Our Miss Bouvier

Focus on First Lady’s friendship with Kennedy Intimate Lem Billings

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Louis Bayard’s latest novel, “Jackie & Me,” focuses on the future First Lady’s friendship with Kennedy intimate Lem Billings during Jack’s unconventional courtship. Photo: Anna Carson DeWitt

Meet LeMoyne Billings. Lem, as Jack calls him, has been by Kennedy’s side “since the third form of Choate” and serves as both friend and foil to the entire Kennedy clan.

So when the Congressman is too busy running for the Senate to tend to the business of wooing the requisite political wife, who better to serve as surrogate than the “big bespectacled guy” whom Jack’s mother, “with just the barest brush of quotation marks,” has described as her “fifth son”?

In Louis Bayard’s breathtaking new book, “Jackie & Me,” Lem is tasked with squiring “Our Miss Bouvier” around DC and, as someone “uniquely qualified to explain Kennedy mating rituals,” with getting her to “stay the course” through a confusing and unconventional courtship. As he draws closer to Jackie and becomes her confidant, he also finds himself like “Squanto, translating the young squaw for the Kennedy pilgrims.” It’s a teetering line, but Lem loyally walks it ‒ because, as he says, “Every great leader needs a great friend.”

Bayard has a demonstrated talent for assiduously researching and bringing historical figures to life, as he has done with Abraham Lincoln and Edgar Allan Poe, among others. But his surpassing gift lies in the vivid scenes and dialogues he imagines and in his wickedly trenchant descriptions. Of Jackie’s mother, Janet Auchincloss, for example, he notes that she’s skilled in “the echolocation of husbands” and can be “quite abstract about her loathing” of people she’s never met.

“[T]he Kennedys,” he writes, “were the full ultraviolet spectrum. Rancor and laughter and sailing into the wind … the world just seemed to accelerate around them.” And when Lem is asked to describe Jackie to her future husband, he comes up with “charming,” “elegant” and “quick on the draw.” Then: “I thought for a bit more. ‘Lonely.’”

Filled with a sad sense of foreboding, “Jackie & Me” is in some ways a story about those moments when life could have taken a very different turn, but is mostly a perceptive snapshot in time about two lonely people who find solace in an unlikely friendship, clinging to one another in the wake of the Kennedy tsunami and the forces of history.

Louis Bayard is the bestselling author of nine historical novels, including “Courting Mr. Lincoln” and “The Pale Blue Eye,” which is being made into a Netflix film starring Christian Bale. www.louisbayard.com