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 Old Vicarage: Debo’s Closing Act in Edensor Village by Andrew Budgell

Extracted from The Mitford Society Vol. II

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On the 3rd of May 2004, Andrew Cavendish, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, died following a protracted decline leaving his wife Deborah with a new title, the Dowager Duchess, and in need of a new home – but not just at once. Deborah remained at Chatsworth for a year-and-a-half following her husband’s death, but, as she wrote in her 2010 memoir, Wait for Me!: “The passages began to seem long and the stairs steep. It was time to move, to make way for the next generation.”

The Dowager Duchess wouldn’t be moving far to her dower house. Over the hill from Chatsworth about a mile lies Edensor, an idyllic English village. Deborah was no stranger to the village, having lived there from 1946-1959, before moving to Chatsworth. In December 2005 Deborah would take up residence in the Old Vicarage, an attractive fourteen room, eight bedroom stone building with parts dating back to the 18th century. “The house… has no architectural merit,” Deborah admitted, “but its atmosphere makes it a happy place – the influence, I believe of the devout men who occupied it for two hundred years.” It required extensive renovations before Deborah could move in, and on this endeavour she was assisted by her friend, the illustrious interior designer David Mlinaric, whose clients have included Lord Rothschild and Mick Jagger, and such venerable London institutions as the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria & Albert museum. He assisted her in seamlessly transforming the vicarage into a home fit for a 21st century duchess, and in placing “electric points, light switches, baths and so on”.

Much of the interior decoration, however, was left up to Deborah herself, who saw in her “mind’s eye” precisely what she wanted and was no stranger to outfitting homes of any size. Many might find it difficult to downsize from Chatsworth, one of the grandest of England’s stately homes, into what one might call a rabbit hutch, but not Deborah. In fact, she would take the design principles she learned there and apply them to the Old Vicarage. “One thing I learned from Chatsworth was what a good finish a fillet gives round the cornice, the doorcases, and skirting,” the Dowager Duchess told The World of Interiors magazine. This was employed in the soft pink drawing room, where Deborah would receive journalists, friends and family. An inviting floral covered sofa faced the fireplace, and before it was an upholstered ottoman, its surface home to books waiting to be dipped into. Flanking either side of the fireplace were baskets overflowing with firewood, a necessity during the bleak Derbyshire winters. Bric-à-brac covered the chimneypiece; everything from urns to framed personal family photos. The Dowager Duchess’s desk was placed in front of the window, affording her views of the garden. The dining room was informal, with a painting of a flower with a vibrant royal blue background, at home with more formal portraits on the adjacent wall. In her bedroom the bed sheets were stained with ink, a side-effect of her penchant for early morning writing in bed. Irreverent as ever, the wall colour of the guest bathroom, a cerulean blue, was inspired by a plastic bracelet she had worn during a recent hospital stay.

Her son and daughter-in-law graciously allowed her to pilfer pieces of furniture and artwork from Chatsworth in order to make her new home feel familiar, including White Tulips, a still life by William Nicholson. But Deborah had a formidable personal collection of her own. A painting of eggs in a basket by Lucien Freud, an old friend, was given pride of place. (Deborah always brought along a basket of eggs when she visited the painter in London.)

The Dowager Duchess’s family and friends quickly felt at home at the Old Vic, as Deborah referred to her new home. “It was always incredibly exciting, going to Chatsworth,” her granddaughter, the famed model Stella Tennant told Vogue in 2010, but added that the vicarage was less intimidating “because there aren’t so many precious things about”. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including Tennant’s brood, were given the run of the place. “[T]he lift is great fun. She also had one of those chairs that tipped you out; it was quite useful because so many old people come to stay, but the children broke it. She’s very tolerant of all of us rampaging about.”

Edensor, the Dowager Duchess wrote, is decidedly not “sleepy” and “is as animated as the cross-section of people who live in it.” Family was at her doorstep: Deborah’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth, was just steps away “at the top of the village”. Edensor, which is pronounced ‘Enza’, is a pastiche of architectural styles. It was rebuilt from 1840-1842 by the 6th Duke of Devonshire and the gardener and architect, Joseph Paxton. (Paxton, who designed the Great Stove at Chatsworth, a marvel of engineering and design, would go on to design the building that was dubbed the Crystal Palace, which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, London.) The village was originally situated near the River Derwent immediately below Chatsworth, but was moved out of sight. In the heart of the village is St Peter’s Church. It was enlarged by Sir George Gilbert Scott for the 7th Duke of Devonshire in the 1860s, and contains a memorial to Henry and William Cavendish, the sons of Bess of Hardwick. The churchyard is the final resting place of most of the Dukes of Devonshire, Joseph Paxton, John F. Kennedy’s sister, Kathleen (Deborah’s sister-in-law), and Deborah’s three children who were stillborn or died at birth.

Several years after relocating to Edensor, the Dowager Duchess received unwanted attention from an elderly man whom she had met during a walk in the village in November 2010. She was forced to obtain a restraining order when he continued to make communication, even going so far as to propose marriage.

But with that small exception, the Dowager Duchess’s relations with the public in Edensor were just as harmonious as they were during her forty-six years spent at Chatsworth. Until recently when her health began to fail her, each year on Edensor Day, the village’s annual fete, Deborah would throw open the doors of the Old Vicarage and for £5 would allow the public to come take a peek inside (with monies benefiting the village in some way, such as a new roof for the church). Deborah would act as tour guide and show guests around her home – nothing was off limits – and was tickled by what the public found interesting. “What people love is the shoe cupboards and the lavatories and all that. And sometimes they say, ‘You’re very brave to do this,’ and I say, ‘You’re very brave to come,’ because there’s always a queue. So funny.” But some visitors, expecting the grandeur of Chatsworth, were invariably left disappointed. “I came to see the chandeliers and all I found was Habitat [the UK home furnishings retailer],” one visitor said. “What is wrong with Habitat?” Deborah wondered.

Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire died on September 24th 2014. Luella Bartley, the great fashion designer and magazine editor, once said of Deborah that “when she goes so will a part of England”. In the event, her words proved prophetic, and upon her recent death the media and the Dowager Duchess’s countless admirers mourned not only the loss of a woman who embodied a gilded age, but one who made her life count. It was a life that was undoubtedly enhanced by her final decade spent at the Old Vicarage in the village of Edensor.

Andrew Budgell is a Managing Editor and Community Manager for a Toronto company. He has a passion for theatre, film, writing, music, books, travel and design, and spent much of 2013 living in London, fulfilling a lifelong dream. He received an Honours BA in English Rhetoric and Literature from the University of Waterloo in 2010 and established DameElizabethTaylor.com, a tribute to the legendary actress in 2002.

Memories of Debo by Barbara Leaming

New York Times bestselling author Barbara Leaming talks to The Mitford Society about the special friendship she shared with Debo. Her memories are as follows…

If you are very, very lucky, someone comes into your life out of nowhere and changes everything. Debo Devonshire did that for me. I certainly didn’t deserve her—no one could deserve someone quite that wonderful. Actually it was Andrew Devonshire who first invited me to Chatsworth and it was Andrew who gave me the first incredible gifts I was to receive—and the greatest of those gifts was Debo. I shall always remember Debo that first night: that night she was performing for Andrew as well as for me. Sixty years into their marriage, Andrew was a rapt audience. It was not difficult to see why—though to me, during that first dinner at least, Debo was very scary. That night, it was Andrew who was the gentle one, Debo the one with whom I was sure I could never dare relax. But it changed—not least because that first night I realized that one of Debo’s greatest qualities was that she was interested in everything, really everything. She wanted details; she wanted to know how things worked; she wanted to know EXACTLY what you meant when you said something—and not an iota of that interest was faked. And she would ask questions that no one else would dare to ask. Alone together upstairs in her sitting room late that first night, she made me pull up my trouser leg to see if I had the “great legs all American girls have.” I didn’t, but I did pull up the trousers—actually SHE pulled up the trouser leg. It was an extraordinary night—not least because I fell in love with both Andrew and Debo that night—and completely unexpectedly the seeds of a friendship were planted.

I’m so glad that I had the luck to see Debo with Andrew for no matter how much I was later to hear about the two of them from Debo herself and also from their family and friends, I would not have understood the complexity of that relationship had I not actually watched him watch her and her watch him.

I was in England then to research my biography of President John F. Kennedy. My husband and I had a flat on Eaton Place not far from Debo’s Chatsworth Shop on Elizabeth Street. The little shop was a very special place—pure Debo—and she loved it and was deeply involved with it. My husband used to buy all of his lunches there and I still giggle thinking about how I would come home to find David on the phone with Debo in intense discussion of the merits of her soups and especially detailed reports about the prices of an item she was selling versus the price of a similar item in a supermarket on King’s Road. When the Chatsworth Shop closed later, I had an urgent phone call from her cousin Jean, warning me that Debo was so upset that I must be careful not even to mention the closing for a time.

After Andrew died, by which time Debo and I had become friends—initially, I believe, because Andrew made sure it happened—and by which time we had other deep friendships in common, Debo did not draw back, but rather expanded the wings of her friendship.

She and Andrew had been indispensable to my research for my biography of President John F. Kennedy and to my understanding of the man and the world in which JFK lived. But for the book I wrote next, about Winston Churchill, Debo, now alone, went much further. First she listened to what I hoped to do with Churchill—and then she took charge. Debo never had to be asked to help. She just offered—no rather, she ACTED. Before I knew it, she had made up lists of people I must talk to about Churchill, including her cousin Mary Soames—and then moved on to make sure they talked to me—and then made sure that I asked the right questions. She wrote letters; she made calls; she went over ideas with me. It was endless and she was incredible.

Debo loved to give advice—especially about how to do things cheaply. I still laugh thinking about her voice on the phone the day I moved into the flat I’d rented in Mayfair to do Churchill research. Our flat was not far from the Beau Brummell house she still owned, and she was full of detailed instructions about where to go in Shepherd Market—but better, still, about what to do cheaply. Debo loved the idea of doing things cheaply. “Keep your hands in your pockets!”, as she put it.

When I went up to stay with Debo at Edensor, it was strange at first to think that Andrew was gone—or rather, that he was next door, as she reminded me—in St Peter’s churchyard. But she was so funny, so over the top about everything as usual. So welcoming. There was, I think, more emotion now that Andrew was gone—more sense of time passing. And always, more reminders not to waste a minute—to grab everything you can, while you can.

I can still hear her as we sat on the old-fashioned swing on the lawn in front of the vicarage talking about Andrew; talking about “the cousinhood”; talking about people that both of us knew—people she had somehow miraculously brought into my life—who were now gone. As she talked about all that she missed, suddenly the swing started moving faster because Debo also wanted to talk about the future. What she wanted to do next—and a reminder that I must not just be thinking about what I was doing now, but what came NEXT.

Debo and Andrew are also very much there in my new book on Jackie Kennedy [Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story]—all sorts of things they told me about the aftermath of the assassination—as well as about what was going on during the presidency. And I am going to return in detail to that world which they opened to me with unimaginable generosity in the book I am writing next. So much of what they shared with me has vanished now—but my mind is filled with images of that vanished world—a world that strangely enough has become part of my own future.

I can’t bear to think that there will never be another letter from Debo turning up in the post, that the phone will never ring again with her voice on the other end inviting me to stay with her in Edensor, that there will be no more long talks about the members of “The Set,” and, of course, that there will be no more books from her to treasure forever.

Everything about Debo had to do with life and what’s next, and for that reason it is just impossible to imagine she is not out there plotting some future project.

Barbara Leaming’s book Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story will be published in the UK on January 1st 2015. It is already available in the US.

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The Mitford Society Annual Vol. 2

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The Mitford Society’s second annual is now available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com as well as various retail outlets. This year’s edition features lots of exciting features, photographs and tributes to Debo from those who knew her and admired her.  I have included a complete list of contents below…
The Horror Sisters: A Mitford Tease by Meems Ellenberg & Lyndsy Spence

Evelyn Waugh & Diana Guinness by Lyndsy Spence

An American’s Conversion to U-Speak by Nathan Duncan

How Do U Do Social Qs? A Mitford Quiz by Meems Ellenberg

The Making of a Modern Duchess by Katherine Longhi

Cooking and Eating Like a Duchess by May Tatel-Scott

The Kennedys & The Devonshires: A Family Intwined in History by Michelle Morrisette

The Mitfords & Hitler by Jane Thynne

The Mitfords in Love by Georgina Tranter

Tilly Losch & The Mitfords by William Cross

Sheila Chisholm: An Ingenue’s Introduction to High Society by Lyndsy Spence

Reviving an Icon by Robert Wainwright

Decca Mitford: Rock Star by Terence Towles Canote

Doris Delevingne: The Constant Courtesan by Lyndsy Spence

The Asthall Poltergeist & High Society’s Fascination With the Unseen by Lyndsy Spence

Tales From the Archive by Lucinda Gosling

Nancy Mitford: A Celebration by Eleanor Doughty

Lady Ursula d’Abo: The Girl with the Widow’s Peak by Lyndsy Spence

Wolf for Two: A Wartime Dinner with Pamela Mitford & M.F.K Fisher by Kim Place-Gateau

Only Connect by Lee Galston

The Rodds in Italy by Chiara Martinelli & David Ronneburg

The Mitfords & The Country House by Evangeline Holland

The Old Vicarage: Debo’s Closing Act in Edensor Village by Andrew Budgell

Memories of Debo by Joseph Dumas

Tributes to Debo

– Emma Cannon

– Emma Gridley

– Robin Brunskill

– Stuart Clark

– Leslie Brodie

Guest Blog: The Mitford Girls by Dr. Peter Hancock

The Mitford Girls

 

The Mitford girls, the Mitford girls

Not enmeshed in jewels and pearls

But decked with jibes and witty barbs

And silly names like muvs and farves

 

In France a writer we behold

Mocking love in climates cold

Pursing love in all its verdure

Gaining nothing but its urdure

 

Quiet Pam of Betjeman fame

Never in the ‘Mitford game’

Woman of deep caudle green

Seldom heard and rurally scene

 

Goddess fair we drink to thee

Toasting thy canardary

Paramour of Mosley

Chaste and caught so furiously

 

Bobo oh! you Valkyrie

Hitler’s girl and Nazi bride

Searched for Nordic Unity

But failed to practice suicide

 

Tempestuous, red sheep, little D

Leaning socialistically

Lost a husband in the sea

Fought for us right civilly

 

Duchess Debo Darling D

Not as tall nobility

But doyenne of the orangery

She kept a house you can now see

 

Swinbrook is a pretti-place

Of past indulgence little trace

In Mitford graves without a fence

Lies natural ends to decadence

 

 

Professor Hancock is the author of over seven hundred refereed scientific articles and publications as well as writing and editing fifteen books including: Human Performance and Ergonomics in the Handbook of Perception and Cognition series, published by Academic Press in 1999. Stress, Workload, and Fatigue, published in 2001 by Lawrence Erlbaum and Performance under Stress published in 2008 by Ashgate. He is the author of the 1997 book, Essays on the Future of Human-Machine Systems and the 2009 text, Mind, Machine and Morality also from Ashgate Publishers.

The Duchess & The King

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‘He was very agile, wonderful movement, wonderful timing, and the best voice any of us ever heard.’
‘Was he sex on legs?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Was he sex on legs?’
‘I suppose he was…I suppose he was.’

– An exchange between a radio interviewer and Debo

Even though she lived through the 1950s when Elvis burst onto the music scene, Debo did not become an avid fan until the evening of her life. Had she been a fan during his prime she surely would have been arrested for stalking – her claim, not mine! In her own words Debo described her introduction to the King in an interview for BBC Woman’s Hour: ‘I switched on the television one day for no reason and there he was and I suddenly realised I was in the presence of a genius. Never having really noticed him when he was on the go. I just thought this was the most brilliant performer I have ever seen and that’s what I still think. In my long life I’ve seen many performances of many people but there’s nothing comes up to him. Nothing.’

Debo soon advanced from a casual listener to an avid collector. Her collection contains many pieces of rare memorabilia (a plank of wood said to be from the fence at Graceland) to mass produced souvenirs (tattoo transfers and postcards). ‘One thing leads to another and it became a sort of joke…’ Debo said. She, too, could see the irony in owning such a vast collection containing street signs, car registration numbers, sketches, books, CD’s, slippers and a telephone which played Jailhouse Rock. ‘People are surprised, but some people are easily surprised, aren’t they?’

And speaking of her pilgrimage to Graceland, Debo said: ‘It’s really very moving because you feel it was his real home and he really loved it but of course the other fascinating side, to me – I love seeing round strange places -was that it was probably the last really early fifties interior which has been left intact. There is his amazing chairs and tables and the huge old televisions and the carpet on the ceilings as well as on the floor. It’s just extraordinary!’

Debo’s favourite trinkets from her collection are a few ‘roughly made museum pieces’, such as an Elvis themed cook book entitled Are You Hungry Tonight? Some of the recipes, mind you, were disgusting as Debo discovered; although a few of them, she thought, ‘might be’ delicious. ‘But it’s what he liked,’ she carefully added. ‘Fried peanut butter and banana…’ Other collectables included a pair of earrings made in Mexico from Coca-Cola bottle tops; ‘The trouble is, I can’t wear them because my ears aren’t pierced.’ And a black Elvis mug which says ‘Elvis Lives’, when hot water is added a picture of Elvis manifests. ‘So Elvis does live. He really does,’ she said. During the interview Debo searched her fireplace for some familiar Elvis photographs. ‘Oh, that’s my grandfather! That’s no good,’ she said as her eyes scanned the clutter. She spied a photograph of Elvis dancing with a teddy bear. Let’s not even mention the Elvis printed wallpaper in her lavatory . . .

Her husband, Andrew the Duke of Devonshire, was not an Elvis fan but he understood Debo’s infatuation with the king of rock ‘n roll. ‘He’s your hero!’ he caterwauled on the BBC programme Debutantes. ‘He’s your hero!’ he repeated just in case the enthusiasm was lost on Debo. I should add this was the result of an exchange between the Duke and Duchess on people who possess star quality (Debo nominated Lester Piggot, Rita Hayworth, Winston Churchill and the man himself, Elvis).

The greatest experience in Debo’s quest for Elvis was a touring concert which visited London. Elvis appeared onstage via hologram and was surrounded by his original band, ‘Some of them were grey . . . some of them were fat,’ Debo described the ageing musicians. ‘But the atmosphere was incredible.’ Despite her love for his music, Debo had admitted that she cannot sing any of his songs. ‘No of course not!’ she protested when pressed to do so by an interviewer, ‘can you imagine! It’s an awful idea, no no.’  Debo, however, admitted that she loved to retire to her drawing room in the evening to blast Elvis music on her CD player. ‘Banging away,’ as she referred to it.

Her Favourite song? Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away. It was symbolic, Debo thought, because he had become ‘such a travesty’ compared to what he was when young. ‘Very sad,’ she said.

You can read more about the Mitford girls and their love of fandom in my book The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life.

Debo describes JFK’s funeral

Deborah to Nancy
4 December 1963

Get on
    Thanks v. much for yr letter. We had such a sad time in Washington. I was more or less alright in the church till all his friends came in and then all welled & it was floods all the way. You never saw such crumpled miserable faces. I never want to see such a thing again, but anyhow one never will as whoever dies whom I know can never make such an effect on so many kinds of people.
    I certainly was incredibly lucky to know him & I still can’t believe he’s dead, it’s impossible. We had such odd journeys out & back, if it hadn’t been for the great sadness of the reason for going I suppose it would have been rather fascinating, going out I had dinner with the D of Edinburgh & Mr Wilson (Harold Wilson), & Andrew was with the Homes, & coming back there was only the Homes & Mr Grimond (Joseph Grimond) & me & 150 empty seats behind. They all fetched up here because British Railways couldn’t get them any sleepers. Ha ha. They slept in the sheets put on for Princess Margaret & co. Ld Home said if he crept into bed very quietly and lay still no one would know they had been used.

    Haste as per.

    Much love, 9

Such a sad letter from Henderson (Decca). I do wish she had known J.K. They would have so screamed at each other.

(Extracted from Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley, pp. 404-405. No copyright infringement intended).