It was during the debutante season of 1938 that Debo first met the Kennedy family when Joseph Kennedy, was appointed United States ambassador to the United Kingdom. Lady Redesdale, like all of the aristocratic ladies, was intrigued by the this large, Irish-American family and she was ‘full of admiration for Mrs. [Rose] Kennedy who had easily outdone her in the childbearing line’. Debo danced with John F. Kennedy, known as ‘Jack’ at a ball given by Lady Louis Mountbatten for Sally Norton and she recorded her thoughts on the young man in her diary: ‘Rather boring but nice.’
Jack had quickly left her thoughts but from 1941 onwards Debo would form a life-long bond with the Kennedy family. Her brother-in-law Billy Cavendish, (heir to the Dukedom of Devonshire) married Jack’s sister, Kathleen, known as ‘Kick’. Both the Kennedy and the Cavendish family opposed the marriage between Billy and Kick due to their religious differences, the Kennedys more so given their staunch Catholic beliefs. They did indeed marry but their happiness was short-lived when Billy was killed in action. Kick remained close to the Cavendish family until her death in a plane crash in 1948.
Debo and Andrew kept in touch with the Kennedys and followed Jack’s political progress. They were guests of honour (invited by Jack) at his inauguration in 1961, Debo called it ‘Jack’s coronation’. When Jack became President, Andrew’s uncle, Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister and what began as a polite relationship based on past family ties and politics developed into a close friendship, especially between Debo and Jack. At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Jack would telephone Debo often at 3am to ask after ‘Uncle’ Harold (he, too, adopted this term of endearment), reminisce about old times when Kick was alive or simply just to have a general chit chat. Andrew, impressed by Jack’s popularity, especially with the ladies, quipped: ‘Kennedy is doing for sex what Eisenhower did for golf.’
Nicknames were popular in the Mitford family and Jack was no exception, Debo quickly nicknamed him Loved One after he telephoned her on the 4th of July to ask, ‘Have you got all of your loved ones around you?’ Nancy was more brutal – she nicknamed him Fat Friend. ‘It’s a pity you don’t like Americans. You would worship the body of the President, that’s all,’ Debo wrote to Nancy. Despite Nancy’s lack of enthusiasm, Debo was ardent in her admiration for the president. Her Christmas present to him was a framed photograph of herself ‘surrounded by protestant clergymen’ and some silver footman’s buttons he had admired covered in crowns and snakes. Jack was fascinated by Chatsworth and he surprised everyone, Debo, Andrew and staff alike, when he announced he was dropping by.
As Debo learned, there was nothing casual about Jack’s visit. The Secret Service telephoned Debo in advance to inquire what type of village Edensor was. ‘Well quiet sort of people,’ Debo responded and her claim was backed up when an elderly local appeared on his doorstep with two crutches. The president’s helicopter landed in Edensor, causing a fanfare of havoc in the sleepy village. Jack wanted to visit Chatsworth House but his advisers warned against it; the place had not been vetted by his security officers, but he did not listen. He piled into a car with Debo and Andrew and as they set off towards the ‘big house’ Jack chatted enthusiastically about the helicopter, ‘It’s even got a bathroom!’ he said.
‘A bathroom? What on earth for?’ Debo asked. ‘You possibly couldn’t need a bath on that short trip.’ What he meant, Debo realised, was that it had a lavatory.
The following day after Jack’s whirlwind visit, Debo bumped into a local villager. ‘Wasn’t it exciting to see the President?’ she said, still on a high.
‘I didn’t think so,’ the villager responded. ‘That helicopter blew my hens away. I haven’t seen them since.’
Debo and Andrew were in London on November 22 1963 when they heard the news of Jack’s assassination on the wireless. Andrew had to make an after dinner speech but admitted, ‘Whatever I was saying was of no consequence since our minds were elsewhere.’ Debo, like the rest of the world, was stunned. Letters from Pam, Diana and Decca are a testament to Debo’s friendship with Jack, each wrote to express their sympathies…
‘You will be so terribly upset at the ghastly tragedy of Mr. Kennedy’s death. He was the only person who was honestly making for world peace and was making real progress in that direction.’- Pamela
‘Don’t be too sad…he had a wonderful life and a quick death.’- Diana
‘I can’t describe the feeling of utter horror at what has happened.’ –Decca
Debo and Andrew flew to Washington to pay their respects and to attend the funeral. Prince Phillip was also in attendance, representing the Royal family, and the three travelled together on an empty jet. Nobody could believe what had happened and Debo who was no stranger to tragedy, felt the immense grief of Jack’s untimely death, no other death, she said, would affect her in the same way. ‘You never saw such crumpled miserable faces. I never want to see such a thing again,’ she wrote. ‘Jackie looked tragic, with tears glistening on her veil, and Rose so very pathetic. The Kennedys are so good when things are going well but they are not equipped for tragedy.’