Bright Young Things: Kick Kennedy In London

Bright Young Things is our blog series of posts about historical personages that inspire us at Shell & Pine. The eras, houses, clothing, art and music of their time help us when we are sourcing our treasures.

 Joe & Rose Kennedy with five of their nine children at their home in London, 1938. Kick is on the left.

Joe & Rose Kennedy with five of their nine children at their home in London, 1938. Kick is on the left.

In 1938 the Kennedy's arrived in London like a bolt from the blue - this crowd of wholesome Americans, pushing their way into the rarified atmosphere of the cousinhood. Patriarch Joe Kennedy was the new US Ambassador to the Court of St. James's and he arrived on the job with his wife and nine children in tow. The British aristocracy had never seen anything like the Kennedy's - loud and fond of political debate, gregarious and full of laughter, so earnest and American and Catholic. Few could have predicted that their tenure in England would be witness to the end of a way of life for the British aristocracy and would also be the catalyst for the tragic end for the "favorite Kennedy daughter."

Kathleen Kennedy, universally known as Kick, wasn't the eldest daughter - that was Rosemary, but it was generally agreed that Rosemary wasn't up to the social obligations expected of an adult daughter of the Ambassador. Kick was 18 in 1938 - funny, laughing, charming and ready to jump feet first into the whirl of parties, dances and balls that was the London Season. She immediately began to charm her way into the groups of young aristocrats that the social scene centered upon - her open nature and frank way of speaking standing in sharp contrast to the reserved and often painfully shy British girls of that social strata. Unlike her English and Scottish peers, who were usually kept home at their family country seats until being thrown headlong into the marriage market of the Season, Kick had been raised in a swirl of her father's political and film-world partners, her older brother's school friends and her own experiences of convent schooling both in America and Europe. She came from a family which encouraged lively debate, from a father who instructed his children to question him and to argue their points with passion. 

 Kick & her brother 'Jack' Kennedy in London, 1938.

Kick & her brother 'Jack' Kennedy in London, 1938.

Kick's first Season in London was also the last year before Europe devolved into massive war. The Third Reich was causing tremors throughout the region and Britain was balanced on a precipice. The atmosphere was tense and worried, with many people later describing feeling as if their entire world was about to come to a screeching halt. The usual round of parties increased to a frenetic pace as the young British aristocrats partied as if it might be their last chance. Kick stepped into this world with a sense of confidence and vitality that endeared her to all who met her. She would be described by contemporaries as so kind and funny that no one could dislike her. 

Her high spirits, funny American turn of phrase, so like her brother Jack’s, and extreme good nature made her far more attractive than most pale English beauties. She was loved by everyone who knew her.
— Deborah Cavendish née Mitford, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire
 Kick, Rose & Rosemary during the Court Presentation, 1938.

Kick, Rose & Rosemary during the Court Presentation, 1938.

As was the custom, Kick and her sister Rosemary were 'presented' at Court with the crowd of debutantes at the pinnacle of the London Season. Photographed with their mother in their white gowns and feathered headdresses, the girls look angelic and ecstatic. It was at this presentation that Kick would meet Deborah "Debo" Mitford, who would become a good friend and her eventual sister-in-law. She also met Jean Ogilvy, the daughter of a Scottish peer. Both girls would prove to be lifelong friends for Kick and would eventually become invaluable sources for those interested in her life.

Kick was taken under the wing of her fellow American Nancy Astor, who had married into the aristocracy and presided over a cabal of wealth and influence among the British Peers. Her home at Clivedon House was a popular retreat from London for "country weekends" and Kick was invited often. It was in this crowd of Astor's guests that Kick proved herself to be unique among her peers in England. She played vigorous tennis, took part in passionate political debates and took the inevitable hazing in stride. At one such weekend, Kick awoke to find that all of her left shoes had been stolen. Instead of crying foul - "Kennedy's never cry." - Kick stuffed both feet into mismatched right shoes and hobbled down to breakfast with a smile. On another occasion, during a spirited dinner-table debate, Kick threw a bread roll down the table at a fellow guest. Her confidence and gameness for jokes impressed her tormentors and she was immediately thought of as "one of us". 

If someone else had done that, it might have been rude or shocking … But she had this way about her that made it seem an absolute liberation.
— Jean Ogilvy
 Kick Kennedy in London, 1938.

Kick Kennedy in London, 1938.

That summer of 1938, Kick met William "Billy" Cavendish, the heir to the Duke of Devonshire and the great estate of Chatsworth. They were polar opposites - where Kick was self-confident, laughing and vivacious, Billy was languid, proper and reserved. But they struck up a friendship and found themselves spending hours in each other's company, talking into the early hours of the morning. A romance blossomed and their friends began to notice. But the now inevitable war was not the only impediment to a life together - Kick was a devout Catholic, from a family so entrenched in Roman Catholicism that they had attended the coronation of the Pope as his personal guests, and Billy was from a staunchly Protestant family with deep ties to the Anglican community. At this time, before the Vatican II reforms, a mixed-faith marriage would have been almost unheard of. All of their family and religious communities counseled that it was impossible. Amidst this personal heartache, the war began.

Kick and her siblings were sent home to America as Britain entered the war, and she would spend the next four years plotting a way to return. Her eighteen months in London had transformed her - she now thought of England as her home and felt that she belonged there, helping with the war effort alongside her friends. But Joe Kennedy forbad her from returning, despite many tearful pleas. Her life in America continued - she began working as a journalist and entered the Washington D.C. social scene alongside her beloved brother Jack. But all the while she was plotting her return, and Billy Cavendish was never far from her thoughts. While Kick continued on with her life in America, Billy joined the Coldstream Guards and was part of the British forces rescued at Dunkirk. Kick kept track of his war career through letters with family and friends and treasured the cherished letters Billy himself could send. She felt heartsick over her life of work and parties and casual boyfriends while Billy and her friends experienced wartime privations.

 Kick Kennedy in London in her Red Cross uniform, 1943.

Kick Kennedy in London in her Red Cross uniform, 1943.

In 1943 she finally found a way to return to her beloved London - she joined the American Red Cross. America had entered the war and Kick travelled to England as one of the famed "Doughnut Dollies". She returned to an England much changed by years of war and bombing - but her love for the country and for the friends she had made there was undiminished. She fell back into her old social scene as if she had never left. Her duties with the Red Cross included running a canteen for American Servicemen in London, providing them with a sense of home and normalcy as they prepared to ship off to the European Theater. The canteens threw parties, where the American Dollies danced with the men, talked with them and gave a listening ear. The girls kept up grueling schedules, opening the canteen early each morning and staying until late into the night. 

Kick also took time away from her Red Cross duties to escape with her London friends for country weekends, full of parties and antics as they tried to recapture some of the life they had experienced before the war. Her romance with Billy, home on leave, picked up where it had left off. As war raged, they tried desperately to find a compromise of the religious question. Letters and telegrams flew across the Atlantic, to Rome and back. Kick was convinced that somehow they would find a way to be together. She loved Billy and would marry him. But despite her deep love for him, Kick refused to abandon her Catholic faith. Billy likewise could not compromise his own religious upbringing - as the eventual Duke, he would be responsible for choosing Anglican clergy to staff the various churches on his lands, a responsibility that would be impossible if he or his heir were Catholic. For months, it felt as if there was no hope.

 Billy and Kick on their wedding day, with Joe Jr. at the back.

Billy and Kick on their wedding day, with Joe Jr. at the back.

But finally, as Billy's position in the Coldstream Guards threatened to send him back to the front, a compromise was reached. They would wed, and any male offspring would be raised as Anglicans and any female as Catholics. The respective churches agreed and Kick and Billy were wed in a civil ceremony on May 6, 1944 in London. The only member of her family to attend was the only member who had supported her during the long fight to wed Billy, her eldest brother Joe Jr. Kick's mother Rose checked herself into hospital for a month after the marriage, for nerves. Her family was silent and it would take months for a reconciliation. 

 Billy Cavendish & Kick Kennedy.

Billy Cavendish & Kick Kennedy.

Kick and Billy had five glorious weeks together. They honeymooned at a cottage on the Chatsworth estate, visited friends and spent every moment together. Five weeks after their wedding, Billy was called up and sent to the Continent. Kick remained behind in London, continuing her Red Cross work. On August 12, 1944 her brother Joe Jr. was killed when his plane exploded on a secret bombing mission. The only member of her family who had supported her in her quest to marry the man she loved was now dead. His death was a blow, and with Billy still away in Europe Kick immediately returned to America to mourn with her family. The war was reaching a climax - France & Belgium were being liberated and the Allies had the Axis powers on the run in Europe. Billy Cavendish was on the front lines in Belgium, leading his men as they cut across the countryside, liberating villages and towns. His letters to his wife and to his family document his immense pride as they were greeted by cheering villagers and crying townspeople. He wrote of how humbling it was to see the suffering and the joy. By all accounts a brave and fair leader, Billy's men were devoted to him. He had come into his own. On September 9, 1944, less than a month after the death of Kick's brother Joe Jr., Billy was killed by sniper fire while liberating a Belgium village. He was shot through the heart. He and Kick had been married for five months.

I think about all I’ve got to look forward to if I come through this all right...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.
— Letter to Kick from Billy Hartington, Belgium 1944
 Kick Kennedy in her Red Cross uniform.

Kick Kennedy in her Red Cross uniform.

Kick would return to London, as the widowed Marchioness of Hartington, and create a life for herself there after Billy's death. Her love of England was too strong to stay away and she desperately wanted to grieve Billy's death among his family and those who had known him. She left her family behind and permanently settled in London where she lived for four years, surrounding herself with a group of beloved friends. She had ambitions to create a political salon - she was a Kennedy after all - and felt it was a continuation of the life Billy had planned for her. He had been intrigued by the letters of his illustrious ancestor Georgiana Cavendish Duchess of Devonshire, the celebrated political hostess of the 18th century, and had hoped that Kick would continue the tradition as he sought his own political career. She devoted her life to her London friends for four years before being killed in a plane crash with her married lover. She had once again defied her family and sought love on her own terms. She was buried in a church yard near Chatsworth by Billy's family. Her father was the only member of her family to attend her funeral. A tragic end, to a bright young life.

Joy she gave, joy she has found.
— Kick Kennedy's tombstone epitaph

Kick was vivacious and confident, the female counterpart to her closest sibling Jack. One can only image what she would have been like if she had lived to see him become president - but in reality, one of JFKs last trips before his assassination would be to visit Kick's grave at Chatsworth. Kick had defied her family for love - love of a man and love of a country. She had rebelled against her strict upbringing to chase happiness on her own terms, without sacrificing her deep faith or her charmed spirit. In the end she got what she wanted, but like so many other young people during those cursed years, had that happiness stolen from her by world war. But her story, so often written out of the Camelot mythology, is one of spirit and intelligence and love, and should be recounted.


For more extensive reading on Kick Kennedy, there are two well-researched and respected biographies:

Kick Kennedy: The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of the Favorite Kennedy Daughter

Kick: The True Story of JFK's Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth