Kick Kennedy


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’.


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.

Debo & JFK

ImageMark my words, I would not be surprised if that young man becomes President of the United States of America.
-Lady Redesdale, 1938

It was during the debutante season of 1938 that Debo first met the Kennedy family when Joseph Kennedy, was appointed United States ambassador to the United Kingdom. Lady Redesdale, like all of the aristocratic ladies, was intrigued by the this large, Irish-American family and she was ‘full of admiration for Mrs. [Rose] Kennedy who had easily outdone her in the childbearing line’. Debo danced with John F. Kennedy, known as ‘Jack’ at a ball given by Lady Louis Mountbatten for Sally Norton and she recorded her thoughts on the young man in her diary: ‘Rather boring but nice.’

Jack had quickly left her thoughts but from 1941 onwards Debo would form a life-long bond with the Kennedy family. Her brother-in-law Billy Cavendish, (heir to the Dukedom of Devonshire) married Jack’s sister, Kathleen, known as ‘Kick’. Both the Kennedy and the Cavendish family opposed the marriage between Billy and Kick due to their religious differences, the Kennedys more so given their staunch Catholic beliefs. They did indeed marry but their happiness was short-lived when Billy was killed in action. Kick remained close to the Cavendish family until her death in a plane crash in 1948.

Debo and Andrew kept in touch with the Kennedys and followed Jack’s political progress. They were guests of honour (invited by Jack) at his inauguration in 1961, Debo called it ‘Jack’s coronation’. When Jack became President, Andrew’s uncle, Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister and what began as a polite relationship based on past family ties and politics developed into a close friendship, especially between Debo and Jack. At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Jack would telephone Debo often at 3am to ask after ‘Uncle’ Harold (he, too, adopted this term of endearment), reminisce about old times when Kick was alive or simply just to have a general chit chat. Andrew, impressed by Jack’s popularity, especially with the ladies, quipped: ‘Kennedy is doing for sex what Eisenhower did for golf.’

Nicknames were popular in the Mitford family and Jack was no exception, Debo quickly nicknamed him Loved One after he telephoned her on the 4th of July to ask, ‘Have you got all of your loved ones around you?’ Nancy was more brutal – she nicknamed him Fat Friend. ‘It’s a pity you don’t like Americans. You would worship the body of the President, that’s all,’ Debo wrote to Nancy. Despite Nancy’s lack of enthusiasm, Debo was ardent in her admiration for the president. Her Christmas present to him was a framed photograph of herself ‘surrounded by protestant clergymen’ and some silver footman’s buttons he had admired covered in crowns and snakes. Jack was fascinated by Chatsworth and he surprised everyone, Debo, Andrew and staff alike, when he announced he was dropping by.

As Debo learned, there was nothing casual about Jack’s visit. The Secret Service telephoned Debo in advance to inquire what type of village Edensor was. ‘Well quiet sort of people,’ Debo responded and her claim was backed up when an elderly local appeared on his doorstep with two crutches. The president’s helicopter landed in Edensor, causing a fanfare of havoc in the sleepy village. Jack wanted to visit Chatsworth House but his advisers warned against it; the place had not been vetted by his security officers, but he did not listen. He piled into a car with Debo and Andrew and as they set off towards the ‘big house’ Jack chatted enthusiastically about the helicopter, ‘It’s even got a bathroom!’ he said.
‘A bathroom? What on earth for?’ Debo asked. ‘You possibly couldn’t need a bath on that short trip.’ What he meant, Debo realised, was that it had a lavatory.
The following day after Jack’s whirlwind visit, Debo bumped into a local villager. ‘Wasn’t it exciting to see the President?’ she said, still on a high.
‘I didn’t think so,’ the villager responded. ‘That helicopter blew my hens away. I haven’t seen them since.’

Debo and Andrew were in London on November 22 1963 when they heard the news of Jack’s assassination on the wireless. Andrew had to make an after dinner speech but admitted, ‘Whatever I was saying was of no consequence since our minds were elsewhere.’ Debo, like the rest of the world, was stunned. Letters from Pam, Diana and Decca are a testament to Debo’s friendship with Jack, each wrote to express their sympathies…

‘You will be so terribly upset at the ghastly tragedy of Mr. Kennedy’s death. He was the only person who was honestly making for world peace and was making real progress in that direction.’- Pamela

‘Don’t be too sad…he had a wonderful life and a quick death.’- Diana

‘I can’t describe the feeling of utter horror at what has happened.’ –Decca

Debo and Andrew flew to Washington to pay their respects and to attend the funeral. Prince Phillip was also in attendance, representing the Royal family, and the three travelled together on an empty jet. Nobody could believe what had happened and Debo who was no stranger to tragedy, felt the immense grief of Jack’s untimely death, no other death, she said, would affect her in the same way. ‘You never saw such crumpled miserable faces. I never want to see such a thing again,’ she wrote. ‘Jackie looked tragic, with tears glistening on her veil, and Rose so very pathetic. The Kennedys are so good when things are going well but they are not equipped for tragedy.’