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The President’s Best Friend
If he’d been the closest companion of the president of IBM, you might happen across his name in a privately printed memoir. But LeMoyne Billings was John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s best friend from Choate to the White House—and that makes him part of history.
June/july 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 4
TAKING OFF HIS glasses, Lem opened the glass door of the shower stall in the bathroom adjoining Jack’s room. It was his first visit to Jack’s parents’ summer place, a roomy, white, green-shuttered house on a broad lawn facing Nantucket Sound. Everywhere there was the smell of salt and the newness of summer and the extraordinary mixture of sounds from nine children, their parents, governesses, maids, visiting cousins, and pets.
The daily schedule was more rigorous than at Choate. Lem had swum; run; played tennis; played softball; sailed (as Jack’s crew) and learned that a jib was necessary to win a race ("Lemmie never quite caught on to how a jib worked,” Eunice Kennedy Shriver recalled. “Jack would say, ‘Who’s going to pull up the jib, Billy? I’ve got the mainsail and the race starts in two minutes, so who’s going to pull up the jib , Billy?’”); learned that winning was necessary (to be invited back); played touch football; dropped passes (Jack’s); rushed in too fast on the enemy quarterback (Jack’s older brother, Joe); run some more (faster this time, away from Joe); been teased (by Jack’s sister Kathleen); joked about (by Jack’s nine-year-old brother, Robert); teased again (by Jack’s thirteen-year-old sister, Eunice); teased some more (by Jack’s ten-year-old sister, Patricia); pawed over (by a variety of more or less friendly dogs); and, finally, allowed to take a shower.
It was the first time he’d been alone all day. He was hot, exhausted, ready for a shower. He stepped into the stall, shut the door behind him (it opened inward), and turned on the cold-water faucet. …
In May, Joseph P. Kennedy had been thrown from a horse in Bronxville, New York, breaking his right leg and his left ankle. His doctor had prescribed scalding hot baths four times a day to heal the leg and the ankle. The Cape Cod house did not have sufficiently hot water, so Joseph Kennedy installed new boilers in the cellar. During installation of the pipes, the plumbers had apparently reversed the hot and cold taps.
Lem was very bright,” said Eunice Kennedy Shriver. “He absorbed the world in all its dimensions.”
A jet of scalding water shot out of the nozzle, hitting Lem on the chest. Struggling to open the door, he slipped and fell on his back. The boiling water poured forth. Lem yelled for help. He couldn’t get up. He writhed and kicked and caved in the shower wall. The metal soap dish cut a deep gash from his right ankle to his knee. Finally Mrs. Kennedy got him out. An ambulance took him to the hospital in Hyannis, where he remained for three weeks, with second- and third-degree burns.
It was not an unhappy time for the patient. He received sympathetic letters, telegrams, and visitors too. Besides his mother, Mrs. Kennedy and Jack’s sisters came regularly to Lem’s hospital room, bringing games and flowers and gentle joshing. Robert Kennedy, encouraged by his mother, made a daily visit. Bob was shy and good-humored; Lem liked him enormously. They got along well, but, years later, Bob would confess to Lem that although he had been genuinely concerned about Lem’s burns, one of the worst memories he had of his childhood was the stench of scalded flesh he had had to endure every day in Lem’s room.
It was also the first time that Lem and Jack had convalesced simultaneously. Both had come up to Cape Cod from Choate. Then, because of an intestinal disorder Jack had been sent to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. They exchanged humorous letters from their respective hospital beds. “I feel very sorry for my family being burdened with you for 2 or 3 weeks,” Jack wrote, “but I am burdened with you for 9 mo .”
During that summer and the summers that followed before war broke out in Europe, Lem became a kind of ancillary brother in the Kennedy family. He was first and foremost Jack’s best friend, but he grew close to all the other children—“so close,” Patricia Kennedy Lawford later recalled, “that he was almost raised with us (Mother thinks he was!).” Lem participated enthusiastically in all the family events. He was not a timid visitor during the legendary current-affairs discussions led by Mr. Kennedy at family meals. “Of all the things you can say about Lem—that he was sweet and good and kind,” said Eunice Kennedy Shriver, “one quality that has to be remembered is that he was very bright. He had a great sense of history, he absorbed the world in all its dimensions, and he made everybody else look amusing. A lot of people would come in and be funny and make everyone laugh, and the manner in which they were funny had to do with their own ego. But Lem had the ability to make you feel funny and clever.”