For the massive audience of readers who have ensured a never-ending stream of books about John F. Kennedy, a guy by the name of LeMoyne Billings has always been a sort of bit player.
JFK and Billings bonded immediately and inseparably at the prep school Choate, and for the rest of Kennedy’s life Billings was a friend and someone with whom he could talk freely and openly.
To some in JFK’s inner circle, Billings was a joke, a court jester who openly worshipped Kennedy. Gore Vidal called him “Jack’s slave.” Others would regularly imitate his high-pitched voice and loud laugh.
Although it was an exceedingly one-sided relationship, it was undeniably enduring. Freelance writer David Pitts tries to rescue Billings from semi-obscurity in Jack and Lem: The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship, arguing that he was an essential figure in JFK’s life and success. The fact that Billings was gay, Pitts says, makes the relationship even more amazing.
Maybe. It’s not exactly news that JFK was comfortable with gay men, as long as they were intelligent and sharp-witted (like Vidal). Pitts says Kennedy knew his friend was gay almost immediately, partly because Billings once wrote him a note using toilet paper. In those days, Pitts says (and we’ll have to take his word on this), doing so was a secret code for proposing a hook-up. (Perhaps he’s right; the next letter from JFK in their prolific correspondence opened “Please don’t write to me on toilet paper anymore. (I’m not that kind of boy.)” before moving on to other matters.)
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Pitts’ trouble is that Billings isn’t interesting enough to hold up under extended scrutiny. Instead we get a rehash of JFK’s life, utterly familiar to anyone who would read this book, with Billings making occasional appearances. We’re told, constantly (former JFK pal John Siegenthaler seemingly is quoted a half-dozen times saying so) that Billings was witty, but we never actually see much evidence of it.
What it takes Pitts 307 pages to say may be summed up by one of the pictures he includes. It shows a fancy dinner party at Hyannis Port, with President Kennedy at the head of a large table of siblings and their spouses. Billings is eating his dinner off to the side, alone at a tiny table. Anyone else might be humiliated, but – as one Kennedy sister is seen turning around, deigning to talk to him – he looks absolutely thrilled to be treated that way.
Jack and Lem: The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship doesn’t live up to the grand promise its author makes in its subtitle. It does include some never-before correspondence by the young JFK, and that’s always catnip for some hard-core fans. Others should probably take a pass. -- Richard Connelly
Jack and Lem: The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship, Carroll & Graf, $26.95