Pitts, David 1947–
Pitts, David 1947–
Born 1947. Education: Bradford University, England, B.S.; American University, M.A.
Journalist. Former senior writer, U.S. Information Agency/Voice of America.
Contributor to periodicals, including Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, International Herald Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Baltimore Sun, Black Enterprise Magazine, Seven Days (Canada), Manila Times (Philippines), Sunday Times (South Africa), Foreign Digest (Nigeria), Daily News (Tanzania), and Sun (Mexico).
Journalist David Pitts's biography, Jack & Lem: John F. Kennedy and Lem Billings, the Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship, is a different take on a very popular subject: the life of President John F. Kennedy. Pitts looks at the relationship between the thirty-fifth president and his best friend from childhood, Kirk LeMoyne "Lem" Billings. Billings and Kennedy were roommates at the prestigious Choate Rosemary Hall and developed a close relationship that was maintained until Kennedy's assassination in 1963. "Jack, the son of a self-made Boston Irish millionaire, was a wealthy, bright, good-looking boy with a wicked sense of fun. He was also skinny, sickly, and frail, continually falling ill and being subjected to various medical tests," reported Ian Young in the Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. "Lem Billings, from a distinguished old American Protestant family, was taller, bigger, stronger, with a high-pitched voice and a loud laugh. They shared an insatiable intellectual curiosity, a robust sense of humor, and a disdain for petty rules. Within days of meeting, they were best friends, and their censorious housemaster was grinding his teeth over their ‘silly giggling’ hijinks in the showers."
In order to complete the biography, Pitts was given unprecedented access to Billings's private papers. "We scoured all the existing JFK books for information about Lem," Pitts told Stephanie Merchant of Bookslut, "and then set about obtaining the necessary documents—importantly, in this case, the letters exchanged between Jack and Lem, various diaries, Lem's 815-page oral history, a privately published memoir of him, etc." They showed that Billings was in fact gay, that he had a lifelong (unreciprocated) crush on John Kennedy, and that he was also very close with the next generation of the Kennedy family until his death in 1981. "It is remarkable," Ilene Cooper wrote in Booklist, "that Kennedy would ignore the mores of the day and keep such a close association with a closeted gay man." The two were extremely close; according to the president's widow, Jackie Kennedy, Billings was a constant guest at their home from the day she married her husband. In his later years Billings served essentially as a prop and an adopted member of the Kennedy family. "Lem became an adored member of the extended Kennedy clan," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "and loomed large in the lives of the children of the martyred Jack and Bobby."
Pitts, however, emphasizes that the relationship between the two men was never sexual. "In fact, Pitts makes it a point to highlight Jack Kennedy's heterosexuality and promiscuity while simultaneously accounting for Lee Billings' failed attempts at heterosexual relationships," explained Ramon Johnson on the GayLife Web site. "Homosexuality was a taboo topic during Jack and Lem's upbringing and Pitts is confident that Jack Kennedy knew of Billings' sexuality early on. Yet, to a insouciant Kennedy, Billings' slapstick friendship trumped his sexuality."
At the same time, the relationship between Kennedy and Billings was never anything but personal. Although Kennedy reportedly offered Billings his choice of posts with the administration, Billings preferred to remain outside politics. He worked in advertising and flipped houses in his spare time, staying largely aloof from politics. "I couldn't imagine that JFK's best and closest friend for thirty years could be anything but political," the author said in his Bookslut interview. "So yes, I thought I would find out that he was a Karl Rove type figure, and the political power behind the scenes during Camelot." He added: "Although Lem did play a political role of sorts, as you know from reading the book, this friendship was rooted not in politics, but rather in fundamental human needs. The book essentially is a love story, not a political story." "Jack Kennedy gave a country strength," wrote Johnson, "while devoted friend and confidant Lem Billings gave him strength and often showed him the lighter side of life…. Bravo to David Pitts for finally telling their story."
When asked how he first became interested in writing, Pitts told CA: "My desire to communicate with a broad audience and tell nonfictional stories that I think have been either neglected or underemphasized. I also have a mischievous desire to challenge the popular wisdom, particularly about political matters.
"I think the writer who has most influenced me is Albert Camus, although I do not necessarily share all of his political views. It is more the rhythm of Camus' writing that I find appealing, the symmetry of his prose. I am talking about his nonfiction in this regard.
"My writing process is pretty anarchic. I write when the spirit moves me. I am at my best in the morning before my mind becomes clouded by the cares of the day or the intrusion of memories.
"The most surprising thing I have learned as a writer is how differently readers interpret what I have written. I suppose assumptions, background and experience, even temperament and mood, impact everything—both the work of a writer and its interpretation by a reader. In this respect, writing appears to have a life of its own independent of the author.
"The Rebel by Albert Camus is my favorite book because it is an astute political thesis—beautifully written. Unlike many contemporary political tracts, it exudes depth and reflects the compassion and humanity of the author."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, June 1, 2007, Ilene Cooper, review of Jack & Lem: John F. Kennedy and Lem Billings, the Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship, p. 26.
Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, September 1, 2007, Ian Young, "The Man Who Loved JFK."
Publishers Weekly, March 19, 2007, review of Jack & Lem, p. 56.
Bookslut,http://www.bookslut.com/ (April 24, 2008), Stephanie Merchant, "An Interview with David Pitts."
David Pitts Web site,http://www.jackandlem.com (April 24, 2008).
GayLife,http://gaylife.about.com/ (April 24, 2008), Ramon Johnson, review of Jack & Lem.