Kick Kennedy-Part Two

[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.

51nnMxLVJcL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

 

Kick Kennedy

Image

I’ve been invited on to BBC Radio Sheffield to chat about the Kennedys and their connection to the Cavendish family. Of course, the connection began with Kick, who in 1938, moved to London when her father accepted the post of United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. I suppose the Kennedys had a lot in common with the Mitfords. Each came from a large family where the siblings possessed star quality, the press were intrigued by their shenanigans, an element of scandal lurked in the background and each family was plagued by tragedy.

Kick and Debo met when they both were presented at Court in 1938. A few months later Kick caught the eye of William Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington (known as Billy), and heir to the Dukedom of Devonshire. Similarly, Debo met Andrew, the Duke’s second son, at a supper party. Soon they became a foursome, attending parties and society events in and around London. Billy and Kick wanted to marry but their pending engagement was not greeted enthusiastically by their parents, mostly the Kennedys who were staunch Catholics. Likewise, Billy’s parents – the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire – were not thrilled at the family establishment welcoming a Catholic. Given that Billy was his father’s heir, his choice of wife was important. What if Kick convinced Billy to convert? What if their first born son was a Catholic? A Catholic Duke, it was enough to dismantle the entire family. Luckily for the young couple meetings were held with both of their churches and an agreement was made: any sons born to Kick and Billy would be brought up in the Church of England and any daughters would be raised Catholic. This, in a way, solved the Catholic ‘problem’.

Image

The worries over religion seemed wasted, for a few months after their marriage Billy was killed in action. Ironically, the Cavendish family came to love Kick and given that her own mother, Rose, had more or less disowned her because of her marriage to Billy, they became the only family she knew. After the war Kick fell in love with a married man, Peter Fitzwilliam, the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam. If a protestant son-in-law shocked Rose, a married protestant man outraged her. Kick and Peter were flying to Cannes when their small aircraft crashed into the side of a mountain, both were killed instantly. Rose, still unforgiving, apparently said upon receiving the news of Kick’s death: ‘God saw what was going on and pointed and said NO!’

In her 28 years Kick made quite an impact on London society and over 500 mourners attended her funeral. The Cavendish family arranged the burial and interned Kick’s body in the family plot in the churchyard of Edensor village.

Following the death of Kick the Cavendish family still kept in touch with the Kennedys. Shortly after the funeral, Bobby Kennedy stayed at Edensor with Debo and Andrew and amused Debo by wearing shorts and socks, she thought Bobby socks had been named after him. JFK was sympathetic to Kick’s plight with Rose and he formed a close bond with her. In 1961 he invited Debo and Andrew to his presidential inauguration. In 1963 he visited Kick’s grave for the first time (I go into detail about this in my previous blog).

Though Kick was not considered beautiful she possessed star quality, she was lively, bright, charming and full of life. As Debo attests, all of these radiant qualities shine through in her photographs. Kick’s love for life only made her untimely death all the more tragic.