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Robert F Kennedy was born today 20th November. Read about the tragedy of the Kennedy sister who became a marchioness – Mark McGinness

Blog | By Mark McGinness | Nov 20, 2023

Kick Kennedy (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

Today is Robert F Kennedy's birthday. Were the Kennedys doomed? Read here about Kathleen...

75 years to the day of her tragic death, the brief life of Kathleen Kennedy (always Kick) could have come from the pen of Henry James, Shakespeare or Wagner. An American heiress transplanted to the Old World, finding herself surrounded by aristocratic suitors; a blossoming romance in the face of dynastic disapproval; an illicit passion doomed to end in tragedy.

The Kennedy story is a familiar one. Joe Kennedy and his wife Rose Fitzgerald, great-grandson and granddaughter of Irish immigrants who settled and prospered in Boston. Rose’s father, John (Honey Fitz) Fitzgerald, once took Rose and her sister Agnes to the White House to visit William McKinley. After he said to Agnes, ‘You're the prettiest girl who has entered the House’, Rose resolved she had to be something special.

Honey Fitz’s prosperity was insufficient for Rose to break through sectarian Boston and so while she did not attend Wellesley, she was finished in Europe.

In 1914, after a seven-year courtship she overcame her father’s resistance and wed Joe Kennedy, a charismatic man even more driven than he.

As the irrepressible all-knowing Alastair Forbes, a Back Bay Brahmin himself, observed in his Spectator review of an early biography, Lynne McTaggart’s Kathleen Kennedy: The Untold Story of Jack Kennedy's Favourite Sister (1983)

“.....the apartheid practised in Boston, Mass, where the Kennedy parents were both born and brought up, was a standing affront not only to America's vaunted egalitarianism but to the Constitution itself. There the Catholic Irish lived, at any rate until lately, in a parallel world, subdivided into 'lace-curtain and shanty'..... There was no snobbery quite like the Yankee snobbery of Back Bay Boston, where even Astors and Vanderbilts could sometimes be dismissed as mere 'summer people' one only deigned to meet at Newport's Bailey Beach.”

As a mother, Rose apparently modelled herself on the steely Marmee from her favourite book, Little Women, bringing up her brood with an emphasis on religion, education and healthy living. But as The Times’s Ben McIntyre saw it, “This was not so much a family as a project, an industry, a public political enterprise turning out a series of overachieving paragons with significant but well-hidden character flaws.”

Between 1915 and 1932, Rose produced nine children as Joe amassed a string of lovers and an enormous fortune. Who better to appoint as the first chair of the SEC? In 1938, FDR made him US Ambassador to Britain.

When Joe arrived, with his family, in London on St Patrick’s Day, 1938, as the US Ambassador to the Court of St James's, the first Catholic to hold the post, Life magazine declared that the United Kingdom had got ‘eleven ambassadors for the price of one’.

In May 1938 Kick was presented to the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace. The following year the entire family attended the coronation of Pope Pius XII.

Toothsome, tanned and slim, these escapees from sectarian Boston soon conquered Britain, particularly the Golden Trio: Joe Junior, Jack and Kick – but especially Kick whose unaffected, life-enhancing spirit enchanted the scions of noble strongholds from the Cecils at Hatfield House and the Cavendishes at Hardwick Hall, to the Astors at Cliveden and the Ogilvys at Cortachy Castle.

As a guest at Hatfield, after being confronted on her first night with an apple-pie bed (which Anthony Eden helped her unravel), she discovered the next night that all of her left shoes had vanished. (Her host, Robert Cecil, had hidden them) So Kick simply limped downstairs to dinner in two right shoes - one black, one white – and when asked about her limp said, “Oh, Robert broke my leg before dinner”.

Kick was not untravelled and had spent a year at convent in Neuilly-sur-Seine and holidayed in Europe. But Kick lacked the classic aristocratic beauty of the Mitfords, the Churchills, and the Pagets. She was not quite 5 feet, 3 inches, with high-set shoulders, a short neck, and mousy brown almost frizzy hair and not much dress sense.

But she was so alive, so original, so herself. Who else would call the Duke of Marlborough “Dukie Wookie”? Joe Senior once said of her, “All my ducks are swans ... but Kick was especially special.”

She soon captured the heart of Billy Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington, model heir to the 10th Duke of Devonshire. But Eddy Devonshire was as fiercely opposed to a Catholic daughter-in-law as Rose was to a Protestant son-in-law.

Ironically Kick’s popularity increased as her father’s fell. He sent her back to the U.S. in 1939. Even though ‘Kennedys don’t cry’, she wept. His attitude of appeasement towards Hitler led to his resignation and return home a year later. “He just doesn’t understand the English like I do,” an embarrassed Kick told Billy.

In 1943, she managed to return to London with the Red Cross.

Rose, a strict and distant mother, is always cast as the worst sort of Catholic – doctrinaire, divisive, and blinkered. Yet she was simply reflecting the unbending stance of the Church hierarchy as it was. Mass-going Kick, as chaste as her brothers were wanton, would not renounce her Faith, nor would Billy; so, on 6 May 1944, instead of the gothic glories of Westminster Abbey, or indeed the byzantine wonders of Westminster Cathedral, their wedding, after four long years, was a ten-minute ceremony in redbrick Chelsea Town Hall. While Billy’s parents were present and the Duke of Rutland his best man, Kick only had Joe Junior as a witness.

Rose took herself to hospital with a nervous collapse. Evelyn Waugh, one of her admirers from a wider circle, warned her she would go to hell (using her plight for Julia Flyte falling in love with Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited.

Married bliss was brief – they had just five weeks together – before Billy re-joined the Coldstream in France. On 9 September 1944, only weeks after Joe Junior was killed, Billy, wearing a bright white mackintosh and beige corduroy trousers, called to his men “Come on, you fellows, buck up!” was shot in the heart during the battle for Belgium.

Billy’s mother, ‘Moucher’, Duchess of Devonshire (and the aunt of Kick’s Hatfield host), sent Kick a letter, “All your life I shall love you — not only for yourself, but that you gave such perfect happiness to my son, whom I loved above anything in the world.”

With her life as a duchess and chatelaine of Chatsworth House snatched from her, Kick now shared the title Marchioness of Hartington with her friend, Deborah Mitford Cavendish (the wife of Andrew, Billy’s younger brother, and as Marquess of Hartington, the new heir). She chose not to return home but sought the sort of role in British life she might have had; establishing a conservative salon in a townhouse just behind the Houses of Parliament. Evelyn Waugh jested that she was in love with him. As Kennedy scholar, Barbara Leaming, put it in her biography Kick Kennedy: The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of the Favorite Kennedy Daughter (2016), ‘Waugh was partly right. Kick had fallen in love – with the world of Westminster.’

But soon the Real Thing hit her in the dashing, dangerous form of Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, 8th Earl Fitzwilliam, the immensely rich owner of Wentworth Woodhouse, the largest house in England. Kick compared him to Rhett Butler but as one friend put it, “He was not a bit Kick”. A hard-drinking, gambling roué, he was such a different beast to Billy Hartington as Catherine Bailey’s biography Black Diamonds (2007) portrays so vividly. Yet the same dilemma faced her; but more so - as Kick’s earl was not only Protestant but married.

If her union with Billy had a touch of Romeo and Juliet about it; this one was more like Tristan and Isolde. When Kick told her parents of her decision to marry Fitzwilliam, Rose frantically sought to prevent it. Hoping to sway her beloved father, Kick set off, with Fitzwilliam, to France to meet Joe. Fitzwilliam recklessly ignored weather advice (not unlike Kick’s nephew John Junior half a century later) and their de Havilland crashed into a mountainside in Ardèche, killing all four. Kick was 28.

Ali Forbes speculated that in the half-hour that the plane was buffeted, the devout Joe Junior “would have known that between the fatal thunderstorm and the ground, she absolution sought and absolution found.”

Ali recalled Kick’s funeral in London, “I can still see the stricken face of old Joe Kennedy, as he stood alone, unloved and despised, behind the coffin of his daughter amid the hundreds of British friends who had adored her and now mourned her...” Her old friend Debo described Joe Kennedy standing there by the grave, “... this man in this crumbled navy blue suit, and he was as crumbled as the suit was."

Some of Kick's friends criticised Rose for issuing a Mass card to pray for Kick's soul in purgatory. But in reviewing McTaggart’s biography, Elizabeth Longford defended this as “a common Catholic practice and does not imply that Mrs. Kennedy regarded her daughter so exceptionally sinful. I also had a Mass card printed, with quotations from the Purgatorio, when a daughter was accidentally killed.”

Instead, the Cavendishes claimed her in death and her wonderful mother-in-law bestowed on her the epitaph, ‘Joy she gave. Joy she has found’.