Whenever one decides to re-imagine a bit of history, one must accept that in this alternative universe they’re creating, some of their favourite events might not have happened. But in exchange, something magical may have taken place instead.
In her memoir, Wait for Me, Debo devotes a chapter to her relationship with the Kennedys. And no wonder; not only were she and Kick good friends, Debo and her sisters had moved in the same social circles as had the Kennedys when Joe Sr. was ambassador in the late 1930s, and they’d married into the same family. Thus her connection to this remarkable and tragic family endured.
John F. Kennedy, known as ‘Jack’, certainly felt this same connection. He made a point of including Debo and Andrew in important Washington events, including his inauguration in 1961. He also visited them at Chatsworth. He sometimes called her at 3AM, just to talk things over. Some have speculated that perhaps Debo has fallen sway to Jack Kennedy’s famous charm, and that they were lovers. This writer remains agnostic on that conclusion; it seems far more likely that Jack, having been so very fond of Kick, simply saw Debo and her family as part of the Kennedy clan. (A terribly attractive, magnetic and utterly fascinating part of the family, perhaps, but still part of the family.) Bobby picked up the correspondence after Jack’s death, and continued to flirt amiably with her until his assassination in 1968.
So had Billy and Kick succeeded as the duke and duchess, it’s certain that Jack and Kick, as close friends as well as siblings, would have created a social and political alliance between their generation of Devonshires and Kennedys.
Let’s imagine this, for a moment. What if Billy Cavendish had returned from the war? He would have inherited the estate and the title in 1950, assuming Eddy’s drinking and wood chopping had continued apace. It’s tempting, however, to wonder if Eddy would have been as dedicated to drink as he was had he not lost Billy and Kick. This happy turn of events would have enabled the family to hang onto many of the real estate and art treasures that had to be sold to pay death duties on the estate, which leads us down even more alternative paths.
In any case, Billy and Kick would have already started a family by 1950. Jack and Jacqueline Bouvier, married in 1953, would have been frequent guests through the 1950s, as Jack was a dedicated Anglophile, and as his political career blossomed, Congressman Kennedy, then Senator Kennedy, and eventually President Kennedy and his growing family would have likely had a suite waiting for them at Chatsworth. Once there was a president in the family, surely Uncle Harold would have been invited to these high-powered family gatherings. David Ormsby-Gore would have completed the picture. Chatsworth would have become the political, social and style centre of England. It would have served as a retreat for presidents and prime ministers and a backdrop for important summits. Perhaps Jack, infamous playboy that he was, would have found a way to stash a mistress there periodically (though I suspect he would have had to accomplish this without Kick’s overt co-operation).
Of course, in this alternative universe, it would still be the grand country house it is in reality, but in addition, it would be in the international spotlight as the impossibly beautiful home where the English aristocracy, with all its wealth and tradition, mingled with American power and youthful glamour. It would have been Camelot, brought back home to England.
The Jet Age is the perfect backdrop for this imagined scenario. Travel between Washington, D.C. and England was suddenly quite fast, though still very expensive – not a problem for the Kennedys or the Devonshires, of course. With a young, beautiful monarch on the throne; a handsome duke and his fetching, charming wife at Chatsworth; a prominent Kennedy on either side of the Atlantic and the easy availability of international airports, it’s difficult to imagine how the Kennedys and the Devonshires wouldn’t have turned Chatsworth into a hub of international intrigue, and the very centre of everything fashionable and modern. On the other side of the Atlantic, imagine the media coverage of Kick, Billy and their children playing American football at the famous Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port. Already a regular fixation of the US media, the addition of English nobility would perhaps have been more than the American public could bear.
Debo, of course, wouldn’t be duchess in this alternative universe, and that would be a loss. Andrew would have lived the life of a second son; making his way in business, or law, or perhaps taking up residence at Lismore Castle, which Andrew inherited in 1947. (Adele Astaire, presumably, would still have been a frequent guest.) But surely Debo and Kick would have remained close friends, since Kick would surely have admired Debo’s flair for business and entertaining, and would have found her fascinating and scandalous family an irresistible diversion. Debo and Andrew would have frequented the power gatherings at Chatsworth, different as it may have been from the Chatsworth they oversaw in the real world during this period.
One of the enormous challenges Debo and Andrew faced, of course, was paying off the death duties on the estate after the death of Edward Cavendish in 1950. Had Billy and Kick been the Duke and Duchess instead, perhaps some of Joe Kennedy’s millions would have been available to preserve more of the assets than Debo and Andrew were able to. What effect would that have had in England? Joe didn’t distinguish himself as ambassador, after all, as exciting as his family might have been to the English public. And what would Nancy have thought? New, American money invested in Chatsworth? It is a dreadful prospect, do admit.
And then there’s the children. Kick’s American children would have been part of the English aristocracy. Of course, English aristocrats were fond of marrying American socialites and heiresses, so this wasn’t an uncommon turn of events. But Kick’s great-grandparents, Patrick and Bridget Kennedy, were working-class Irish immigrants to the United States, and had she lived, one of Kick’s children would have been in line to inherit one of the most valuable estates in England, along with a prestigious title. It’s heady stuff. As baffled as the immigrant Kennedys would have been by their descendants’ rise to such monetary and political success, surely being part of the English nobility would have been the second least believable part, right behind their great-grandson being the US president. And, of course, this means that Jack and Jackie Kennedy’s children would be nearly as tied to England as their cousins, with an English duke for an uncle and a vast estate from which to base their foreign travels and social lives.
I like to imagine Kick and Billy, by then in middle age, smoking cigarettes on the South Portico of the White House, along with Jack, Jackie, Andrew, Debo and perhaps Bobby or Teddy, kings and queens of the 1960s landscape. It’s true, Chatsworth would likely have lost some of its essential Englishness had Billy and Kick lived, but imagining these two powerful, famous families jetting between our two countries, enjoying a shooting party in Scotland in September, a reception in the Rose Garden in May, and sailing off the New England coast all summer, almost makes up for the loss of Debo’s remarkable transformation of Chatsworth. Almost – but not quite.
Kim lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband, cats and dog. A friend of hers in Scotland recently had her piano tuned by Decca’s son, a fact which gives her enormous pleasure.
Originally published in The Mitford Society Vol IV