the sex lives of dead people: JFK edition (emotions via britney)

i mean, i had you at hello, right? you are like, holy moses, this woman is ambitious. for seriously, is there a more prodigious sex life of a dead person than that of JFK? haven’t we all of us, by this point, slept with JFK?

ok. so that’s taking it a step too far. but seriously. and i say this as a biographer. it is likely that JFK slept with a whole load of people. i’m not contesting that.

there seems to be a lot of compelling evidence that his sex life was extensive.

having written extensively about his wife, there seems to be compelling evidence that she knew his sex life was extensive.

what i would do is suggest that we not take every single claim about his extensive sex life as absolute truth.

given what we know about how the sex lives of dead people work.

(new life goal: to some day teach a master class on the sex lives of dead people. just fyi.)

so here we are with the man of the hour:

who just turned 100, btw.

and you know what? this is a prodigious task because it’s a prodigious sex life we’re tackling here so i’mma bring a friend.

i’ve called us all here today to talk about this:

first things first, just YESTERDAY i lamented the lack of kardashian biographies and lo! the lord giveth:

this is the man who brought us the unauthorized biography of anna wintour, and also the unauthorized biography of martha stewart which, in turn, yielded the gift that was the 2003 made-for-tv cybil shepherd martha stewart movie, martha, inc.

rather hilariously now billed online as a “comedy-drama” (i swear, at the time, it was marketed as pure drama) and, in terms of nationally televised docudrama horrors, possibly the closest rival to the 2003 rudy guilliani movie.

yeah, that is a story that needs to be updated, stat.

my love of popular forms is well known so surely i do not have to explain that the enthusiasm expressed above was, in fact, entirely sincere.

but that is not to say that popular biographical forms are not without huge, big problems that need to be acknowledged and condemned and fixed.

with that in mind, let us return to this daily mail article, written by a biographer.

what, for example, is happening here?

this is the daily mail, as always, so, as always, perhaps it is too much for me to be crying out for attention to language but, as my seven years of blogging here have probably suggested, i ain’t gonna give up.


(1) lem billings and jfk were lifelong friends

(2) lem billings is believed to have been gay

this is maybe biographically interesting (if you’re biographically interested in JFK) for what it tells us about JFK- a man who grew up in a time and culture that prized hyper-masculinity and a family that- for the men, anyway- was defined by the what the historian garry wills has characterized as a “competitive discipline of lust.”

that he was able to sustain any deep and lasting relationship with anyone strikes me as rather astonishing. that it should be with a man is equally astonishing. never mind whether that man was gay or not.

JFK is not exactly a figure known for profound or enduring intimacies. that he sustained a close friendship for thirty years tells us something about his character which is, to be honest, not apparent otherwise.

but that is not what oppenheimer is getting at here with the suggestion of a dynamic beyond “a simple bromance.” (and are bromances really that simple?)

oppenheimer is suggesting a romantical or physical (it’s unclear) component to this “intimate relationship.”

what is the evidence?

um… someone please attempt to diagram this sentence:



attempted translation:

oppenheimer interviewed someone for this book on RFK, jr.

(the hardcover of which came out TWO YEARS AGO and the paperback last autumn, so i am deeply confused as to the point of this article… is it to publicize his forthcoming kardashian book?? or is it for JFK’s birthday? it seems to be framed as a birthday present…)

that person characterized billings as having “a high-pitched, effeminate voice” and noted that he wore spectacles.

and because he used drugs and was gay and hung out with RFK, jr., he could be said to have “intense romantic feelings”? for RFK, jr.? and so he… would’ve also been lovers with JFK? maybe? is that what this is saying?

maybe he did or maybe he didn’t, but that isn’t what interests me.

what interests me is the mobilization of a series of stereotypes to suggest that a gay man could not possibly have non-romantic relationships with straight men. and also that there is a specific way that gay men are.

but note: that nonsense paragraph above?

true story: i didn’t find that credible. AT ALL.

so for it to be “one of the most credible accounts” is alarming.

and would indicate a paucity of credible evidence.

there is perhaps some archival evidence to suggest billings had romantic feelings for JFK. i will allow that. letters. a reference to something written on toilet paper and thrown away. but it’s all pretty ephemeral. there is no written documentation that explicitly says anything.

and in lieu of that, as is usually the case with the sex lives of dead people, we are dealing with “feelings in the air.” (hard to footnote those.)

HOWEVER. there’s a difference here. because “feelings in the air” are leavened with stereotypes.

look at the tenor of this rumor’s presentation:

this is 2017.

this story is, i would guess, maybe coming from quirk in the 1990s or early 2000s (he died in 2014). oppenheimer says quirk met billings in the late 1940s but doesn’t say when billings allegedly recounted details of his relationship with JFK to quirk or under what conditions.

billings died in 1981 and, during his lifetime, was never openly out. from the late 1960s onwards, he was heavily involved in drugs. and so, much as with truman capote and gore vidal (much as with all of us [and i would argue this is something the biographer is charged with doing!!!]), billings’ own reliability should be questioned depending upon the period in which he is providing evidence, just as quirk’s should be.

but look there at oppenheimer’s presentation of quirk’s testimony.

so quirk is an expert on identifying gay people. which is no small deal here, because vital to this whole story is that billings be “pegged” as being gay, and submissive, and also as a joke.

oppenheimer repeatedly points to the mannerisms about which billings was insecure:

as a testament not only to billings’ sexual preferences but also as support for biographical claims.

this article provides compelling support for the belief that men with high and/or nasal voices are always gay. and that gay men cannot have platonic relationships with straight men.

i don’t know what happened with billings and JFK. that is actually not my point.

my point is that there is a problem when we write about something that might have happened as though it were inevitable simply because JFK had lots of sex and his best friend had a high voice.

those two things actually tell us nothing, beyond the facts that JFK had lots of sex and his best friend had a high voice.

2 thoughts on “the sex lives of dead people: JFK edition (emotions via britney)

  1. Pingback: “EXCLUSIVE”! “Serial cheater”! sex in the home gym! (emotions via kris jenner) | finding jackie

  2. Pingback: biography has sex problems: edward klein and the c. david heymann dilemma | finding jackie

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