[The introduction below is a recap from 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.
The acclaimed author Paula Byrne’s biography of Kick Kennedy first caught my attention before I realised Barbara Leaming also had a biography, written on the same subject, coming out. While both women know their subject extremely well, their respective biographies are entirely different. For instance, Leaming bypasses much of the Kennedy info to focus entirely on Kick and the aristocratic cousinhood, whereas Byrne explores Kick’s Kennedy forebears in remarkable detail. For someone who knows a little about the Kennedys but virtually nothing on their background and upbringing, this was helpful. It’s also a great insight as to how Kick, an American girl, shook up the aristocracy on the eve of WW2.
As with her previous books, Paula Byrne has undertaken a mountain of research to not only present her subject between the pages of this fabulous book, but to offer informative context. I felt as though I’d known Kick’s parents and siblings, and this shaped my understanding of Kick herself and why, even though I know a great deal about this era, she was viewed as a whirlwind by her future in-laws. We all know how the story petered out and how it ended, but what happens before, during and after is as magical as it is poignant.
I don’t like to parallel the two biographies too much in case I risk persuading a reader to opt for one instead of the other (honestly, purchase both), but I feel the need to highlight the difference in how the Kennedy backstory is treated. Here, we have the best of both worlds. Whereas Barbara Leaming has written several books on members of the Kennedy family, Paula Byrne has written about Kick’s English circle, and therefore both authors understand their subject’s backstory, albeit from different points of view – as demonstrated in their works.
Although she died at twenty-eight, this biography is not as pithy as Kick’s lifespan. As an individual, as well as the wife of a future duke, she managed to encapsulate many experiences in her short life. From Kennedy offspring, to debutante, to journalist and Red Cross army nurse, her own achievements were many. But it is, perhaps, the tragic love story between Kick and Billy Cavendish which stands out and the question, which I am sure Debo often felt, was ‘what might have been?’
Paula Byrne’s biography is a sympathetic portrait of a girl living during a complex time, and who might have been the queen of high society, had she been given the chance.