The Kennedy sister that time forgot
Biography: Kick: The True Story of JFK's Forgotten Sister, Paula Byrne, William Collins, hdbk, 352 pages, €26.50
A fascinating portrait of JFK's favourite sibling who was drawn by love to the world of the aristocracy, writes our reviewer.
Chatsworth House is a lavish stately manor in Derbyshire, set in 35,000 acres of gardens and woodlands. Since the time of Cromwell, it has remained the home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. And in the family's burial ground there stands a small, plain gravestone marking the grave of - simply - "Kathleen". No surname. The dates are 1920-1948. It says she's the widow of the Marquess of Hartington and the daughter of the Hon Joseph Kennedy. At the base of the gravestone is inscribed: "Joy she gave, joy she has found". It was erected by her beloved mother-in-law, the Duchess of Devonshire.
Kathleen Kennedy, the forgotten sister of JFK, was better known to the world at large as Kick. And she was very well known indeed. The second daughter of the cursed Kennedy dynasty, Kick was a transatlantic socialite, journalist, Red Cross volunteer and JFK's favourite sister. Her wide circle of friends included - to name just a few - Evelyn Waugh, Winston Churchill, the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, George Bernard Shaw and Adele Astaire (sister of Fred, and chatelaine of Lismore Castle in Waterford).
The Kennedy sister, who was as feted and well-loved as her brother Jack subsequently was, has been all but erased from history. Paula Byrne's excellent and exhaustive biography seeks to provide answers to the obvious question: why? And like most matters where family is involved, the explanation is complicated.
Kick was born the fourth child of nine Kennedy children, and by the time Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy was expecting her, she knew her marriage to be a sham. Her father, "Honey" Fitzgerald had disapproved of the marriage from the start, opining that Joe Kennedy was a player and far too fond of the girls. He was proven right.
Marriage did nothing to cool Joe Kennedy's heels when it came to chasing women. Rose Kennedy left Joe while pregnant with Kick, but soon returned home. She already had a baby daughter with mild intellectual disability and her son Jack was prone to prolonged spells of sickness. In the 1920s, things were very different for wives, even for wealthy young heiresses like Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. A miserable marriage was to be endured cheerfully, according to the teaching of her beloved Catholic church. And Rose was a devout, zealous - some might say rabid - Catholic.
Five children were to follow Kick, despite Joe having affairs with countless actresses (his weakness), including Gloria Swanson and later Marlene Dietrich. His fast and varied love life was the talk of Boston and New York, but didn't stop him climbing the greasy pole of politics after a career in Hollywood film production.
Kennedy was so vastly wealthy he remained untouched by the Great Depression. A committed Democrat, he backed Roosevelt in his presidential campaign and was rewarded with the position of American Ambassador to the UK. The Kennedy children were to grow up on both sides of the Atlantic, as comfortable in London as they were in the US. The friendships formed in Great Britain, and the circles they moved in, were to influence almost all of the Kennedy children in the future.
London loved Kick Kennedy every bit as much as New York, Boston and Washington DC did. She was smart, funny, confident and although not a raving beauty, she was considered by all of her prospective suitors (dozens and dozens of them) to be "sexy".
Despite such a reputation, Kick was in fact a good Catholic girl, heavily influenced by her mother's piety. But she was much closer to her father and often entreated him to persuade Rose to stop interfering in her life. Although she respected her mother, she adored her father, along with her two older brothers, Joe Jr and Jack. She spent the years between 1938 and 1941 partying hard with "the beautiful people" and touring Europe, sometimes with her mother, staying in the best hotels.
Her father insisted that she get a job at the age of 21, and she returned to the US to join the staff of the Washington Times-Herald. She was keen to be just an ordinary worker, lived on a frugal wage, and for a while "… no one knew that she had been presented at court, dined with British royalty, dated the heir to Chatsworth, partied at Blenheim Palace". But she missed her life and her friends in London. She especially missed the heir to Chatsworth, Billy Cavendish, who was ultimately the reason she returned to England.
Billy's family was obviously Anglican and it was known his father hated Catholics. Kick was devoutly Catholic and still to a very large extent influenced - suffocated, even - by her mother. While neither family was overly concerned about their children dating each other, marriage was simply out of the question. And it is in the chronicling of these tough times for the young lovers that biographer Paula Byrne shows how thorough she has been in her research. She has left no stone unturned in drawing on a vast tranche of resources to reveal the anguish endured by both Kick and Billy. Both were children of their time, they couldn't turn their backs on their respective faiths.
But the couple eventually married in 1944, in a London registry office. Billy's parents were there. The only Kennedy present was Kick's brother, Joe Jr. The remainder of that year saw her endure two unimaginable tragedies that might have crushed a lesser spirit, but Kick was a Kennedy…
This absolutely enthralling biography is written by an expert hand, Paula Byrne, having already penned widely acclaimed bios of both Evelyn Waugh and Jane Austen.
Her narrative is deceptively easy and fluid, cleverly belying the enormous weight and variety of her resource materials. There is a hint of genuine affection here too; Byrne herself is of Irish Kennedy descent.
Here, she re-introduces Kick to the world, fresh and new and just as intriguing. Joe Kennedy Snr's poignant quote on the dust cover reads: "All my ducks were swans, but Kick was especially special."