04-15-1916

[l to r] Lem Billings and BFF John Kennedy

KIRK LEMOYNE “LEM” BILLINGS (d: 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 and Romaine LeMoyne. 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 school. From Billings’ 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.

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.

Charles 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.

When JFK got to the White House, Billings was often there almost every weekend. When a White House 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.” Billings saw JFK for the last time when they dined at the White House with Greta Garbo on November 13, 1963, nine days before JFK’s assassination in Dallas .

“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.”