The President and The Duchess by Michelle Morrissette

When John F. ‘Jack’ Kennedy arrived in Southampton, England, aboard the Normandy on 2 July 1938, little did he know that he would meet lifelong friends. And that those friends would be involved in his Presidential Administration some 20 years later, and they would help him hold on to a piece of the past he could not forget.

Since Jack arrived 2 months after his sister Kathleen, known as ‘Kick’, she introduced her older brother to her friends, and he formed close friendships with Debo Mitford, brothers Andrew and Billy Cavendish, and David Ormsby Gore, who would become President Kennedy’s Ambassador to Great Britain. Soon after his arrival and subsequent introduction to his sister’s society friends, he attended a ball given by Lady Mountbatten for her best friend’s daughter, Sally Norton, and there he danced with Debo. Renowned for his charisma, especially with the female sex, he failed to make a favourable impression on Debo, and she declared he was ‘boring but nice’. Her mother, Lady Redesdale, however, predicted that young Jack would one day be the President of the United States. On the evening of Sally Norton’s ball, Kick would have her first date with Billy Cavendish, and although Debo failed to see how Jack would make history, Kick and Billy were already creating their own. They concluded the 1938 social season at the Goodwood Races in Sussex. Jack was thin from various illnesses,but he lived those days as if there would be no tomorrow. It is sad to think of it now, but the world for these young people was about to change, and it would become the last season of debutante balls, and their carefree days before the Second World War.

During wartime their futures appeared certain. Debo and Andrew married on 19 April 1941; and Kick and Billy were to marry in May 1944, only for him to die 3 months later from a sniper’s bullet in Belgium. As historians know, Kick, as Billy’s wife, was to become the Duchess of Devonshire upon the death of her father-in-law. However, Billy’s early death changed the line of succession and now Andrew was to be his father’s heir and Debo would take Kick’s place as duchess. But Kick felt an affinity with England, and rather than moving back to America as her family wanted her to, she bought a house at 4 Smith Square, where she felt at home with her English friends and late husband’s family. Fate can be cruel, and Kick herself met an untimely death in May 1948 when she was killed in a plane crash. Her parents-in-law arranged for her to be buried in the family’s graveyard at St Peter’s Church, Edensor.

Despite this abrupt end to their association with the Kennedys, the two familys would share an everlasting bond throughout the years. The Kennedys visited England, and the Cavendishes watched Jack’s budding political career from across the Atlantic. Then, in 1961, Jack fulfilled Lady Redesdale’s premonition by becoming the 35th President of the United States.

Acknowledging this familial tie, he sent Debo and Andrew – now the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire – an invitation to his Inauguration on 20 January 1961, and Debo remembered that Jack was like a ‘Queen Bee’ and was followed by photographers wherever he went. On their next visit to Washington, in December 1961, Debo dined with Jack and his two friends at the White House for the first time. When dinner was announced, she went to open the door but Jack threw out his arm and said: ‘No, not you. I go first, I’m Head of State. Accustomed to his informal ways, Debo realised he was right, and said, ‘Oh, so you are.’ The following evening, Jack and Debo went together to the National Gallery of Art, and when they arrived he turned to her and whispered: ‘They think I like art. I hate it.’ During the event, an English delegate tried to monopolise the president, but he turned her down saying, ‘Not now. It’s your turn tomorrow.’ This managed to get rid of the woman in question without offending her. Formalities aside, Debo admired Jack’s humour and his willingness to laugh at himself, and she liked that he was not self-absorbed about his accomplishments or his political rank. And, if he did not know something, he said so without feeling intellectually challenged. This, she found refreshing.

The next time Debo and Andrew were in Washington was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The purpose of their visit was to attend an exhibition of Old Master Drawings of Chatsworth at the National Gallery. They dined at the White House on October 21, the night before the President announced to the nation the Cuban Missile Crisis blockade. Although Debo herself admitted she did not realise what kind of crisis America faced, she thought the atmosphere at the White House remained the same and she attributed this to Jack’s steady nerves. During that week, they laughed and talked of the old days, of Kick and the various girls he had known from his days in England, before the war. Before she left, Jack invited Debo for a swim in the White House pool, and again they reminisced.

When she returned home, she often received telephone calls from Jack. Sometimes it was a question about Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister and uncle to Andrew. Like Debo and Andrew, Jack too had begun to call him ‘Uncle Harold’. Or sometimes he would call just to talk, and it was during these transatlantic chats that Jack was given the nickname ‘Loved One’, or ‘L.O.’. In true Mitford fashion, the nickname was inspired after he called on the 4th July to ask Debo if she had her ‘loved ones around her’. Among the items auctioned at Debo’s Sotheby’s auction was a copy of Jacques Low’s 1961 biography The Emergence of John F. Kennedy (Item #138), and the President himself had signed it ‘For Debo, with happy thoughts. John Kennedy LO’.

The last time Debo saw Jack was before his death in June 1963 while on an official visit to Europe. He wished to pay his respects at Kick’s grave, and, due to the security risk, the visit was kept as quiet as possible. A wooden bridge had been erected across the park to the church, and Debo and Andrew went with him and then left him alone to visit with his sister. But the locals soon realized, due to the noise of his helicopter, that he was there, and as he left the churchyard people had gathered to take photographs. Then, against the advice of the Secret Service, he decided to visit Chatsworth. On the way there, Jack took great delight in describing the Presidential helicopter which, he said, had a bathroom. When Debo asked him ‘What for? You could not need a bath in that short a trip,’ she realized he meant a lavatory.

The awful news of Jack’s assassination on November 22 1963 reached Debo and Andrew, and they felt as though tragedy had struck them once again. They travelled to Washington alongside the Duke of Edinburgh, who represented Queen Elizabeth, to attend Jack’s funeral. Their presence was more than a formality, they had gone to attend the funeral of a very dear family member and friend.

I believe that the Duchess and the President got along so well for a number of reasons, above all else she valued his wit and laughter. And, for Jack himself, Debo was a link to his sister, whom he had loved dearly.

Michelle Morrissette is a Kennedy Researcher, and the mother of two sons. She lives in St Louis, Missouri.

Originally published in The Mitford Society Vol IV
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