Ellen Fitzpatrick is a professor of modern American history at the University of New Hampshire. Her most recent book is “The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency.”
By Paula Byrne
Harper. 342 pp. $29.99
By Barbara Leaming
Thomas Dunne. 292 pp. $27.99
This season brings us two books about Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, the vivacious younger sister of President John F. Kennedy who died tragically at the age of 28 in an airplane crash nearly seven decades ago. Unlike her famous brothers, John and Sens. Robert and Ted Kennedy, Kick pursued an existence largely removed from the national political stage. Nonetheless, her brief life has now attracted biographers Paula Byrne and Barbara Leaming, each of whom has been drawn to the pathos of a story involving youth, wealth, fame, soaring possibilities and wrenching heartbreak.
The particulars are well known to those who have followed the richly documented history of the Kennedy family. No startling revelations emerge from either of these new studies. However, in Byrne’s “Kick ” and Leaming’s “Kick Kennedy ,” readers unfamiliar with the tale will learn much about an extraordinarily appealing young Irish Catholic woman who in 1938, at age 18, accompanied her father to England, where he would serve as U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James. The ambassador, Joseph P. Kennedy, soon became a controversial and eventually reviled figure as he supported appeasement and declaimed the likely end of the British Empire.
Kick, Kennedy’s charismatic second daughter, on the other hand, quickly took a charmed circle of British aristocrats by storm. Leaming focuses her book on the world inhabited by Kick and these privileged young friends, drawing upon some interesting interviews with a few of the principals, including Andrew Cavendish, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, whose brother Billy married Kick. The memories of Kennedy’s contemporaries, which reach back half a century, bring to life Kick’s effervescence. One gets a keen sense of the energy she injected into the social gatherings and dazzling parties she regularly attended in London and in the English countryside. The romantic striving and intrigue among these young aristocrats, many of them cousins, are followed so closely in Leaming’s account that one might imagine something of great importance (to someone other than the couples) hinged on the outcome. But as the story unfolds, its power emerges from its historical moment. As war sweeps across Europe, the charmed circle is broken. Bombs rain down on England, the handsome young suitors depart for the front, the lavish country weekends come to an abrupt end, and soon World War II dominates the lives of these young men and women, as it did for so many who lived through the hellish conflagration.
Kick’s life is irrevocably changed as her affection for her British friends and the life she led among them leads her to return to England in June 1943. Her father had sent most of his family home to the United States in September 1939 when England declared war on Germany. Kick begged to stay, but her devoted father would not relent. Eventually she found a way to return as a volunteer for the American Red Cross, with her father ensuring that she would be posted to London. She resumed her romance with Billy Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington, future Duke of Devonshire and heir to Chatsworth, a splendid family estate in Derbyshire. The relationship flourished despite the couple’s seemingly insurmountable religious differences. Not only was she a Roman Catholic, his family was virulently anti-Catholic and would not countenance any arrangement that involved raising future children outside the Church of England.
Defying church and family, Kick married the Protestant nobleman, now a member of the Coldstream Guards, a venerable regiment of the British army, in May 1944, only five weeks before he returned to France. Her mother was devastated by her daughter’s decision, and neither Kennedy parent attended the wedding — the first among the Kennedy children. Kick’s oldest brother, Joe, a naval aviator stationed in England, was the only member of her family present.
A “summer of death” followed that spring as news came back from the front reporting one casualty after another among the seemingly invulnerable golden cohort of friends. In August, Kick’s brother Joe died when the plane he was piloting, laden with explosives, blew up shortly after taking off from England. A month later, Billy Hartington was killed in action in Belgium. At 24, the much-blessed daughter of Joseph P. Kennedy was a widow in her adopted country. She stood by as Billy’s brother Andrew and his wife, Deborah Mitford, the youngest of the remarkable six Mitford sisters, began to lead the life Kick had imagined would one day be hers. To the end of their days, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire remembered the young Kennedy girl as an “emblem of the world they’d lost” with the arrival of World War II.
Leaming and Byrne both recount in briefer terms Kick’s efforts to rebuild her life in London after Hartington’s death. She decided she would remain in England after the war, even as she followed with avid interest her brother Jack’s rise in American politics. In a poignant letter her young husband had written to her from France, Billy Hartington mused about all “I’ve got to look forward to if I come through this all right.” But he added that “if anything should happen to me I shall be wanting you to isolate our life together, to face its finish, and to start a new one as soon as you can. I hope that you will marry again, quite soon — someone good & nice.” Cherishing the letter and the permission it gave, Kennedy integrated the loss and, after a period of mourning, moved on.
She had no shortage of attractive suitors once she returned to society but chose a wealthy married man, Peter Fitzwilliam, with whom she began a secret affair. Nearly 10 years older and a rake by reputation, Fitzwilliam saw in the young widow, Leaming speculates, “a glittering trophy.” Byrne observes that Kick may have seen in him a “replica of her father.” Whatever the source of the attraction, she was smitten and agreed to marry Fitzwilliam when he freed himself from his wife. Despite recent history, she hoped to introduce Fitzwilliam to her father, who was then in Paris, in May 1948. It was not to be. As the couple made their way to Cannes, Fitzwilliam insisted that the pilot fly on, after a brief stopover to meet friends for lunch, despite inclement weather. The small aircraft ran into a ferocious storm. Kick, Fitzwilliam and the two-man crew all died in the subsequent crash.
Byrne’s biography offers a fuller portrait of Kick Kennedy, ranging as it does from her birth to her death. By the time she travels to London with her family in 1938, readers have a clear sense that she possessed the charm, wit and self-deprecating humor of her brother Jack. To some, the two seemed like twins. It is easy to understand how she came to captivate the young friends who would define her life in England. Leaming excels in providing a rich historical backdrop to Kick’s story, with descriptions of British society on the eve of World War II. Both authors draw heavily on secondary sources that have previously narrated this tale, though each taps useful archival material. Given the popularity of “Downton Abbey,” these books aim to satisfy, it appears, an apparently unending appetite for stories that recount the glories of English country estates and the aristocrats who presided over them in a bygone era.
But in the end, the tale is a tragedy, less unique to the storied Kennedy family, despite its many losses, than it is common to the burden borne by the World War II generation.