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Archive for July, 2010

Pittsburgh, Pa.

LeMoyne Billings grave

Allegheny Cemetery

4734 Butler Street

Jack and Lem became best friends as teenagers, bonding over a shared sense of humor and fun and hatred of their strict, stuffy school. Jack was a “ladies’ man” from his youth; Lem was a closeted gay man, deeply devoted to and in love with his best friend. When Lem propositioned Jack, the latter’s response was a curt “I’m not that kind of boy.” Sounds like the story of many gay men and their crushes on straight male friends, right?

Except in this case, Jack grew up to be John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States, and Lem was his lifelong pal, Kirk LeMoyne Billings (1916-1981). And in this case, Jack didn’t discard his friend when he learned he was queer. Rather, he invited him on family vacations, sought his advice on matters of state, and even gave him his own room in the White House. Ted Kennedy once said that, as a young child, he used to think Lem was one of his older brothers, too.

If your estimation of President Kennedy just went up a notch, it’s not surprising. Jack and Lem met in 1933, when being homosexual was a deep, dark secret, a criminalized status in our society. Jack would not have been alone in turning his back on a queer friend, especially when he moved into the political arena. When he became president, he showed even deeper loyalty to Lem by offering him a position in his administration. Instead, Lem–who worked as an advertising executive in Manhattan, à la Mad Men–seemed to prefer the unofficial role of “First Friend.” His intense friendship with Kennedy is chronicled in David Pitts’  2007 biography, Jack and Lem: The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship.

Lem remained close to the Kennedys after Jack’s assassination, and was also a friend and confidant of Bobby Kennedy. When Bobby, too, was murdered, Lem became increasingly despondent and alcoholic. He died of a heart attack at age 65; he is buried in historic Allegheny Cemetery in his hometown of Pittsburgh, next to his parents.

Jack made a big difference in my life. Because of him, I was never lonely.”

-LeMoyne Billings

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