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Kathleen Kennedy: JFK's forgotten sister who was cast out from Camelot

Kathleen Kennedy, known as Kick, was the favourite sister of President JFK, and married the most eligible bachelor in England. She tragically died young and, as a new biography reveals, was then largely airbrushed from the famous family's history, writes Emily Hourican

Published 14/05/2016

CLOSE BOND: Kathleen with her brother John F. Kennedy at Palm
Beach, Florida
CLOSE BOND: Kathleen with her brother John F. Kennedy at Palm Beach, Florida

Joe Kennedy reserved special praise for his daughter Kathleen, nicknamed Kick. "All my ducks are swans, but Kick was especially special," he said. 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), was outgoing, funny, kind, energetic and bright, with an irresistible, easy charm. She wasn't the most beautiful of the Kennedy girls, or the most intellectual, but she had magnetism.

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 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 were expected to behave perfectly. When they didn't, Rose doled out corporal punishment.

Rose never hugged 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 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 embarrassed by her father's behaviour around her friends - he'd 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 them.

As a father, Joe Snr was driven by his determination to put the family at the top of the social scene, but he 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 sailing, swimming, touch football and baseball that the family engaged in at Hyannis Port, as well as the nightly sessions debating around the dinner table. All the Kennedys were expected to have views, but these three - Jack, Joe and Kick - as one friend later recalled, "were the ones the old man thought would write the story of the next generation".

For all her determination to hold her own, Kick was a girl 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 refused to complain. Kick was deeply religious, but 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."

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. 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.

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. 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. Billy was the perfect kind of British aristocrat; charming, diffident, with beautiful manners and a strong but quiet sense of duty. Despite the fact that their friends could not understand the attraction between them - her brothers felt he took himself too seriously - Billy was smitten.

However, 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 didn't see much future in the romance.

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. I doubt, of course, she'd be any sort of match for our Billy even if we managed to lure her out from under the papal shadow."

As another world war loomed, Joe Snr showed himself 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 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. 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. She continued corresponding with Billy Cavendish. 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 - 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.

Finally, Kick agreed to marry Billy, on his terms. Rose Kennedy was distraught and 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 newlyweds set off on a five-week honeymoon, marred by Rose's coldness.

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 war hero, gambler and confirmed womaniser. A man in the mould of Kick's father and older brothers, and, to Kick, irresistible.

Peter planned to divorce his wife and marry Kick, something that horrified Rose. She threatened to disown Kick and cut off her allowance. Joe Snr 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 relegated to a corner because her life outgrew the straitjacket 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. See writersweek.ie

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