Hollywood Heartbreak: Peter Collier's Envoi to JFK

The Kennedys were famous for their hangers-on. They seemed countless in number, and limitless in their devotion. They started as JFK’s team during the first years of his political career, and they were constantly at his beck and call, apparently prepared to perform any errand, do any dirty work, clean up any mess. Ted Sorensen, for example, ghostwrote JFK’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage (1956), for him. After JFK’s death, several of these guys went on to serve the same function for RFK, and after he was gunned down some of them moved on to Teddy just in time to help him lie his way out of Chappaquiddick. In the 1960s and 70s a few of them wrote bestselling memoirs of JFK -- such as Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye (1972) by Kenneth O’Donnell and Dave Powers -- which played a major role in shaping the posthumous Kennedy myth. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for most of these fellows, who, one has the impression, hitched their wagons to JFK for career reasons.

Lem Billings was different. He’d been there long before it started. He and Jack met in 1930, when they were prep-school roommates at Choate, and he soon found himself welcomed into the Kennedy clan as a sort of extra brother. (Think Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited.) After Jack was elected president and began dispensing plum White House jobs to his inner circle, Billings alone turned down every offer -- from head of the Peace Corps to ambassador to Denmark -- because he worried that if his friend were to become his boss, it would inevitably alter their relationship. Instead of an ambassadorship, he had something no other JFK insider had: his own bedroom in the White House.

After JFK’s murder, while other insiders wrote their bestsellers, Billings stayed mum, continuing, until his own death in 1981, to serve the Kennedy family in various behind-the-scenes capacities and to play a role as a sort of low-key keeper of the flame. His devotion, in short, was the real thing. Indeed, for Billings it was everything. JFK’s other sidekicks had love lives, families, career aspirations. Lem had Jack, period. He was gay, but never public about it. Friends believed that Jack was the love of his life. (The most he would say, years after the assassination, was that because of Jack, he’d never been lonely, and that Jack “may have been the reason I never got married.")

JFK knew that Lem was gay from the beginning, but even then -- in 1930! -- it didn’t keep him from making Lem a constant fixture in his life. Rather, one gets the impression that Lem’s orientation was a plus for Jack. Aside from feeding Jack’s vanity, Lem’s adoration meant he could be trusted. It also meant he wouldn’t try to steal Jack’s girls –- of whom, from the beginning, there were many.

Ever on the sidelines during his life, Billings is now the protagonist – or, at least, the point-of-view character -- of a genuinely wonderful novel, Things in Glocca Morra, by Peter Collier, who died in November at age 80. You can’t say that Collier didn’t know his subject: the founder of Encounter Books, he wrote a series of bestselling family chronicles in collaboration with David Horowitz, including The Kennedys: An American Drama (1984), described by the New York Times as “hypnotically fascinating” and by Newsweek as “eloquent” and “devastating.”  

Things in Glocca Morra is no less impressive. It opens in 1981, when an archivist from the Kennedy Presidential Library, knowing that Billings is not long for this world, calls on him in hopes of picking his memories and seeing his papers, both of which Billings has kept closely guarded. The archivist observes that while most of JFK’s life is well-documented, there are virtually no records about a couple of months in late 1945 during which, he knows, Kennedy and Billings were together in Los Angeles. What, the archivist wants to know, happened during that time?

The archivist departs, and Billings sits there wondering what to do. What does he owe to history, and what does he owe to Jack? Whereupon his memory takes him, and us, back to those days in L.A., as Collier has imagined them. In his telling, Joe Kennedy -- the wily paterfamilias, former FDR ambassador to the Court of St. James, and intimate of many of America’s most powerful, glamorous, and dangerous people – has arranged a job for Jack as a reporter for the Hearst papers, and Jack has summoned Lem to stay with him at the Malibu house he’s rented.

Although Jack is working on a news story about a grim subject – the brutal effort by Communists to wrest control of Hollywood unions from the Mob – this ugliness seems, at first, to be unconnected to Jack and Lem’s halcyon life together. For them, everything seems to be looking up: while America, having just won the biggest war ever, stands on the verge of a remarkable era of prosperity, these two young men, both bursting with youth and vitality, one a recent Harvard grad and the other newly graduated from Princeton, zip around L.A. in a glorious Lincoln Zephyr, drinking in the region’s natural beauty and meeting movie stars at Ciro’s.

But then something happens. Jack, who, for as long as Lem has known him, has been a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am type of the first order, proclaiming that “Love is for suckers,” falls in love. And not with just anybody. He falls in love with Valentina, Val for short, a striking but deeply haunted young Italian who just missed being killed in a Nazi death camp and who has a wisdom far beyond her years. (Think Sophie’s Choice.) And Val, a starlet at Warners, falls in love with Jack too, even though she recognizes that he has “not yet taken on the burden of moral seriousness.” In this privileged young American sun-god, who’s incapable of grasping the depth of torment in her European soul, she sees not good but, most assuredly, the potential for good. And as the weeks go by, she begins to bring out his goodness and seriousness -- begins to teach him to love maturely -- even as he begins to liberate her from her traumas.

They are perfect for each other.

Unfortunately, there’s a snake in this Eden, and its name is Joe Kennedy Sr. Jack’s elder brother, Joe Jr., having died in the war, the “Old Man” (as Lem and Jack refer to him) has transferred to Jack the political ambitions he’d previously fastened upon his namesake. A man with spies everywhere, he soon turns up in L.A., determined to destroy his son’s idyll. Suffice it to say that there ensues a series of events that lifts the nostalgic charm of this novel’s early chapters to the level of tragedy. (Think The Great Gatsby, with Lem as Nick Carraway.) 

The result is an utterly beautiful work of art, tender and witty, splendidly written, with richly and sensitively drawn characters, a keen moral compass, and, in its later chapters, an almost unbearable feeling of rising suspense. It is at once a biographical novel that paints a credible picture of the young Jack, imagining how he might have come to be the man he was, for good and for ill; a Hollywood novel that provides vivid glimpses of the dream factory in its Golden Age; and a labor novel that unflinchingly depicts the hard-knuckle violence used by Marxists and mafiosos alike in their postwar fight to run the Hollywood unions.

It’s also a story of two young people’s doomed love and of one young man’s unrequited love. And in the end it’s also a whodunit, raising questions about the stories behind two horrible deaths. One of those deaths, Jack’s, is historical; the other, while an invention, is part of a fascinatingly plausible scenario that would very neatly explain not only Jack’s adult personality – the way in which, as Lem puts it, he “settl[ed] into the driver’s seat of his life” (a remarkable amount of this book’s action takes place in cars, foreshadowing Dealey Plaza) – but also the assassination in Dallas that transformed America forever.

Throughout the novel, Lem’s explicit focus is on the moral and emotional dimensions of Jack and Val. But what about Lem himself? Jack struggles to stand up to his domineering father, but Lem, when ordered by the Old Man to obey, does so without question. Meekly reliable, he seems to be motivated exclusively by a desire to do whatever it takes to be permitted to remain at Jack’s side. When events occur that another person would walk away from in disgust, Lem, though he seems a thoroughly decent and ethical sort, doesn’t even seem to consider checking out. It’s as if, when push comes to shove, he has no moral agency of his own; as if he’s driven entirely by love -- although it’s a love that’s only exploited, not requited.

About the novel’s title. In real life, after Kennedy’s assassination, his widow, Jackie, spoke of his fondness for the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot (1960), which celebrated the era of King Arthur and his Round Table as a “brief shining moment” of glory; soon enough, as America descended into the quagmire of Vietnam and into ideological street warfare that would shape the nation’s culture for generations, the thousand-odd days of the Kennedy administration came to be affectionately remembered as golden “Camelot.” But Camelot doesn’t figure in Collier’s book; instead a young JFK, visiting the Warner studios in Burbank, meets the songwriter Yip Harburg and flips over his new song “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”:

How are things in Glocca Morra?
Is that willow tree still weeping there?
Does that lassie with the twinklin' eye
Come smilin' by and does she walk away,
Sad and dreamy there, not to see me there?

“What’s the point of being Irish anyway,” Jack asks Lem, “if you don’t think the world will break your heart?” It’s entirely appropriate that the brilliant, multitalented Collier borrowed from Harburg for the title of this exceedingly wise, wistful, and, yes, ultimately heartbreaking valedictory volume.

Image: Encounter Books

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