'All my ducks are swans but Kick was especially special' - Kick: the long forgotten Kennedy sister
Kathleen Kennedy, known as Kick, was the favourite sister of JFK, and married the most eligible bachelor in England. She died young, and as a new biography reveals, was largely airbrushed from the Kennedy family history.
Published 09/05/2016 | 02:30
'All my ducks are swans, but Kick was especially special." So said Joe Kennedy of his daughter Kathleen, nicknamed Kick. Of course Joe would insist on the extraordinary nature of his children - the nine dazzling Kennedy kids were very much part of the myth and image he set about creating - but in this case, he had a point.
There was indeed something special about Kick, fourth child and second daughter. She, like 'Jack' (John F) whom she most resembled, was outgoing, funny, kind, energetic and bright, with an irresistible kind of easy charm. She wasn't the most beautiful of the Kennedy girls, or the most intellectual, but she had a kind of magnetism that made her widely adored. Photos show no arresting features or classical lines; all Kick's beauty was in her expression - the bright eyes and wide smile.
These days, she is probably the least-known of the Kennedys. She died in 1948, aged just 28, before her beloved 'Jack' became President, before his assassination and that of Bobby, before the sealing of the 'Kennedy Curse'. Because of the circumstances of her death - in a small private plane with her married lover, the Earl of Fitzwilliam, Kick was discreetly written out of the official Kennedy history. And yet, as Paula Byrne reveals in her book, Kick: The True Story of Kick Kennedy, JFK's Forgotten Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth, during her lifetime, she was for a time the most talked-about of them all, married to formerly the most eligible bachelor in England, heir to the Duke of Devonshire.
For her father, the ambitious, daring Joe Kennedy, Kick was exactly what a girl should be; competitive and fearless. Rose Kennedy, matriarch of the clan, wrote in her diary when Kick was three, that she was "a beautiful and enchanting child". The Kennedy children were brought up to excel, and to be highly conscious of the fact that they were Kennedys first, individuals second. Dressed identically - sailor suits for the boys, matching middy blouses and skirts for the girls - they were expected to behave perfectly. When they didn't, Rose doled out corporal punishment, spanking them with a ruler, or locking them in a cupboard.
What Rose didn't believe in was physical affection. She never hugged or cuddled the children. As a result, Kick would grow up to hold herself aloof to the point of repression, confiding in a male friend once that she feared she didn't have it in her to ever be intimate with a man. She was also confused about the sexual double-standards of the house. Although they were all devoutly Catholic, the women were expected to be chaste, while the men were deliberately, blatantly red-blooded; easy with the idea of passionate love affairs and even philandering - Joe Snr had a long affair with actress Gloria Swanson, and later with Marlene Dietrich. As Kick grew up, she was often embarrassed by her father's behaviour around her friends - he would insist they kiss him on the lips if they met in the evening, and, in the family's basement cinema, he was known to touch and pinch them.
As a father, Joe Snr was driven by his determination to put the family at the top of the social scene. The scale of his ambition was mighty, and the children were groomed from birth to play their part. "No crying in this house," was one of his rules from the time they were tiny. So much so that Kick and Jack invented a family motto: 'Kennedys never cry.' Later, when tragedy began to befall them, this motto would be sorely tested, but would hold firm. But Joe Snr was also capable of inspiring something close to hero worship, certainly in Kick.
Of her siblings, she was closest to Jack, followed by Joe Jnr, the eldest brother, and competed with them constantly, particularly in the endless round of summer activities - sailing, swimming, touch football, baseball - that the family engaged in at Hyannis Port, as well as the nightly sessions discussing and debating around the dinner table. All the Kennedys were expected to have views, but these three - Jack, Joe and Kick - were "the pick of the litter," as one friend later recalled, "the ones the old man thought would write the story of the next generation."
But for all her determination to hold her own, Kick was, crucially, a girl, not a boy, and was treated accordingly. While the boys were set on a course for Harvard, Kick, against her wishes, was sent to a Sacred Heart Convent in Connecticut when she was 13, and later, alone, to France for a year, to another convent, where she was often homesick, but where she showed her Kennedy colours by staying cheerful and refusing to complain. "I haven't seen any beautiful Kennedy faces for seven months - long, long time that," she wrote to little brother Bobby.
Kick was deeply religious, but also lively and keen to have a good time. Once back in America, she threw herself into hanging out in nightclubs and at parties. A friend of Jack's who first met her around that time, said "I think she probably had more sex appeal than any girl I've ever met in my life. She wasn't especially pretty, she just had this appeal."
It was an appeal that translated perfectly to pre-war London society, when the family moved in 1937, after Joe Snr was appointed British ambassador. The Kennedy family arrived in England on St Patrick's Day 1938 to a full-scale media storm. Deborah Mitford, sister of Nancy and later Duchess of Devonshire recalled, "when they arrived it caused a sensation". Life Magazine reported that Great Britain "got 11 ambassadors for the price of one".
London was the social pinnacle of Joe and Rose Kennedy's career. Shortly after arriving, they were invited to Windsor Castle for the night, to stay with King George VI and the Queen. Kick, too, found herself at the very heart of the aristocracy, and set about making friends with her usual verve. Instead of pretending she understood the complicated, often ridiculous, rules of English social life, Kick would simply ask, "Okay, so what do I do now?" Where her mother fussed over finger bowls and adopted an English accent, Kick remained her irreverent self. At one formal dinner party, she instigated a food fight by throwing a bread roll down the table, and soon had the entire room doing likewise. She was a good sport, putting up with being teased for her accent and mannerisms, and was well able to tease back. It worked. Her new friends, including Evelyn Waugh, adored her.
Kick had plenty of well-born boyfriends, but it was Billy Hartington, eldest son of the Duke of Devonshire, heir to estates in Ireland, Scotland, Yorkshire and Sussex, whom Kick fell for. Until then, she had mostly been attracted to men like her father and brothers - tough, obvious, highly competitive guys. Billy was nothing of the sort. Rather, he was the perfect kind of British aristocrat; charming, diffident, with beautiful manners and a strong but quiet sense of duty. Despite the fact that neither his friends nor hers could understand the attraction between them - her brothers felt he took himself too seriously - Billy was instantly smitten. But her Catholicism was a major problem. For the Kennedys, being Catholic was as much a part of their identity as ambition and perfect teeth. Billy, meanwhile, came from a long line of committed, active anti-Catholics. His father had even published a pamphlet giving out about Catholic girls marrying into the British aristocracy, and although Kick managed to charm him - he wrote after their first meeting (displaying his anti-Irishness as much as his anti-Catholicism), "she is very sharp, very witty and so sweet in every way. The Irish blood is evident, of course, and she is no great beauty, but her smile and her chatty enthusiasm are her salvation" - he didn't see much future in the romance: "I doubt, of course, she'd be any sort match for our Billy even if we managed to lure her out from under the papal shadow."
Amidst all the gaiety of social success came the growing certainty of another great war, and here Joe Snr showed himself entirely at odds with public sentiment in both the UK and America. He, like Chamberlain, was an appeaser and, it was widely believed, a coward. When war finally became inevitable, his first move was to rent a house outside London - to the scorn of his English friends - and then dispatch his family back to the States where they would be safer.
Kick begged to stay, but to no avail. In September 1939, they returned to New York. There, Kick's friends considered she had become too English, calling everyone 'darling'. She moved to Washington and got a job as a reporter with The Washington Times-Herald and began dating a fellow journalist, John White, although without much conviction it seems. "Listen," she once told him, "the thing about me you ought to know is that I'm like Jack - incapable of deep affection." She continued corresponding with Billy Cavendish, and looking for ways to return to London. Eventually, in 1943, she joined the American Red Cross as a volunteer, and went back to London and Billy. Reunited, she wrote to Jack that he was "just the same, a bit older, a bit more ducal but we get on as well as ever".
She also confided her fears about the insurmountable object in front of her - the very thorny issue of religion. There was no possibility that a future son of Billy's could be Catholic. Equally, for Kick, marrying an Anglican would have to take place in a registry office, and would have been no marriage at all in the eyes of the Catholic Church, but rather living in sin. Ultimately, Billy's parents proved more understanding than the Kennedys, particularly Rose - possibly because Billy, by then, was waiting to join the second front of the war, and they could see that only marriage to Kick would make him happy. "We've been so lucky so far it scares me," Kick wrote to her parents. That feeling - that luck might not hold - was what drove all of them.
Finally, Kick agreed to marry Billy, on his terms. Evelyn Waugh, a devout Catholic convert, was horrified, calling it a "mortal sin". Rose Kennedy was distraught. She described herself in her diaries as "horrified - heartbroken". She tried hard, by telegram, to change Kick's mind, and when that failed, checked herself into a Boston hospital in nervous collapse. The wedding took just 10 minutes, in Chelsea Registry Office. Kick's wedding ring was inscribed 'I love you more than anything in the world'. Afterwards, the newly-weds set off on a five-week honeymoon, marred by Rose's coldness, and the hate mail they received from people for whom the marriage was a dangerous precedent.
On their last night together, Kick wrote in her diary: "This is the saddest evening ever ... B is the most perfect husband." He rejoined his regiment and she returned to London, where nightly bombing raids made her very nervous. Two months later, Joe Jnr was killed when his plane exploded in mid-air, and Kick travelled back to Hyannis Port, where friends of the family were shocked to see the 'Kennedys don't cry' motto still held fast. Barely a month later, Billy was killed in combat. "So ends the story of Billy and Kick," she wrote in her diary that night. "Life is so cruel ... writing is impossible." She was just 24. She went back to work at the Red Cross. Without the impediment of her marriage, she was once again eligible to take Holy Communion. She also stayed close to Billy's parents. On one trip, two years after Billy's death, to the family's Irish estate, Lismore Castle in Waterford, she met Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, 8th Earl of Fitzwilliam.
Before his death, Billy wrote to Kick " ... if anything should happen to me ... I hope that you will marry again, quite soon - someone good & nice". He may not have had Peter in mind. A married man with a young daughter, Peter was handsome, dashing, dangerous; a decorated war hero, gambler and confirmed womaniser. Evelyn Waugh called him, affectionately, "king dandy and scum". A man in the mould of Kick's father and older brothers, and to Kick, irresistible.
To their friends, they made even less sense as a couple than Kick and Billy, with so little in common that one bewildered pal of Kick's eventually concluded: "I got the impression that he must have been a very good lover. It was the only way to explain it." Kick herself said, "I've found my Rhett Butler at last."
Peter planned to divorce his wife and marry Kick, something that horrified Rose. Marriage to a divorced man was something she couldn't contemplate. She threatened to disown Kick, cast her out of the family, and cut off her allowance. Joe Snr was more moderate, and agreed to meet Kick in Paris to discuss the situation. On May 13 1948, Peter and Kick set off in a private plane for Nice, where Peter wanted to look at a racehorse. They would stop in Paris, to refuel and for lunch with friends, meeting Joe on the return journey. That day, a storm was gathering over the Rhone valley, and the pilot planned a quick turnaround in Paris. But Peter and Kick didn't come back at the appointed time. When they did, Peter insisted on travelling on, even though all commercial flights had been cancelled. They hit the storm north of the Ardeche mountains, and crashed into a ridge. All four of those on board died. Kick was 28. Her father was the only member of the Kennedy family to attend her funeral at Chatsworth.
The Kennedys put out the story that Kick had been travelling with a chance acquaintance, to meet her father. Even in her memoir, Rose stuck to that, never admitting, even to close friends, the truth. Jack and Bobby vowed never to speak about Kick, and it was many years before Jack visited her grave.
Effectively she was airbrushed out of the official Kennedy history; the girl who had been at the centre of everything - vital, warm, funny - relegated to a corner because her life outgrew the strait-jacket of the family image.
Kick: The True Story of Kick Kennedy, JFK's Forgotten Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth by Paula Byrne is published on May 23 by William Collins, £20. Paula Byrne appears at Listowel Writers Week on June 3. www.writersweek.ie
Sunday Indo Living