JFK's Best Friend Lem: Transcript

JAMIE RICHARDSON: John F. Kennedy had no shortage of people who considered themselves friends of the 35th president. With so many people looking for a relationship with him as he rose through the political ranks, there was one man who stood out as one of JFK's near-constant companions. His name was Lem Billings. This week, we'll look into the man who is often referred to as JFK's best friend. We'll go into the Library's archives to look at how the two found each other and became so close on this week's episode of JFK 35.


JAMIE RICHARDSON: Welcome back to the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation's podcast, JFK 35. I'm Jamie Richardson. I'm hosting solo this week, but you'll hear from my co-host Matt Porter later in the episode. One part I really enjoy about working here is being able to look at all the thousands of photographs, documents, audio, and visual recordings that our archivists have digitized on our website. You can often make connections between one era and another, or different topics and people.

Portions of two large photographic collections have been digitized on our website, the Kennedy Family Collection, and the White House Photographs. The photographs from the Kennedy Family Collection cover a really wide span of years. But for our purposes today, they include JFK's youth and young adulthood. The White House Photographs cover JFK's time in the White House, as you might expect.

If you look at the two collections closely, you'll see that about a handful of people outside of the Kennedy family appeared in both. Some of these people were friends of JFK's who later got involved in politics or joined him in some fashion in the White House. One of these people, who we see in photographs as a young man relaxing in Palm Beach with the Kennedy family in the '30s, and later as an adult standing next to his friend, the President of the United States, is Kirk LeMoyne Billings, or Lem, for short.

Lem Billings was born on April 15th, 1916, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and after meeting JFK in high school, would be an almost constant companion to the future president. But who was this man? Today, we'll talk to staff here at the JFK Library who can answer that question for us.

Our story of JFK and Lem's friendship begins with a trip through Europe in 1937, the summer after President Kennedy's sophomore year at Harvard. My co-host Matt Porter met with the Library's audio visual archivist, Maryrose Grossman, about her research on Jack and Lem's three-month adventure through Western Europe.

MATT PORTER: On one of the upper levels of the JFK Library, away from the museum where thousands visit each summer, there you'll find a room full of large audio and video recorders, so big that they take up an entire wall. In that office, you'll find--

MARYROSE GROSSMAN: My name is Maryrose Grossman, and I'm the AV-- audio visual-- reference archivist.

MATT PORTER: Grossman works with all of the audio and visual materials in the Library. Last year she took a deep dive into JFK's and his best friend Lem Billings' trip through Europe. She had a lot of material to work with, including a large fabric-covered scrapbook with a leather strap just over the front.

MARYROSE GROSSMAN: Lem's diary scrapbook reflects documents, talks about their experiences of that trip. It includes photos and postcards and captions to the photos which are-- there's some funny things, there's some serious things.

MATT PORTER: Was this kind of-- let's just talk about this for a second. Was this sort of the Facebook, social media practice of that time where these scrapbooks were fairly common when people traveled or when on vacation that they'd make these things?

MARYROSE GROSSMAN: I think so. We have a lot of scrapbooks from the Kennedy family, certainly, documenting experiences. Not necessarily vacations, but I think that's kind of what Facebook is, too. It's like graduations or marriages or anything like that.

MATT PORTER: Grossman says having primary source of documents like Lem's scrapbook is a dream for archivists.

MARYROSE GROSSMAN: This thing is the prize, if you ask me. This is just fabulous, lots of handwriting that's legible. John F. Kennedy's handwriting, on the other hand, not so much, but it's a fascinating look into their mindset, you know, the period of 1937, pre-World War II, but also just 20-year-old mindsets of young men, you know, kind of on their own.

I guess part of what I think about is, I have two sons that are 17 and-- now 17 and 21, and I just know how they think. They've got all the answers in some ways, but on the other hand, they don't. And I think being 20 is right on the cusp of that, probably any generation. So it's interesting to see they're on the cusp of adulthood, but not quite.

MATT PORTER: The scrapbook details many of the pair's adventures, including what some may call daring, like the future president scaling a castle wall in Carcassonne, France.

MARYROSE GROSSMAN: Billings describes him as the human fly in the picture. There's a picture of him climbing the wall.

MATT PORTER: Or, just goof-balling around famous landmarks like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

MARYROSE GROSSMAN: In Italy, the picture of the tower and Kennedy leans forward as well, like matching each other. And the caption is, "The Leaning Towers of Pisa and Kennedy."

MATT PORTER: As Grossman continued to take me back through time, she showed me one of the cutest stories of the trip where Jack and Lem tried to buy a dog for a family friend.

MARYROSE GROSSMAN: They kind of were on a mission, were going to get a dog, by golly. You know, never mind that Kennedy was like always allergic to dogs, apparently. What-- kind of like, what were you thinking? It's sort of my response when I was reading it, but-- so they finally come up upon a daschund that they really liked in Nuremberg. I think they got him in Germany.

MATT PORTER: The pair bought the dog for $7, and named him Dunker, after the German word for "thank you." it was one of the few words Jack and Lem both knew. Grossman reads straight from Lem's notes describing the misadventure.

MARYROSE GROSSMAN: "We think him a thing of great beauty. However, Jack immediately developed--" something in-- oh, "--asthma and hay fever. So it looks like his chances of getting back to America are plenty slim."

MATT PORTER: So we're going to get a dog, we're going to do the dog. OK, we got the dog. Oh, shoot, I forgot I was allergic to dogs.


MATT PORTER: Typical 20-year-old thing to do, right?


MATT PORTER: The two ended up finding a home for the pup at The Hague. Now Jack and Lem took this trip in the summer of 1937. At the time, few thought the continent would erupt into another World War, despite dictators like Hitler and Mussolini consolidating their power.

MARYROSE GROSSMAN: I think a lot of naivety about going into World War II on the part of everybody. They say throughout, oh people here don't think there's going to be a war. The Italians are too disorganized to have a war. You know, does all these sort of derisive things. But everybody apparently thought that. I think they mimicked a lot of what they heard, and they were young enough to not have fully formed their own opinions. That's my assessment of that.

MATT PORTER: As for the rising power of the Fuhrer in Germany, they were actually impressed by the strength and effectiveness of his propaganda machine.

MARYROSE GROSSMAN: They talk about Mussolini and Hitler and the German perspective, and I think there's a little bit of awe there, especially for Hitler, you know? Again, it's easy to judge that in retrospect. And again, as an older person myself now, being like, oh, that's terrible. But they were 20 years old, and then little-- I think everybody was naive about what could really happen.

MATT PORTER: Grossman says the 2 and 1/2 month euro trip would solidify a friendship that began in high school.

MARYROSE GROSSMAN: I think it was a lifelong friendship. I think it was always-- Kennedy was the big man and Lem was more the admirer. But Lem shows up at the White House. And even after Kennedy's death, and after RFK's, his brother, RFK's death, he was friends with the-- like RFK's children. They were friends for life. And he didn't really do anything in the administration. Like some friends got jobs, or-- I don't know that Billings wanted that. But he was always there, and I think Kennedy always welcomed him there. So they were very, I think, different people in the end, but they were friends for life, yeah. That's everything I understand. He didn't care about who or what he was. He just was his friend.


JAMIE RICHARDSON: So as you heard, JFK and Lem were close throughout their lives. And, because the two spent so much time together and writing letters to each other, our archives has a treasure trove of information about the two from their time in high school all the way through the White House years. Joining me now is reference archivist Stacey Chandler from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Welcome, Stacey, to the podcast.

STACEY CHANDLER: Thank you for having me.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: So just to kick things off, here's a pretty basic question. How did JFK and Lem Billings meet?

STACEY CHANDLER: So they met in 1933 while they were both working on the yearbook at Choate, which was the prep school that they--

JAMIE RICHARDSON: And then what was their relationship like? Do you know if they were in any clubs together, or did any activities or vacation, traveled?

STACEY CHANDLER: Yes, so they kind of hit it off right away, according to everybody who knew them. You know, they were at the school that was really focused on a lot of tradition and ceremony, and they both really enjoyed mocking that a lot. So something they had in common was this really adventurous spirit and curiosity about anything you could think of. They loved to travel. They loved to meet new people, experience all different things firsthand rather than necessarily studying about it. And they also shared this kind of disregard for rigid structures that they couldn't really see a point to.

So they formed this club-- definitely an informal club-- at Choate to pull pranks around the school and they called themselves the Muckers, because the headmaster, that's what he called the troublemakers at school. So they kind of adopted the name for themselves and pulled a lot of pranks around.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Kind of co-opting, or taking back the term.


JAMIE RICHARDSON: For themselves.


JAMIE RICHARDSON: Do you have any examples of kind of any of the pranks they would get up to?

STACEY CHANDLER: So, most of it was really pretty harmless, and I think they were trying to highlight the fact that some of these rules were just really kind of pointless. Like, they didn't see what kind of trouble was being caused. JFK, for example, had this really nice sort of vintage record player, a phonograph. And after dinner, the kids would all sort of gather in his room and listen to the records. And this was like illicit record listening, because they weren't supposed to be doing this after dinner towards the end of the day. And they got in trouble for that. And so it was just kind of things where they were like this is pointless.

But their biggest prank never actually happened. This is kind of how they were found out as the secret club. So they had made plans to deposit a big pile of horse manure in the school gym. And one of the boys got a little nervous and he ratted them out to the headmaster. Headmaster found out about it, expelled them all on the spot, but then he was sort of convinced to pull back a little bit on the punishment. They all got probation. They still kept up to some of their trouble-making but at least they were saved in that moment.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Yes, things could have been different. And then as they left high school, did they keep in touch in college?

STACEY CHANDLER: Yes. They were mostly in touch through letters, especially with JFK. He had a lot of illnesses he was dealing with. He was hospitalized at various points in his youth, so we have some of his letters from different hospitals he was saying at, writing back to Lem, keeping him posted on all his various maladies. They also both separately went into World War II. JFK at first was in Naval Intelligence in South Carolina, and Lem actually became an ambulance driver, like Hemingway.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Oh, like Hemingway.

STACEY CHANDLER: Yep, but he was stationed in North Africa. And of course, as we all know, JFK was relocated to the South Pacific to pilot PT boats, and they really tried to keep in touch this entire time, as mostly letters as it was then, but they definitely saw each other as often as they could, too.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: And did Lem have a relationship with the rest of the family? It seems like in photos, especially from pre-war, during the war, he's hanging out in Palm Beach with the sisters and family.

STACEY CHANDLER: Oh, yeah. He was always around. Ted Kennedy said that he was three years old by the time he realized that Lem wasn't another one of his older brothers. He was just always there. And all of the family was really pretty close with him, especially JFK's sister, "Kick"-- Kathleen. He was very close with her. The family definitely got used to him being around. He came home at Christmas, and be invited for Thanksgiving, so he definitely was a fixture around the house.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: And it seems like-- did that happen-- did that carry into the White House as well?

STACEY CHANDLER: There's not as many photos of him.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: But you see him kind of in Virginia vacationing with Mrs. Kennedy and the president?

STACEY CHANDLER: Yeah. He said that he was hanging out with the president or the first lady almost every single weekend of the entire administration. He had his own room at the White House, so he was around a lot. Dave Powers, who was one of JFK's aides, said that people at the White House saw Lem so often that a lot of them thought he was Secret Service because he was always behind the president.


STACEY CHANDLER: Exactly. So he definitely was around. JFK actually offered him a couple of different jobs in the administration, one of which was director of the New Peace Corps. But Lem always said that he really wanted to keep his friendship with JFK a friendship. He wanted to be a friend, and not an associate, is the way he put it. So he only accepted one position, and it was a part-time thing. He was on the board of trustees for the National Cultural Center, which became the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He always had really a lifelong interest in art and cultural heritage, so that was kind of a good fit for him. That's the only one of those things he accepted.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: And did he do anything else during the presidency to help JFK when he wasn't a cabinet member or appointed person or anything, joined any committee, but did he help out in other ways?

STACEY CHANDLER: He said that his main role was to be the president's friend, to sort of be stress relief for him, and always be around with a joke and be that person who JFK could really be himself around. He also was really interested in shopping for antiques for the president. So JFK is kind of this big history nerd, and he was always looking out for really cool historical documents or antiques. So Lem, we have some letters and memos and things from Lem to JFK or to JFK's secretary saying like, oh, I found this really cool piece of scrimshaw. I think you'd really like it. Should I buy it? Like here's a picture of it. You can check it out. And he would always be on the hunt for historical documents he thought JFK would like.

But he also definitely was on the receiving end of JFK pranks in the White House also.


STACEY CHANDLER: Yeah, JFK, apparently he like really hung on to this prank thing in the White House, and I guess Jackie was the subject of a lot of them, but Lem, it was mostly Lem. So Lem said that JFK would introduce him to people-- including famous people-- as general Billings, or Congressman Billings. And he said he would do this because he really liked to watch Lem squirm when people would ask him questions about the military or like legislation that was in Congress. So he would really enjoy watching Lem try to get out of these situations after it did that.



JAMIE RICHARDSON: And so you mentioned that we have like letters and things. So what kind of things do we have? Or does the Library have, in the archives that reflect either JFK's friendship with him or Lem's life or photographs or anything?

STACEY CHANDLER: We have some really great stuff. We're really fortunate that we have a good amount of material documenting JFK's earlier life. So we have some letters to JFK from Lem in JFK case papers, and then we also have letters from JFK to Lem in Lem's papers. And we have a very large oral history interview with Lem that was actually just opened within the last couple of years. It's many volumes. It covers their entire life together. It's so interesting, definitely highly recommend. And then, of course, the photographs and the moving images are really fun.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: And one thing I wanted to touch on was that there's this great quote from Ben Bradlee who was a journalist, one of JFK's friends. And he says that, "I suppose it's known that Lem was gay. It impressed me that Jack had gay friends." This kind of interested me, because at the time, it was kind of dangerous-- not that it's not now-- but to be out or to be anything other than very heterosexual, I guess. So was there anything that you've come across in your research and dealings with the papers and whatnot that kind of lends itself to that information?

STACEY CHANDLER: Yeah, so people who've written about Lem have said that JFK became aware that Lem was gay, really shortly after they met, in the 1930s. And when you say gay, it can get a little dicey, right? Because these aren't necessarily terms that these people would even be familiar with. The language that we use today is not language, necessarily, that people would have applied to themselves in the '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s. So another element of this is that it's very difficult to find this kind of thing documented. The way people self-identified, they're not necessarily going to be writing it down or giving interviews about it. Because, as you said, it was very dangerous, especially to be so close to the United States government, which was really perpetuating systemic discrimination against people who would now be in the LGBTQ community.

You know, people would lose their jobs. They could lose their security clearances, and it could really ruin their lives. It also opened people up to blackmail by political enemies, especially being so close to the president. We even know of one instance where the Soviet Union discovered that one of JFK's associates was gay and tried to blackmail him.


STACEY CHANDLER: So these are things that people lived in real fear of, and there was definitely strong motivation to keep these things a secret. But that being said, a lot of people around JFK at the time definitely picked up on that. They said it was somewhat of an open secret that he was gay. His family said it wasn't something that was ever discussed. And as far as I know, Lem didn't really discuss it either. But it does seem to be something historians are acknowledging more and more, and it being an important part of their relationship in that, it did carry a lot of risk for both of them. But friendship trumps everything.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Yes. Love trumps hate.

STACEY CHANDLER: That's right. Absolutely.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: So, I mean, we could, I think, talk about JFK's pranks and the wonderful artifacts that Lem found for JFK all day long, but we will have some of these on our website that you can check out after this episode, and Stacey, I want to thank you for your time and expertise and talking to us about Lem.


JAMIE RICHARDSON: Thanks. We hope you enjoyed this week's episode. Thank you for listening to our podcast, "JFK 35." Visit our podcast page at jfklibrary.org/jfk35, where we'll have some links to the photos and documents mentioned on this episode. If you have questions or story ideas, email us at jfk35pod@jfklfoundation.org, or tweet at us @JFKLibary using the #JFK35. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram. And if you like what you heard today, please consider subscribing to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts, or leaving us a review. Or, better yet, tell someone you know to listen. We'll see you again in two weeks for our next episode. Thanks for listening, and have a great week.