mother's favorite), and there is the complicating counter-aroma of Pall Malls, and somewhere at the back, simple bovine perspiration. For the first time, I begin to wonder if Miss Bouvier is nervous—though it's difficult to confirm because she has a small voice and the wind seems to slap every word back down her gullet. Her general lilt, as best I can tell, is interrogative, but why should that be a surprise? Girls in these days are instructed to shoot out a clean, firm thread of inquiry at all times. The more interested they appear to be, the more the boys will understand they don't have to be, in themselves, interesting, which is a relief to both parties. Jackie, I imagine, is now asking the name of Bobby's daughter or wondering if Eunice will be there and which one is Pat? For all I know, she's speculating about the Washington Senators' pennant chances. If pressed, she'll fall back on the weather. How chilly it is for March.
The point is there's no way of knowing what they're saying, and Jack sometimes gets cross if I talk too much with his dates (unless I'm doing something useful like showing them the door). Nothing for it, then, but to watch Miss Bouvier's head—under the weight of her impending introduction to the Kennedy clan—loll ever so gradually to the right.
It's when we're crossing back over Chain Bridge that she rouses herself to ask: "Jack, what color is your car?"
Queer question. But then I realize she's never seen Jack's car (or Jack himself, maybe) in the naked light of day.
"I don't know," he mumbles. "Red."
"Pomegranate," I say.
Something quickens in the column of her neck. By easy degrees, she turns around and bestows on me a fuller version of that first smile. Then she leans toward Jack and, in a whisper stagy enough for me to hear, says, "I like your friend."
From the book Jackie & Me by Louis Bayard. Copyright © 2022 by Louis Bayard. From Algonquin Books. Reprinted by permission.
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