June/july 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 4
T HE VIOLENT DEATH of a private individual may make a stir for a few days, but then its memory fades for all except the closest friends and relations. When a world leader—a President—dies violently, the memory of the event becomes part of the national fabric. Because John F. Kennedy was young and still seemed to give promise of great things to come, his assassination is not only remembered vividly by all who were alive at the time, it was instantly transposed from history to myth. No wonder, then, that the twentieth anniversary of his death this November will bring forth a rush of tributes, memoirs, and réévaluations. A MERICAN H ERITAGE , too, plans to mark the anniversary. Meanwhile, another kind of story about Kennedy—little known and yet remarkably revealing—is featured in this issue.
Imagine that Kennedy had a boyhood friend who knew him from schooldays, joined him on vacations, double-dated with him, traveled to Europe with him, became so much a part of his life that he was considered one of Kennedy’s family—a friend who knew almost every detail of his life from his bouts of illness to his first political strivings and who remained his most beloved companion in and out of the White House until the day of the assassination. This friend existed; he is no invention, no novelistic device. He was LeMoyne Billings, who died two years ago—but not before he told his story to David Michaelis.
By all accounts, Billings was a delightful man, but his distinction clearly lies in his friendship with JFK, rather than in his own talents or achievements. By looking at Kennedy through his eyes—those of a relatively poor boy who seems never to have had any very exalted ambitions—we can see the beginnings of the myth, at a time when the rest of the world still knew Kennedy only as the son of a ruthless multimillionaire. Here, then, from Billings’s unique viewpoint, is the story of a rich, charming, very lucky and—in the end—very unlucky American President.
Although Billings was a minor figure in what has inevitably been transformed into a historical drama, ,his special relationship with Jack Kennedy makes him an extraordinary witness, whose testimony will undoubtedly modify future biographies. Moreover, there are those wonderful images Billings preserved in his scrapbooks—a collection of thirty volumes that might well bear on their covers Eliot’s words: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”