Remembering JFK's Bond with His Boyhood Best Friend, Who Never Got Over the Assassination

"Because of him," Lem Billings once said of President Kennedy, "I was never lonely"

John F. Kennedy, "Dunker" the dog, and Lem Billings at the Hague, during their Europe trip.
John F. Kennedy and Lem Billings. Photo: Corbis via Getty

Though his name isn't as well-known as that of his boyhood best friend, Kirk LeMoyne "Lem" Billings was an important confidante for one of America's presidents and lived a life no less full of its own twists and turns.

And, say those close to him, Billings never, ever got over how his friend was assassinated one sunny day in Dallas exactly 58 years ago.

The bond between Billings and John F. Kennedy continues to be of interest to many, with a new wave of attention cresting on social media apps like TikTok, where users have pored back over candid photos of the young men together. In recent years, there has also been talk of a movie adaptation.

Billings was a longtime Kennedy family friend, working to preserve the slain president's legacy even after death. "Because of him," Billings once said. "I was never lonely."

As a younger man, he also served as something of a "go-between" for a young Jack Kennedy and the woman who would become Kennedy's wife, Jackie Bouvier, in 1950s Washington, D.C.

But even before then, Billings was a Kennedy fixture. That he is believed to have been gay at a time when homosexuality was still illegal — even being somewhat open about his sexuality, including within the powerful Kennedy clan — sheds light on the strength of his ties to the family.

As Billings told researchers for an oral history interview for the John F. Kennedy Library, the two met as teenagers at Choate Preparatory School for boys in Wallingford, Connecticut, in 1933, while working on the student yearbook.

John F. Kennedy (right) and Kirk LeMoyne "Lem" Billings sit in a wicker chair outside the Kennedy family home in Palm Beach
John F. Kennedy (right) and Kirk LeMoyne "Lem" Billings sit in a wicker chair outside the Kennedy family home in Palm Beach. John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

The two grew so close over the following months that Billings was invited to the Kennedy family home in Palm Beach, Florida, for the holiday season and, months later, to their Hyannis Port compound, where he was badly burned in a defective shower and hospitalized for three weeks.

During that time, he told researchers, "All the kids came over to see me. I really got to know them well."

Matriarch Rose Kennedy wrote in her biography that Billings was "one of 'Jack's surprises,' " and soon found a place for himself: "He has really been part of 'our family' since that first time he showed up at our house."

So frequent a presence was he that Ted Kennedy, more than a decade younger than his brother Jack, said he "was 3 years old before it dawned on me that Lem wasn't one more older brother."

Later accounts detailed how Billings had found himself adrift as a student at Choate in the wake of his father's death: "The Kennedys provided family and support and so forth," his nephew told Princeton University's alumni magazine in 2017.

Describing his friend as a "very normal, regular boy," Billings said his favorite of Jack's characteristics was his light spirit: "I've never known anyone in my life with such a wonderful humor and the wonderful ability to make one laugh and to have a good time. He never lost this."

When Jack discovered that Billings was gay — once declining an amorous overture from Billings — the friendship is thought to have gone on unharmed.

"At Choate, boys who were interested in sexual involvement with other boys were courteous and discreet, writing notes on toilet paper so they could be easily swallowed or flushed," David Pitts writes in his 2007 book Jack and Lem: The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship. "Early on in their friendship, Lem sent Jack such a note and Jack replied in their usual jocular way, adding in parentheses, 'Please don't write to me on toilet paper any more. I'm not that kind of boy.' With that out of the way, their relationship continued essentially unchanged until JFK's assassination thirty years later."

Jack, meanwhile, drew on Billings' unerring presence in his life — by his side in sickness and on the campaign trail and even at the White House, where Billings had a room (and where there were at least whispers among the staff about the truth of his personal relationships).

He helped handle even some of Jack's most personal affairs, Pitts writes in his book: "Jack's dates would be managed by Lem."

As Pitts writes, Jack "wasn't going to let anyone control his life, and he certainly wasn't going to let anyone choose his friends."

According to the book, a gift from Billings — a whale's-tooth scrimshaw — was buried with him.

Kirk LeMoyne Billings and John F. Kennedy
Kirk LeMoyne Billings and John F. Kennedy. Getty Images

Billings, for his part, never married and eventually became a marketing executive and worked on the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He remained in the closet until his death in 1981 at the age of 65, according to Pitts.

"Jack made a big difference in my life," Billings said in his oral history for the Kennedy library, adding, "He may have been the reason I never got married."

He remained close with various family members, most notably Robert F. Kennedy Jr., though there was a dark side: Peter Collier and David Horowitz's The Kennedys: An American Drama — for which Billings gave a number of interviews — describes him descending into drug use in connection with his relationship with a young Bobby Kennedy (who had well documented drug issues himself).

Collier and Horowitz described Billings, later in life, as invariably enmeshed in his late friend's larger family.

"Raffish and yet prissy," they write of Billings — "a sort of court chronicler reporting on the old days which even Bobby and Ethel didn't recall and functioning as the all-purpose cheerleader, godfather, and pallbearer who could always be counted on."

Billings' family could chafe at his adoration: "My uncle was not someone you could have a reasonable conversation with about what was going on with the Kennedys," his nephew said in Princeton's alumni magazine. "He did not want to hear one negative syllable, and there were a lot of negatives going along."

For Billings' funeral, some of the younger Kennedys served as pallbearers (as Billings himself had done for some of their own, like the slain Sen. Robert F. Kennedy).

"I'm sure he's already organizing everything in heaven so it will be completely ready for us — with just the right Early American furniture, the right curtains, the right rugs, the right paintings," Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the president's sister, said in a eulogy. "And everything ready for a big, big party."

Pitts' 2007 book helped spur renewed interest in the friendship between President Kennedy and Billings. Deadline reported in 2018 that it was to be the basis for a forthcoming boipic as well.

Author Louis Bayard focuses much of his upcoming novel Jackie & Me on the relationship between Billings and Kennedy, too.

Kennedy Lemoyne

"[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. And he also played a very important role in the courtship between Jackie Bouvier and Jack Kennedy," Bayard told PEOPLE in an earlier interview about his book, which will be published by Algonquin Books in June.

But even more than that, the author said that Billings was intimate friends with the Kennedys despite societal norms of the time — ingratiating himself with a most powerful family.

"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," Bayard said.

According to Pitts, Billings never recovered from the death of his friend, suffering from a "deep depression" in the weeks and months after President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

"In many ways, Lem thought of his life as being over after Jack died," the younger Bobby Kennedy told Pitts for his book.

Though Billings — who was working as a New York City advertising executive at the time of the assassination — continued on at his firm for another decade, his life was never the same.

"He was in a very deep depression; sometimes didn't want to live," Pitts told the New Haven Register in 2007. "He never really came out of it."

Still, he was well aware of his proximity to history. At one point, he is said to have remarked: "After I go, there'll be no more Kennedys."

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