June 2007

Stephanie Merchant

features

An Interview with David Pitts

You can tell a lot about a man by the company he keeps. Though it is RFK who is known for his zeal for civil rights and breaking down of social barriers, it was his brother JFK who never let go of his best friend Lem Billings. They met as teenagers in school and remained best friends for life. It never mattered that John was straight and Lem gay; their loyalty to one another was unquestionable.

In his book Jack and Lem: The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship author David Pitts explores a friendship that until now was only a slight mention in previous biographies. Instead of falling for the Hollywood appeal of "Camelot" and the JFK assassination, Pitts gives us an independent-film character study of these two devoted friends. While previous biographers' primary focus is on the assassination and the who-dun-nit, Pitts sifts through the aftermath with a fine-tooth comb, examining how those left behind carried on. His is an intimate look at a friendship that lasted 30 years. So with new ground broken, why is this book being ignored by the mainstream media? Could it be that as much as Billing's sexuality was a non-issue for JFK, it has become the same for book reviewers?

What insight does understanding the best friend give to the rest of us about our 35th president? Your best friend is the one to whom you brag about your sexual exploits, confide your deepest fears, your hopes, your dreams; and of course, your best friend knows all your nicknames for your penis…


Why JFK? There are other non-presidential political topics, what compelled you to write this book? And what made you choose to focus on his friendship with Lem Billings? He's usually barely mentioned in other JFK works.

I've always been fascinated by the Kennedy presidency ever since I watched his Inaugural Address on television when I was 13-years old. From that moment on, I read everything about him that I could lay my hands on. When I left fulltime journalism in 2003, I knew I would write a JFK book. But there have been so many books that rehash the same material and so I wanted to write about an aspect of JFK's life that had not yet been covered. I focused on his friendship with Lem Billings because I had come across his name in various JFK books. But there was little about Lem in the various books and yet his role in JFK's life seemed important. I was curious. This is how the book came about.

How long did the book take from start to finish? Can you tell us a bit about your process?

The book took about three years to complete. I began by seeking the help of a researcher -- Mona Esquetini -- because I knew this story would have to be well documented since Lem had died in 1981. But he left behind a voluminous paper trail. We scoured all the existing JFK books for information about Lem, and then set about obtaining the necessary documents -- importantly, in this case, the letters exchanged between Jack and Lem, various diaries, Lem's 815-page oral history, a privately published memoir of him, etc. Most of these documents are closed to writers and journalists and it was difficult to obtain permission to access them and to quote from them. So there were many ups and downs along the way with this book. But we finally succeeded in getting all the documents we wanted. In addition, we sought out people to interview who knew one or both men -- again a difficult process since many people who knew them are now very old and some are deceased. But I believe we found sufficient number of interviewees -- not only famous people such as Ben Bradlee, Gore Vidal and Ted Sorensen -- but also unknown people who played a key role in their lives. It was quite a task to find some of the latter since we are talking about two men who have been dead for decades. The interviewees supplemented the documentary evidence.

Did you go into this expecting to find that Lem Billings was the Karl Rove of the JFK administration?

A good analogy. Yes, I did. I am a political animal. All my previous writing has been about politics. I couldn't imagine that JFK's best and closest friend for thirty years could be anything but political. So yes, I thought I would find out that he was a Karl Rove type figure, and the political power behind the scenes during Camelot. Although Lem did play a political role of sorts, as you know from reading the book, this friendship was rooted not in politics, but rather in fundamental human needs. The book essentially is a love story, not a political story.

Where did your sources come from? Were you able to get any of the Kennedys to speak to you?

I mentioned the various documents we used for the book. Most of them came from the John F. Kennedy Library and the Massachusetts Historical Society although, as I said, most are restricted and we had to obtain permission from the Kennedy family to access them, most saliently Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Even though Bobby ultimately gave us total access -- including to scores of photographs of Jack and Lem that have never been seen before -- he declined to be interviewed, as did other members of the Kennedy family. So what Kennedy quotes you see in the book are from the documents.

What was it like conducting research in a presidential library?

It was quite easy once I got permission to access the documents -- much like conducting research in any other library.

How has your book been received? Are people shocked to learn that JFK's closest friend was gay?

The book has been well received by those journalists -- mostly in the gay press -- who have read it and also by the public as well. Most are shocked to learn that JFK's best friend was gay and are very interested in the story. Most have never heard of Lem Billings even though he was mentioned briefly in some previous books and some prior authors even suggested he was gay. But I believe my book is the first to document that he was, in fact, gay and to tell the whole story of their friendship over three decades to the extent that I could ascertain it. I have to say, however, that most Americans don't know about this book even though I think it's a new story about JFK that would interest many of them. To date, with the exception of the New Haven Register and the New York Post, the mainstream media has totally ignored the book. There has not been one review or story about the book in the mainstream press other than in those two newspapers I cited. This has been a total shock and surprise to me since we are talking about a new story here concerning a much-remembered president.

Being gay in the 1930s and '40s had a completely different set of social rules. I love how in Jack and Lem you explain the sexual terminology. In some ways, it seems a more quaint time, when a message written on toilet paper could have multiple meanings. How do you suppose Lem Billings would handle things today? Do you think he would be closeted or out in any degree?

Yes, I think you're right. It was a more quaint and reticent time in society in general. Lem was an extroverted guy who loved poking fun at pomposity and pretentiousness. In one sense, if he were alive today, I'm tempted to say he would not be closeted. On the other hand, one of the problems for gays who lived through a period of time when the rules changed is that it is hard to adapt. How do you explain to people, for example, the times during the past when you were, or rather pretended to be, a different person? Moreover, the most important thing to Lem in all the world was his friendship with Jack. He never would have done anything that would damage Jack's reputation. Unfortunately, there are still people even today who will view the fact that Jack Kennedy's best friend was a gay man not as evidence of his tolerance and enlightened stance, but rather as proof that he was morally corrupt. So this is a difficult question to answer when attitudes towards gays are still evolving.

Just how many nicknames did JFK give his penis?

Well, as I recall, he named his penis after a teacher at Choate, J.J. Maher, whom he particularly disliked. So I think he called his penis J.J. Maher, or sometimes just J.J.

Why do you suppose Lem Billings was so loved and embraced by the Kennedy family considering how staunchly Catholic they were?

Well, the Kennedys may be Catholics, but they are liberal Catholics. None of them appear to be narrow-minded in the sense of objecting to people with other religious beliefs, or even no beliefs. As to why Lem was so loved by them, well, remember he knew most of them as well from when they were quite young. He met Teddy, for example, when Teddy was two. Teddy once quipped that he was about ten years old before he realized that Lem was not just another brother. I think they loved him for the same reasons Jack did. He was funny, warm, loyal, interesting, authentic. I could go on. Really, the amazing thing is that no one I talked to about Lem disliked him. He has a loyal battalion of admirers to this day twenty-six years after his death -- with one exception I think. Some of the political people around JFK didn't like him and didn't understand why he was around so much since he was never really that interested in politics.