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John F. Kennedy and Lem Billings:

The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship


John F. Kennedy and Lem Billings:

Jack and Lem by David Pitts

Cover: © Carroll & Graf
David Pitts chronicles two brilliant yet inseparable lives in his book, Jack and Lem: The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship. One life is of John F. Kennedy, the 35th president we all know and the other story is of his confidant, Kirk LeMoyne "Lem" Billings. Lem Billings, although rarely written about in detail, was Jack Kennedy's best friend from their early days at the Choate Preparatory School for Boys, an exclusive boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut, until JFK's untimely death in Dallas.

Pitts' biography isn't another angle on the ex-president's war efforts, foreign policy or yet another conspiracy surrounding his death; but a chronicle of Jack Kennedy's campy and carefree childhood, his poor life threatening health, his promiscuity and, most of all, his relationship with best friend Lem Billings.

Pitts stumbled across Lem Billings while doing research on his favorite subject, Jack Kennedy. He often ran across the same mysterious name, Lem Billings. Few accounts of JFK's social and political life elaborated on who Billings was, but one could not be mentioned without the other. Billings wrote of Kennedy and Billing's friendship, "It is largely unknown to the public and yet crucial to understanding who Jack Kennedy was."

And important it is! Billings, who lived until 1981, kept over 140 letters from his best friend. He even had his own room in teh White House. Jack and Lem is a brilliant account of personal side of the most political of Kennedy's. Jack and Lem shared a common wit, carefree nature and curiosity of life, making them inseparable as friends. They often made fun of each other and had numerous nicknames. During one of Jack's many bouts of sickness, he wrote Billings at Princeton, "I don't know why you and Rip [Horton] are so unpopular with the girls. You're not ugly looking exactly. I guess there's just something about you that makes girls dislike you on sight."

Kennedy and Billings' rants toward each other were commonplace. Jack later wrote to Lem, "Do you remember a fat blond boy named Jim Filer at Choate? He has quite a hero notion of me from Choate and from what I can gather most of the younger boys at school thought of me as sort of a god-like Casanova, if you know what I mean, and thought you were a big sh**, as near I can tell." Jack continued his play, "The next time I see him I'll go into more detail about why nobody at Choate liked you, although to tell the truth, he was rather vague about you—just thinks you're a sh**. Best Jack."

According to David Pitts, Lem Billings wasn't just Jack's best friend, he became another Kennedy child. He was close to the Kennedy children and spent most holidays with the family. Through interviews, Pitts writes of their experiences with Billings and how Jack's siblings saw their relationship. Ted Kennedy remembered, "I was three years old before it dawned on me that Lem wasn't one more older brother." Pitts writes, "So often did Lem come home with Jack that he kept more clothes in the closet than Jack did, Teddy added."

It would be of simple mind to shun this piece of history as an effort to tarnish JFK's reputation and Pitts seems to be all too aware of this danger. It's clear that Pitts shares the same adoration and devotion to Jack Kennedy as so many generations. His accounts of Kennedy and Billings is presented objectively without speculation.

Pitts also draws a very clear line, expressed through his word choice, that Jack and Lem isn't 300 pages of gossip and speculation, but a historical accounts of a friendship that turned into a life connection without crossing sexual boundaries. Think Oprah and Gayle. Not lovers, just life friends.

In fact, Pitts makes it a point to highlight Jack Kennedy's heterosexuality and promiscuity while simultaneously accounting for Lee Billings' failed attempts at heterosexual relationships. Homosexuality was a taboo topic during Jack and Lem's upbringing and Pitts is confident that Jack Kennedy knew of Billings' sexuality early on. Yet, to a insouciant Kennedy, Billings' slapstick friendship trumped his sexuality.

Parts of Jack and Lem are redundant, but gaining insight into the real essence of Jack Kennedy's life pre-assassination makes this account too enticing to set aside. Jack and Lem celebrates a Jack Kennedy never seen or read before. Jack Kennedy gave a country strength while devoted friend and confidant Lem Billings gave him strength and often showed him the lighter side of life, especially during his crucial early years. Bravo to David Pitts for finally telling their story.

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