The President’s Best Friend

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Lem regarded the photographs in a sudden wistful mood. For a moment his youthful demeanor vanished. He looked like a sixty-five-year-old man. His eyes revealed that perhaps he was in favor of one’s choice after all.

PITTSBURGH, JUNE 1, 1981

KIRK LEMOYNE BILLINGS’S coffin rested on a scaffold over the open grave in Allegheny Cemetery. Lem had had a heart attack on May 28, a day before the sixty-fourth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birthday.

The mourners, many of them in their twenties, gathered around Lem’s family plot, where he was going to rest beside his mother. Lem had wanted his casket carried to the grave by ten young friends. This ritual had been very important to him; it was the final act of friendship: to bear the weight of the dead friend’s body to its resting place. But now the coffin had already been set in place by professionals. There was a muted discussion about what to do. Finally the pallbearers, led by Robert Kennedy, Jr., lifted the coffin and carried it in a ceremonial march around the grave in the hot sunshine.

They held the coffin aloft throughout the service, sweat dripping from their faces. The minister recited the Protestant burial, adding a eulogy that celebrated Lem as “a prince of friendship.” A few women knelt to say the rosary and then kissed the casket before it was lowered.

Slowly the group disbanded, moving away from the grave and down the wooded hillside to a pond, where they opened bottles of champagne for a final toast. Eunice Kennedy Shriver was talking to a reporter from a Pittsburgh newspaper. She was nodding her head briskly. A question had been asked of her. “Yes,” she told the reporter, “Lem was President Kennedy’s best friend.” She paused, and then added: “And it is my impression that the feeling was mutual.”