Book Reviews

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


The Kennedy family is often touted as “America’s Royal Family.” President Kennedy’s administration is known as “Camelot” for the mythical England of King Arthur and the Round Table. They have a few things in common with the British Royal Family–in both families, there was a loving father who was a serial womanizer (Edward VII) and the adored Crown Prince (first Prince Albert Victor and then in the next generation, Edward VIII) was “lost” and the second son became the Crowned Prince and eventual King. But in both familes it is the women who had the true strength.

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Joseph P. Kennedy, wife Rose, and their nine children at about the time he became Ambassador to Britain.

It was Rose Kennedy (and Queen Alexandra) who lived with their husband’s philandering. It was Rose Kennedy (and Queens Alexandra and Mary) who lost their beloved eldest sons who should have worn the crown. It was Kathleen Kennedy (and Princess Mary and Princess Elizabeth) who served their country in war (Kathleen in the Red Cross, Princess Mary as a nurse and Princess Elizabeth, briefly, as a driver and mechanic). It was the Kennedy women and their tea parties who did the most to elect President Kennedy to each office he held.

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Rose Kennedy with Rosemary and Kathleen on their way to Buckingham Palace for their Presentation to the King and Queen

Kathleen was not, as is often thought, the eldest Kennedy daughter–see was the second, after Rosemary, who later suffered the horrible lobotomy. Kathleen, known as “Kick” was regarded by most as a virtual twin of her brother Jack in both looks and temperament. Both had trouble fully loving anyone, both were risk takers, both lived life in the moment. Unlike Jack, Kick had the devout Roman Catholic faith of her mother, Rose.

Like all her siblings, she adored her father, often in spite of his behavior or political views, and feared her mother. Kick and Rosemary (pre-lobotomy) helped secure the family’s fame by being presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (best remembered as “The Queen Mother”) in 1938 when Joseph Kennedy was the first Irish Catholic to be America’s Ambassador to Britain. This launched Kick on the social scene of aristocratic Britain. All of the names you hear today around Queen Elizabeth, the Prince of Wales and even Prince William are the parents or grandparents (even great-grandparents) of Kick’s circle.

Kathleen was far better educated than many in her circle–not only because of being sent to the convent schools of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in the US and France. Her “real” education occurred at the fabled Kennedy dinner table were Rose would earlier in the day tack up a newspaper clipping or magazine article or something similar to be the focus of the night’s conversation. After each of the nine children had reported to Father and Mother on his or her day, the conversation began and each child, regardless of age, was expected to have an opinion and defend it on the topic of the day. British aristocrats sons had this education in the Oxford [University] Union debates. Kick had it from birth.

This holding of opinions and not being afraid to air them marked her as wildly different from most British upper-class girls who, as Downton’s Dowager Countess of Grantham said, would have opinions once they married and their husbands told them what they were. Kick became a near daughter to the famed American-born female Member of Parliament, Lady Astor of Cliveden [the house that is now the hotel Meghan Markle stayed in the night before her wedding to Prince Harry]. This helped Kick to make a name for herself and to make good friends–among them a young man with a destiny almost as great as that planned for Kick’s eldest brother, Joe, Jr who was to be President.

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Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy with Billy Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington

This young man was William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington, heir to one of the greatest houses and oldest Dukedoms in Britain. Billy, as the future Duke of Devonshire was known, was the scion of one of the oldest and most vocal protestant families in the country–the Duke of Devonshire having the “living” (i.e. the salary, housing, etc) over 40 Church of England clergy in his estate. It seems inevitable that this man would fall for the very devoutly Roman Catholic Kick, who at this stage of her life believed birth control was murder and that her immortal soul was in danger from many things in life.

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Kick and Billy on after their wedding. The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and Joseph Kennedy, Jr. were present.

Sadly, when the war moved from Phoney War to Blitzkrieg, and Joe Kennedy made defeatist statements that got him sent home, Kick had to return with her family to America. She tried to get over Billy. He even became engaged to someone else, briefly. But, he couldn’t get over Kick. That he planned a political career and that she would be an outstanding political wife was not lost on him, but it was her storied vitality that was the true attraction. The couple had spent countless nights sitting up in great country houses talking about everything. They just “knew” they were meant to be together. Finally, after a few years Kick return to England and to Billy. He could not marry a Catholic–his son, should he have one, would eventually be the Duke of Devonshire and MUST be a Protestant. Thanks to a change by the Catholic Church only a few years before, Kick could not marry a Protestant unless he promised all children would be raised Catholic. Impasse. They wrung their hands, they talked, the consulted. Finally,  the basically had to just say “to heck with it” and marry in a civil ceremony like Prince Charles and Camilla. Only weeks later, Billy was killed.

My Thoughts

I began to wonder if all of Kick’s moralizing about her faith wasn’t a sort of cover for not being sure enough about Billy, but in the end, I decided it was real. Her father and brothers were very worldly, she and her sisters were not. I believe she and Billy truly did love each other. The proof, to me, were the actions of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. They truly welcomed her. That would not have happened if they didn’t mean it. They’d have gone thru the motions for appearance’s sake. They attened the wedding and more–they took Kick as a daughter.

But it was after Billy’s death that Kick puzzles me. She was a very young widow which was sad enough. But she was cheated of a grand role in life–Duchess of Devonshire. And the young lady who got it–the wife of yet another second son who became Crowned Prince and King, was the British version of Kick. She was Deborah–Debo Mitford of the famed Mitford sisters.  Two of her famous sisters were Nazi’s. One, Unity stalked Hitler until she became his friend and shot herself in a suicide bid (unsuccessfully) when war was declared. Another sister was a Communist. Her only brother, the last heir to a title, was killed in the war. Debo would become THE Duchess of Devonshire–the one who saved Chatsworth, befriended the Prince of Wales and created the Country House Industry.

As a widow, a citizen by marriage, she considered standing for Parliament like her surrogate mother, Lady Astor. She planned to use her home as a political salon like Cliveden was before the war. No less than Anthony Eden payed court and was interested in marrying her. Imagine a Kennedy helping navigate the Suez Crisis!! Eden might have survived! He married Churchill’s equally original niece, Clarissa, instead–both ladies were a generation or two younger than Eden.

As one friend wrote on her death, she lost her “rudder” when Billy died.  So, instead of being a force in British Converative Party circles (or even wife of a future Prime Minister) she discovered a man like her father. She fell into a passionate love which sounded way, way more like a passionate case of lust. All her hemming and hawing over marriage to Protestant, decent, honorable Billy Hartington went out the window. Not only was Peter, Earl Fitzwilliam, 10 years older but he was married and had a daughter. This did not stop the widowed Kick. Sadly, the two died on a flight that should not have taken off. The young lady who’d thought birth control was murder and all the rest died on a get-away with a rakish lover. Jack Kennedy was so distraught that he could not attend her funeral.


Photo source

“Joy She Gave. Joy She Has Found”
Kick’s grave at Chatsworth

It was the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire who honored her with the funeral mass in London–yes, Catholic mass. They then burried her at Chatsworth. Years later, President Kennedy, on his state visit to Ireland, came to Chatsworth by chopper to finally visit his sister’s grave. Bobby Kennedy honored her by naming the eldest of his 11 children “Kathleen Hartington Kennedy” but ordered she was never to be called Kick. Sadly, his order has been forgotten and the current Kathleen Kennedy IS called Kick. That nickname should have been a one-off like the woman who earned it.

Did You Know?

The Marquess of Hartington was Godfather to Andrew Parker-Bowles.

Other Kennedy Book’s I’ve Reviewed.

Click the linked title to read the review.

Ocean Liner by Marius Gabriel [fiction] a “What if?” story of Rosemary Kennedy

Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Sister by Kate Clifford Larson

2 thoughts on “Review: Kick: The True Story of JFK’s Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth

  1. Very interesting and yes, it seems that “Kick” should be hers alone. I always thought both of her matches were true love affairs; sounds interesting to consider that maybe at least one may not have been on her side? Interesting too about the APBowles connection. Enjoyed this!


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