OPINION: Remembering JFK’s best friend, whose sexuality kept him in the shadows

by Scott Badler | Unaffiliated
Wednesday, 29 June 2022 12:23 GMT

Then United States President John F. Kennedy (L), his brother U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy (2nd L) and his daughter Caroline watch as President Kennedy's longtime friend Lem Billings (R) launches a toy sailboat given to Caroline by Italian president Antonio Sengi on the beach behind the family's home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts July 5, 1963. REUTERS/Cecil Stoughton/Office of the Military Aide to the President/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library/Handou

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Sixty to ninety years ago, it was scandalous to have a gay friend. Lem Billings’ role in the Kennedy Administration went entirely unsung.

Scott Badler is a former Harvard and Emerson writing instructor and author of JFK & the Muckers of Choate, which cites many of the Kennedy/Billings letters.

Jack Kennedy and Lem Billings were teen roommates at Choate Prep School, in Wallingford, Connecticut, in the 1930s. They were drawn together by a lust for life, a penchant for practical jokes and jealousy of their higher-achieving older brothers.

Though there was a strong sexual element to Lem’s attraction to JFK, the pair shared a relationship which was both platonic and lifelong.

Lem devoted himself to the future president while suppressing his homosexuality and pretending to be straight by dating women. Coming from a wealthy background with “cold” and “distant” parents, Jack needed somebody who cared about him unconditionally and loyal Lem proved to be that person.

He was so attached to Jack that he stayed at Choate an additional year so the two could graduate together. For a few weeks in 1935, they became roommates again at Princeton University before Jack took sick.

Jack knew Lem was gay, although Lem never ‘came out’. He had his first suspicion of Lem’s sexuality at a brothel in Harlem, New York, during winter 1934, when Jack lost his ‘virginity’.

The future president had gone first into a room alone, but when Lem’s turn came, he exited the room quickly, and was noticeably distraught.

Shortly thereafter, during the summer of 1934, Jack (an often-sickly boy) was undergoing humiliating Mayo Clinic procedures to determine the cause of his stomach problems and wrote profane and exaggerated letters to Lem about the treatments.

In these, he mentioned his lack of sexual desire due to his treatments and a frustrating failure at seducing a female nurse.

Sensing Jack’s loneliness and a mutual chance to open up, Lem wrote to him on a piece of toilet paper - (a common boys’ school practice so the note could be easily disposed of), offering a sexual favor for him when he returned to school. 

But Jack made it clear he had no such interest in his reply, writing: “Please don’t send me notes on toilet paper again. I’m not that kind of boy.”

He and Lem went on to become key players in forming the Muckers Club - their answer to the headmaster’s attempt to squash their individualism – and they remained best friends for the rest of Jack’s life.

In 1937, they traveled throughout Europe together, with Jack occasionally having success with women he met, while Lem apparently did not seek any companionship.

In 1946, Jack saved a bed for Lem at his Boston apartment while he ran for Congress for the first time. Again, Billings delayed his personal plans - this time for business school at Harvard - to help launch Jack Kennedy’s political career.

Lem did enjoy success in advertising, and was credited with co-inventing Fizzies, a drink popular in the 50s and 60s, created by a flavoured tablet dropped in water.

When Jack became president, he gave Lem a bedroom at the White House and also asked him to serve as the first director of the Peace Corps – although he refused.

Yet he travelled with Jack so much he was what would be called today the president’s body man. He was by his side even during calamities like the Cuban Missile Crisis and Jack’s trying meeting with the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna.

The last time Lem saw his best friend was at a White House dinner with actress Greta Garbo in late 1963. Jack was assassinated on November 22 the same year.

After Jack’s death, Billings had several relationships with men and donated intimate correspondence between the two of them to the JFK Presidential Library in Boston.

If it weren’t for the fact that he was gay, Lem would probably be a household name today. But, to make sure he never embarrassed his dear friend, he always stayed in the shadows.

Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.

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