Kick Kennedy – Part One

It is unusual for two biographies on the same subject to be released within a month of each other, but then again Kick Kennedy is an unusual subject. The second-born daughter of Irish-American parents, Joseph and Rose Kennedy, she is forever associated with her political family, most especially the American president John F. Kennedy. All of the Kennedy children had star quality, Lady Redesdale (Muv) had once remarked that JFK would one day become president of the United States. And so their charisma hypnotised London high society in the late 1930s, when Joseph Kennedy was posted there as the American Ambassador to the United Kingdom. The older girls were presented at Court, and Kick began to move in the exclusive circles of the aristocracy. She was an anomaly for her time: outspoken, forward-thinking, and silly. She could laugh at herself and openly joke with the gentry at a time when English girls, who adhered to formality, could not. Surprisingly, this won her a great deal of admiration and her greatest friends became Sarah Norton (daughter of the beautiful Jean Norton, Lord Beaverbrook’s mistress), Billy and Andrew Cavendish (sons of the Duke of Devonshire), and, of course, Debo Mitford.

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Barbara Leaming’s book, Kick Kennedy: The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of the Favorite Kennedy Daughter, explores the connection Kick shared with Andrew and Debo in great detail. The beginning of her book was a lovely surprise, with the elderly Andrew confiding his remembrances of Kick. And so her story begins and maintains its momentum as a portrait of a girl who moved at the centre of the British aristocracy. Through her research of Kick, she bypasses the Kennedy lore (only sprinkling Kennedyisms where necessary) to focus on the themes which shaped Kick’s life and her destiny.

The complex love story between Kick and Billy Cavendish dominates the plot, but the subplot of Andrew and Debo gives this story an interesting parallel. Here was a woman who had the world at her feet until WW2 destroyed her future and her happiness, as it did for so many families. With their long, drawn-out courtship happening on both sides of the Atlantic – often one-sided, and their battle to marry, it is bittersweet that they were destined only to be husband and wife for a short period. Billy, as the eldest son, was expected to inherit the Dukedom of Devonshire, and Kick was to be his Duchess (there are some interesting points on Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire), but after his death she was deposed by Debo.

Although both women were best friends, it was interesting to read about the hidden feelings Kick had about the new path her life had taken, and the (for lack of a better word) guilt Debo harboured for unintentionally usurping Kick.

Kick was killed in a plane crash at the age of twenty-eight, and although she had been widowed from Billy and had fallen in love with another man, the Devonshires continued to hold her close their hearts. Not only is this a story of an extraordinary young woman who took life by the scruff of the neck, it is an example of fate and how Debo became the Duchess of Devonshire. Perhaps it was Kick who paved the way and set the example of mixing informality with the pomp and grandeur of that lifestyle, which Andrew and Debo were renowned for.

Thank you to Barbara Leaming for sending me a signed copy of her book. Her narrative is informal and yet it draws one in, as though they, too, were sitting next to Andrew as he remembered his late sister-in-law. The beginning and ending were entirely original, given the acres of print written about Chatsworth and the Devonshires.

Part Two of my Kick Kennedy post will look at Paula Byrne’s biography, Kick: The True Story of Kick Kennedy, JFK’s Forgotten Sister and Heir to Chatsworth (released 19 May 2016). Both biographies are completely different and are extremely good. So please buy and read both of them!

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The Mitford Society Loves

As the spring months advance I like to veer away from heavy tomes and keep my reading light. That is to say, none of the novels I have mentioned below are frivolous nor do they lack depth. They are historical fiction and ‘faction’ (fact written as fiction) with engaging prose and fascinating characters. Here are some of my favourites…

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Faith and Beauty by Jane Thynne

The fourth instalment of the Clara Vine series. Our heroine, Clara, an actress by trade/a spy by choice, is once again moving at the heart of the Nazi Party. In the previous novels, much of the action takes place on the streets of Berlin on the eve of WW2, and at the Nazi-founded bridal schools. So Jane mixes historical events with a fictional character who also happens to mingle with real-life figures – Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, a young JFK, Marlene Dietrich etc (in The Winter Garden, she featured Unity and Diana Mitford). Now it is the summer of 1939 and Clara’s sleuthing takes her to the Faith and Beauty bridal school, where a girl has been murdered. And, on the political front, she must investigate whether or not Germany is planning an alliance with Russia. Not only are Jane Thynne’s novels appealing to those who love the mystery/detective genre but they’re a treat for historians who are fascinated by the pre-WW2 era and the rise of Hitler.

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A Man of Genius by Janet Todd

This novel has inspired me to think of the noun trouvaille, which means something lucky found by chance. It found me by way of a mutual friend of Janet Todd’s, and I am so glad it did. Set in Regency London and Venice, Ann Radcliffe is a woman of independent means: a writer of cheap Gothic fiction, portraying women as victims of narcissistic villains. Soon life begins to imitate art, and she falls under the spell of the poet, Robert James – a madman and self-confessed genius. A psychological portrait of a destructive relationship, set to the backdrop of Venice and the literary world, A Man of Genius is a dazzling novel of the historical fiction genre.

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The Shadow Hour by Kate Riordan

Following her successful novel The Girl In The Photograph, Riordan has returned with an equally suspenseful story charting the lives of two women in different eras. In 1878 Harriet Jenner takes a job as a governess at Fenix House but, recovering from a family tragedy, she cannot imagine the hold that the house and the Pembridge family will have over her. Fifty years later, Harriet’s granddaughter Grace finds work at Fenix House and, following in her grandmother’s footsteps, she discovers the secrets and lies buried within the grand house. The Shadow Hour is wonderfully written with a ghostly undertone; Riordan has once again produced a haunting tale.

P.S. You should check out Kate Riordan’s short story The Red Letter, based on characters from The Girl in the Photograph. I hope she develops it into a spin-off story.

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All the Stars in the Heavens by Adriana Trigiani

Aside from my love of the aristocracy during the interwar era I am also mad about classic film stars. This was a little different from what I normally read, by way of historical fiction, but it was a nice distraction over the festive season. It details the affair between Loretta Young and Clark Gable, which happened during the filming of Call of the Wild. Based on a true story and an even stranger cover-up during the golden age of Hollywood: Young goes on to have Gable’s child but what unfolds is a plot that would be called far fetched, even onscreen! She goes into hiding and has the baby, a girl, and Gable knows but takes no part in her upbringing. Young herself claims she has adopted the child and she sticks to this story for decades, the truth only revealing itself when her daughter is grown up, and Gable is dead. It was quite camp in places and perhaps veered towards fan fiction, but it was a lot of fun to read and it gives me hope that I can develop a story I have in mind about a real life Hollywood couple. More books like this, please!

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The Infinite Air by Fiona Kidman

Telling the story of Jean Batten, known as ‘the Garbo of the skies’, Kidman presents her biographical study as historical fiction. From her childhood as a clever girl from a broken home, through her ambition to challenge the male attitudes of the day, Batten rises to become an aviatrix star. Courted by royalty and Hollywood actors, she receives honours and breaks aviation records before falling out of the public gaze. After a series of setbacks, she becomes a recluse and dies in penury in Majorca, where she is buried in a pauper’s grave. A thrilling tale of adventure and heartbreak – Kidman has triumphantly brought this inspirational heroine to life.

In the summer, when I finish my project, I hope to read more American literature. I loved The Boston Girl, and it has inspired me add The Swans of Fifth Avenue and Tiny Little Thing to my TBR wish list. Let me know what you are reading or what you plan to read by tweeting @mitfordsociety.