Welcome to Group Text, a monthly column for readers and book clubs about the novels, memoirs and short-story collections that make you want to talk, ask questions and dwell in another world for a little bit longer.
Louis Bayard’s 10th novel, JACKIE & ME (Algonquin, 352 pp., $ 27.99), begins with a chance encounter. Our narrator, Lem Billings, is in the East Village when he spots a familiar figure sauntering down Avenue A in a linen skirt, a black blouse and Nina Ricci sunglasses. “I’m embarrassed to say that at the sight of her I did what every New Yorker does,” Lem tells us. “Stopped and gawked.”
The year is 1981, and the woman is Lem’s old friend Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; he hasn’t seen her in six years. We don’t know the circumstances of their estrangement, or why he doesn’t say hello, but Lem promises to tell the story of “the Jackie nobody else knew but me.” He tells readers: “The only hard part will be finding myself in the mix. For, of course, I was there too. Some version. Which, in this moment, feels like it wants to be known, too, no matter the reckoning. ”
Bayard, a veteran at imagining presidential relationships (“Courting Mr. Lincoln,” “Roosevelt’s Beast”), opens his acknowledgments page with a disclaimer that “Jackie & Me” is, “without apology, a fictional work and an exercise in alternative history . ” His subject was a real person: Kirk LeMoyne Billings, who met John F. Kennedy as a teenager and became a longtime fixer and confidant for his friend. Billings was gay, a fact that is alluded to but never stated in “Jackie & Me.” His loneliness is an invisible character on every page.
Lem meets the young Jackie Bouvier in 1952, when he accompanies Kennedy – by then an ambitious congressman – to pick her up for a gathering at Bobby and Ethel Kennedy’s house. His first impression is prescient: When he sees her standing outside Merrywood, her grand childhood home, he thinks, “She doesn’t look like she belongs there any more than I do.”
The two outsiders hit it off, and Jack depends on his nonthreatening friend to entertain Jackie while he lays the groundwork for a political career. On Sunday afternoons, we see Lem and Jackie strolling around Dumbarton Oaks or the Smithsonian. Eventually they venture to the Kennedy homestead in Hyannisport, where they endure endless rounds of charades and games of football.
Lem is protective of Jackie, attentive in a way Jack is not. Through his eyes, we get to know her as a witty, opinionated, driven young woman, the starry-eyed precursor to the stylish first lady and tragic veiled widow who will supplant her in the popular imagination. What a pleasure it is to see Jackie snapping pictures for her newspaper column, featuring strangers’ answers to questions like “If you were put in solitary confinement and could only take one book, what would it be?” Her queries evolve along with her relationship – for instance, “Should engaged couples reveal their past?”
Bayard shows how Jackie gamely shouldered Jack’s boisterous family, stratospheric ambitions, health problems and dalliances. But the real star of this story is Lem, who is caught in the gravitational pull between an old friend and a new one. To whom does he owe a greater debt of honesty – Jack, who has embraced him like a brother but asks too much as a go-between; or Jackie, a kindred spirit whose options are as limited as Lem’s, thanks to the corset-tight constrictions of the era? Of course, Jackie may not want to hear what Lem has to say about the realities of being close to Jack. And he may be just the tiniest bit jealous of their future.
There are moments in “Jackie & Me” when I found myself wondering how Lem could have known what Jack and Jackie said to each other when they were alone in a guest room or the back seat of his car. But it was such a voyeuristic pleasure to be a fly on the wall (or windshield), and Bayard is such an exuberant storyteller, I was happy to set aside my disbelief.
Even if you’re not a Kennedy enthusiast – even if your grandmother didn’t have a framed picture of JFK in her kitchen, as mine did, alongside one of Pope John Paul II – this stylish, sexy, nostalgic story will linger like Jackie’s signature scent of Pall Malls and Chateau Krigler 12. It’s a complicated bouquet of bitter and sweet.
Imagine yourself in Lem’s shoes. What would you do differently? Would you warn Jackie that she was, in a sense, throwing herself to the wolves? Or would you trust, as he did, that her intelligence would save her?
Lem overhears Jackie describing him as “that cozy funny fellow.” Why was this all he aspired to be? Did he have a choice?
“Jack and Lem,” by David Pitts. Bayard describes Pitts’s book as the “definitive nonfictional take” on Lem Billings’s life. The book begins when the boys were 15-year-old students at Choate. “Lem’s feelings for Jack went beyond friendship,” Pitts writes. “Jack rejected the sexual overtures, but not the friendship.”
“Meant to Be,” by Emily Giffin. If you’re looking for more fictionalized Kennedys, this lively page-turner is inspired by the courtship of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, who died together in a small-plane crash in 1999. Giffin writes: “I often ask myself what if. And it is this question that I always return to when I think of John and Carolyn. What if John hadn’t flown his plane that night? ”