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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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.

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