- Historic Sites
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
Lem had an excellent singing voice, and he knew a song that had become a favorite of Jack’s. It was not a Christmas carol. Jack especially liked the song when Lem sang it, which was often. Lem probably sang more renditions of “I’m No Angel” than Mae West, who had made the tune famous:
Although the lyrics embarrassed Lem, Jack was usually able to coerce him into singing them. Now Jack was making an astonishing offer. “In those days,” said Robert Kennedy, Jr., “a hundred dollars was a lot of money and Lem was very poor. Jack offered him a hundred dollars to go into the Bullpen and sing ’I’m No Angel’ to my grandfather. What Lem was supposed to do was knock at the Bullpen door, and when my grandfather opened it, naked, and probably already mad, Lem, who was wearing only a towel, was supposed to step in, drop the towel, and fling it to one side so that they would be facing each other absolutely naked. Then, Lem was supposed to say—‘Hi, Dad. I’ve always known you’ve wanted me to call you Dad. And these are words I’ve always wanted to tell you—’ and then he was supposed to burst forth with ‘Aw, come on let me cling to you like a vine…’”
This was one of the few occasions on which Lem did not yield. But he finally did sing “I’m No Angel” to Mr. Kennedy—both fully clothed—at the ambassador’s birthday party in 1961. Afterward he recounted the President’s earlier proposal, and the ambassador replied that Jack should have offered to pay him five hundred dollars to listen.
AFTER CHRISTMAS AND Easter at Palm Beach, Kennedy spent the remainder of that school year recuperating on a ranch in Arizona. His health improved. Encouraged by his father, Jack enrolled as a freshman at Harvard in the autumn of 1936. Lem, now a sophomore, continued on at Princeton. They regularly met in New York on weekends.
In its heyday, during the thirties, the Stork Club at 3 East Fifty-third Street was more than the most fashionable nightclub in Manhattan; it was a way of life. Kennedy would fly down from Boston; Billings would hitchhike into town from Princeton; they would meet (often at the Roosevelt Bar), pick up their dates (sometimes with one of Jack’s father’s cars), and go to the “Stoke” for a night of dancing. Lem was self-conscious about his lack of spending money. Kennedy matter-of-factly solved the problem by spending on an equal basis with Billings. They created their own ritual to avoid the embarrassment of a large bill: they would each order only one drink. (At the Stork Club, pretty girls in general, and Billings and Kennedy’s dates in particular, were usually given champagne on the house.) Then, during a lull in the dancing, the two would exit to a less expensive pub-style bar around the corner, where they would have a few glasses of beer before returning to their single, extravagant Stoke cocktail.
While Kennedy naturally accommodated himself to Billings’s spending limits, Billings, for his part, had to adjust his own cash flow to the slightly annoying paradox of Kennedy’s financial situation. It was, Lem believed, one of the great mysteries of life: Jack never had any cash in his pockets. Sometimes he didn’t even have pockets: his finely tailored evening clothes, suits, sports jackets, and trousers were in a perpetual state of being lost. It was the damnedest thing. Lem, who took possessions very seriously and couldn’t bear to lose a single one, was bewildered. Eventually he came to realize that although Jack provisionally had a room of his own in each of his parents’ houses, Jack had never grown up with just one room with one closet, or for that matter, one tuxedo, one dress suit, and so on. Money was not spent lavishly by Jack or his family, but where clothing was concerned, there were certainly multiple items, perhaps too many to keep track of.
So Lem, with some amusement, kept tabs on Jack’s wardrobe. “Dear LeMoyne, Many thanks for sending Jack’s tuxedo and the three blankets,” a Kennedy governess wrote from Bronxville after Jack had left Princeton. “Jack had wired me about the tuxedo, intimating I had given it away in the charity box but I wasn’t a bit scared as I thought it would arrive in the mail. … A package arrives for him almost daily containing various articles of wearing apparel he has dropped somewhere…”