JFK’s Queer White House
What we can learn about a straight President by looking at the gay men in his orbit
President John F. Kennedy has become infamous for his vivid, and some might say almost compulsive, heterosexual affairs. But straight men can have a gay side, and JFK’s life was filled with prominent gay men, friendships which open the door to other histories. At least one of these intimates, Kirk LeMoyne “Lem” Billings, was one of Jack’s cherished body men, and he lived part-time in the White House throughout the three years of Kennedy’s presidency. Billings was so much a part of the extended Kennedy clan that he was regularly included in family gatherings, and Attorney General Robert “Bobby” Kennedy named his son Michael LeMoyne Kennedy.
A queer perspective on JFK is not readily visible in official histories that feature iconic images and stories about one of the first administrations to offer the public ongoing access to the White House’s backstage. Pictures of the first family are typical of Cold War domestic norms: widely distributed before and after his death, these photographs show him as a conventional, heterosexual husband and a devoted father. One famous shot shows the toddler John, Jr., a man who would also die tragically young, playing peek-a-boo under the desk. Another shows older daughter Caroline, who became the American Ambassador to Japan under Barack Obama, learning to ride her pony. In a third, the President is walking on the beach with the late Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, as they grieved the death of their premature son Patrick. A Catholic couple, the Kennedys hoped for more children: Jack had been one of nine, while Bobby and Ethel Kennedy had eleven. But the point of the picture is the grief any couple would feel at the loss of a much-wanted child.
Lem Billings may have been present for many of these events, but if he was, he was just outside the frame of these pictures. Perhaps, given his deep personal knowledge of the President and his friendship with the First Lady, he even gave directions as the photographer snapped the candid shots that would charm both the nation and historians. Born in 1916, Billings was the son of a Pittsburgh doctor. A crew jock, he met Jack at Choate, a boys’ boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut (it is now co-ed). The two became friends, then roommates. We might even attach the adjectives “exclusive” and “romantic” to this youthful friendship. Between 1933 and 1935, “The bond between Jack and Lem grew so tight,” journalist David Pitts wrote in Jack and Lem (2008), “that they really had no need for friendships with other boys.”
Lem never really left Jack’s orbit after boarding school. The pair matriculated at Princeton together in the fall of 1935, although Jack had to withdraw for health reasons, probably early signs of the Addison’s disease that would plague him the rest of his life. Kennedy later graduated from Harvard, but the pair wrote letters back and forth, spent weekends together in New York and traveled to Germany in the summer of 1937.
Were Lem and Jack sexually intimate as well? Billings once admitted that he made a pass at Jack early on. He claimed he was rebuffed: according to Pitts, it was Jack’s decency at that moment that caused the pair to become close, and the moment they decided to become roommates. However, an earlier book by Hollywood writer Lawrence Quirk alleges that Billings was not rebuffed. Jack and Lem, as a reviewer for The New York Daily News put it in 1996, “engaged in the kind of sexual experimentation not unknown at all-boys boarding schools.”
But this may, in fact, just be gossip. Having been given special access to the Billings papers by Robert Kennedy, Jr., Pitts was either unable to verify a sexual relationship, or he was unwilling to cite his source. However he does quote Billings’ admission that he may have been in love with Kennedy his whole life. Although JFK embarked on affairs with women as a very young man, affairs that continued into his married life, Billings remained focused on an erotic life with men and never had a life partner. Kennedy and Billings remained intimate in part by managing Jack’s sex life, his career, and his family, together. And the White House itself seems to have been welcoming to other non-heteronormative men in the Kennedy years. In addition to Lem, Kennedy’s bisexual brother in law, actor Peter Lawford, and novelist Gore Vidal, a relative of Jackie’s, were frequent visitors and playmates. Vidal, the author of a best-selling gay World War II novel, published in 1947 at a time when most queer books were ruled obscene and evidence of homosexual acts could bring a prison term, was unabashedly public about his affairs with men.
Why should a historian care about Kennedy’s sex life at all? One reason is that, in retrospect, the Kennedy presidency provides a transition from the years of what historian David K. Johnson calls “the lavender scare” and the unbuttoned, experimental 196os that launched the gay rights movement. In 1958, when Kennedy decided to launch a campaign for the presidency from his Massachusetts Senate seat, the United States had not yet experienced a sexual revolution that would challenge and change many people. By the time he became president, however, that revolution had been launched: the birth control pill, developed in the 1950s, became widely available in the 1960s and, more importantly, in 1964, Life magazine would publish a major photo essay about gay men’s bars in San Francisco. JFK’s numerous affairs (before, during and after his marriage to Jackie) and his friendships with gay men suddenly had a social and cultural context that was neither gay or straight, but a harbinger of the sexual freedom and experimentation that would soon be championed in the counterculture and the mainstream.
And all the while, Lem Billings was there: waiting, serving, comforting and helping the Kennedy family adjust to the public glare. Criticisms from others in the Kennedy orbit insinuate that Jack took advantage of Lem’s love for him without reciprocating. David Pitts quotes Vidal cruelly calling Billings “a lifelong slave,” “the principal fag at court,” and a “nurse” who helped Jack deal with the pain caused by Addison’s disease.
Indeed, it often seems that Kennedy did treat people who loved him for granted. This may have been true of his wife, although perhaps she understood from the beginning that their marriage would be non-monogamous. Our most accurate accounts of JFK’s emotional carelessness are not from Lem, who was loyal to his friend until his death, but from women who later came forward about affairs that now, in the era of #MeToo, sometimes raise harsh questions about whether some of these relationships were abusive. For example, in Once Upon a Secret (2012), former White House intern Mimi Alford describes a prolonged affair she had with Kennedy, beginning in the summer of 1962 when she was 19 and ending shortly before his assassination on November 22, 1963. She was expected to be constantly available for him, he was inconsiderate and unloving, and she was permitted to tell no one. The affair was socially isolating for a very young and sexually un-liberated woman, causing her to deceive friends, boyfriends and ultimately her husband and children for most of her adult life.
In many ways, Kennedy was also enjoying the kind of sex life that would later characterize the gay men’s “party” of the 1970s. Some of his partners saw the escape from monogamy as liberating too, understanding their romps with the President as special and carefree episodes that they were happy to flaunt. In 2009, Robert Dallek published part of an interview with Barbara Gamerekian, a former White House aide, who named three prominent women, two secretaries nicknamed “Fiddle and Faddle” and a college sophomore who “couldn’t type” (Alford) as a few of the sexual partners who helped the President release his “daily tensions,” often in the White House swimming pool or on official trips around the nation, where women were sometimes flown in on separate planes so that they could be available.
Lem, although said by Arthur Schlesinger to have been “jealous” of others who drew Jack’s attention, was undoubtedly one of the personal assistants and friends who facilitated the President’s daily need for sex by making sure that women were available when needed. Was this part of his commitment to the President’s good health? And did he personally lend a hand from time to time? In the fictional American Adulterer (2009), novelist Jed Mercurio ‘s imagines a “Kennedy” who believes that ejaculating several times a day was crucial to maintaining good health and mental alertness, a form of self-care and that controlled his attacks of Addison’s Disease by preventing seminal fluid from backing up into his body.
JFK also shared women with male friends and relatives, a homoerotic impulse often seen in fraternities or other male organizations where men reinforce intimacy by having sex with the same woman. Once, Alford remembered, Kennedy suggested that she would be doing him a favor if she agreed to “help” his younger brother, Ted, a newly elected Senator, with his own “tensions,” while the President watched from across the pool. Although Alford refused, she did not always have the self-confidence to say no: earlier, she had fellated a staff member in Jack’s presence. Historian Lois Banner has also provided details about Marilyn Monroe’s affair with JFK, one of numerous women procured for the President by Peter Lawford, who himself staged sexual orgies in Los Angeles that the President attended.
However, gay men played another role in Kennedy’s history that was not overtly sexual: they were part of an avant-garde cultural world that Jackie Kennedy cultivated, as she linked the Kennedy name to national arts, letters and music for the first time. In 1958, her cousin Gore Vidal brought playwright Tennessee Williams to the Kennedy home in Palm Beach, FL. Williams, a handsome gay southerner, had already written seven hit plays. He claimed he had no idea who the Kennedys were, but they wanted to meet Williams, and Vidal produced him. After cocktails, Jackie and JFK proposed some skeet shooting and, legend has it, Williams was a better shot than Jack. As the then-Senator stepped up for his turn, Williams admired his body. “Get that ass!” he said to Vidal. According to author Christopher Bram (2012), Vidal told the playwright “he shouldn’t cruise our next president, then repeated the remark to Kennedy. ‘Now that’s very exciting!” said Kennedy with a grin.”
Lem Billings also buffered JFK from the toll that infidelity took on the Kennedy marriage. He became Jackie’s confidant and the trusted recipient of her views about the other women who flitted in and out of her husband’s life. Could he have been the third leg of what was clearly an unconventional marriage? He had clearly been adopted into the larger Kennedy clan, and Jackie drew him into her family circle as well. Billings worked on the 1960 campaign, and then lived at the White House for long stretches of time, a room permanently set aside for his visits. In Jackie’s absence, Lem managed the President’s dinner parties, social life and children. On March 4, 1961, The New York Times reported, Billings even escorted two baby hamsters, Debbie and Billie, from New York to Washington, for young Caroline.
Needless to say, JFK may have had, in a sense, two widows. When Billings learned “that the love of his life was dead” on November 22, 1963, Pitts writes: “It was as if he had been struck by lightning;” he was “consumed by grief.” Lem was the second person Jack’s sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, called after reaching her sister, Pat Lawford. A Princeton friend and former business partner confided to Pitts about Billings that after Jack’s death: “He didn’t want to live anymore,” and other friends claimed that he never recovered from the loss.
Lem outlived his friend by eighteen years; he died in 1981, and left his papers to the JFK Presidential library in Boston, MA.
The story of Jack and Lem opens a window into the presidency, but it also suggests that historians of heterosexuality might want to look more closely to see which gay lives are lived near, but outside the conventional frame, of heterosexual families, a project that novelist Amy Bloom has recently undertaken in her fictional account of the love affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickock. In addition, gay and lesbian people often have reasons for not coming out, or not seeking the liberation of living in queer communities, lives that are worth exploring for what we might learn about queer milieus that do not fit a conventional liberationist narrative.
JFK’s sex life, and his attachments to men, also needs to be better understood for what it reveals about his inner life, and for a moment in United States political history when sex itself was undergoing seismic changes. Kennedy’s social intimacy with gay and bisexual men, and his comfort around homosexuality, is remarkable at a time when those friendships were stigmatizing and when gay and lesbian people were still prohibited from working on most federal jobs. But there is also an important story about race, and social class, to be told here. Lem and Jack were insulated by money, and by the reticence of journalists to open closet doors that powerful men, gay and straight, preferred to leave closed.
Like many gay men of his generation, Lem may have been very comfortable with his own sexuality and the privacy of his relationship to Jack. Knowing that, like many men who lived double lives, he “could have had a wife and family,” Billings regarded his friendship with Jack as a gift. However, he avoided the notoriety of coming out even after Kennedy’s death, perhaps because he feared that it would draw more negative attention to the extended Kennedy family, which soon struggled with a range of scandals: Chappaquidick, alcoholism, divorce and drugs were but a few. Perhaps, however, Billings simply chose not to come out for his own reasons, devoting much of the rest of his life to preserving the memory of the man he loved.
“Because of him, I was never lonely,” Billings said once. “He may have been the reason I never married.”
This essay was originally published at OutHistory.org on November 22, 2013; it has been updated and re-edited. Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter.