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

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

by Barbara Leaming


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From a New York Times bestselling author comes a mesmerizing story of love, loss, and war.

An unforgettable portrait of the Kennedy family’s favorite daughter, Kick Kennedy begins with Kick’s arrival in England in 1938 as her father became the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St James’s. In the closed world of the British aristocracy, Kick was gloriously, exhilaratingly different, the girl whom all the boys fell in love with. But she was the star of a world in the midst of tumultuous social and political change, and as war came, she would have to confront crushing sadness and the consequences of forsaking much dear to her for love, before her heartbreaking death in 1948.

Bestselling and award-winning biographer Barbara Leaming draws on her unique access to firsthand accounts and candid conversations with many of the key players whose own lives were entwined with Kick’s, to transport us to a world of immense wealth, arcane rituals and rules, glamour and tragedy, that has now vanished forever.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250115935
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/11/2017
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 627,872
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 7.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Barbara Leaming is a New York Times bestselling author. Three of her biographies have been New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Her book Churchill Defiant received the Emery Reves Award from The Churchill Centre. Leaming’s articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, London’s The Times, and other publications. She lives in Connecticut.

Read an Excerpt

Kick Kennedy

The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of the Favorite Kennedy Daughter

By Barbara Leaming

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Barbara Leaming
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8243-0


Outside, the moorlands were sheathed in darkness, the vast acreage of the park empty save for animals roaming in the night. Inside the golden stone palace, we two were alone together in a library crammed with well-loved books, tables littered with strange and often precious objects, and a long scarlet sofa bearing the traces of many naps by its owner. It was nearly midnight. It had been an intense evening, full of wide-ranging conversation, which had ended with a drive through the floodlit gardens surrounding the house.

Now, for a long moment, the two of us sat in silence in the low light of the room. Two leather chairs had been pulled round to face each other. The hands of the tall, emaciated figure sitting opposite me played nervously over the handle of his walking stick, before he put it aside.

At the age of eighty-two he was crippled with arthritis, and the hour in the damp just now had visibly pained him. But he had made it clear that he was not ready for the night to end. He had ushered me into this room and closed the door as if to indicate that there was some purpose not yet fulfilled.

The silence suddenly seemed loud, and then, without warning, one long, bony hand reached out and grabbed my wrist with shocking strength, and the old, nearly blind duke began to tell me a story.

* * *

"I fancied her. I wanted to claim her for myself." This was how the duke began his tale.

She was just starting down the stairs when he saw her first. He had been standing at the bottom of the steps with the other boys. They were all impatiently waiting in the Great Hall for the girls to come down from their rooms and join them for dinner.

It was Friday evening, April 15, 1938, at Cliveden, the Italianate palace on the River Thames, in Buckinghamshire, owned by Lord and Lady Astor. Usually, house parties there were mixed affairs comprised of adults and young people, but on the present occasion, Easter weekend, it was exclusively the friends of the Astors' two youngest sons, Jakie and Michael, who had been asked to stay, though various adults would arrive for meals.

Lord Andrew Cavendish, eighteen-year-old grandson of the 9th Duke of Devonshire, suddenly broke off from the assembled group. Long, skinny arms and legs flying, a messy mop of hair flopping over his forehead, Andrew darted up the stairs toward the petite figure who had just appeared. He had spotted something about her that, he later insisted, he simply had never encountered in a girl previously. The moment she made her entrance, it was as if there was no one else in the cavernous room.

Every eye had turned to her — but it was only Andrew who had acted.

He was used to being aggressive. Indeed, by rights he should not even have been included in a house party, since he was not only the youngest of the boys, but also the only one of the group who had yet to matriculate at university. He was laughingly referred to by some as "the boy who couldn't wait to grow up." A year earlier he had begun to insinuate himself at parties to which his older brother had been invited.

Andrew's charm, wit, and exuberance made it impossible for most people to resist his efforts to be included. His "constipated older brother," as Jakie Astor jestingly and not a little cruelly described William, Earl of Burlington, most certainly did resist, however. Billy Burlington, as he was known, was frequently made miserable by Andrew's intrusive presence, and he often took it upon himself to check what he saw as the second son's rambunctious behavior. But Billy, aged twenty, was not present on this particular weekend, for the boisterous tone at Cliveden was decidedly not to his taste. More often than not, he pointedly avoided the scene there.

Tonight, therefore, Andrew was most happily on his own. There was no restraining hand to prevent him from dashing up those stairs. The girl he was rushing toward was, if truth be told, actually quite plain in appearance. Her hair was a shade of "mousy brown" and verged on being frizzy. Her shoulders were also unfortunate, set much too high, and her neck was far too short. In height, she was not quite five feet three, and her figure was, at that point anyway, "on the lumpy side." The British girls much envied their American counterparts' long, shapely legs. Yet, as would later become apparent, this particular American girl was obsessed with the conviction that her legs — American though they undeniably were — were too heavy.

Andrew would long remember that his opening gambit had been to say something funny to her (though he could not recall exactly what), and that her buoyant laughter had instantly made one forget her physical flaws.

All he had been able to think of, he later said, was that he had never before seen a girl who radiated "such vitality."

Her name, when Andrew got that far, was Kathleen Kennedy, but she said that everyone called her "Kick," and from then on she was never anything but "Kick" to those who encountered her in England. She was, Andrew had realized by this time, the eighteen-year-old daughter of the newly arrived U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St James's. Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. had descended upon London with an unprecedented blast of self-generated publicity. The diplomat had offered up stories centered not merely upon himself but upon the fact that he and his wife, Rose, were the parents of nine children. To date, however, only Kick and the four youngest had arrived in England. Since at this point Kick was the only one of the offspring who was of an age to partake in London social life, a good deal of the early publicity had concentrated on her.

Kick had traveled to London with a purpose. When her father was appointed to the ambassadorship by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, both parents decided to arrange for her to be presented at Court, in conjunction with the London Season. The Season consisted of a round of parties, dinners, and dances that took place each spring and early summer, as the debutantes were brought out in a matrimonial market designed to secure them suitable husbands. Such were the young men who, with startling rapidity, would guide them from the cosseted isolation of country houses in England or Scotland to their new lives as married women.

Kick, however, was decidedly not in London in search of a marriage partner. There was no intention on the Kennedys' part to emulate wealthy Americans of the past who, with the objective of securing a title for their daughters, had married them off to impoverished peers. Kick planned to stay in England for no more than six months before returning to the U.S., where her London debut would add luster to this granddaughter of a Boston-Irish saloon keeper as she looked for an American husband — a Roman Catholic, of course, though one with a higher social status than that enjoyed by her parents. Indeed, at the time Kick left the U.S. for Britain, she had been in the process of being courted by precisely one such fellow, J. Peter Grace, the twenty-five-year-old heir to the W. R. Grace fortune, who meant to propose to Ambassador Kennedy's daughter the following year.

In any case, the London Season had been about to begin in earnest when Kick received an invitation to Cliveden. Nancy Astor, who was herself an American, liked to take care of compatriots who found themselves, as she had once been, strangers to a world so different from their own. No sooner had Lady Astor met the new American ambassador at a dinner party in London than she had proposed including his daughter in the Easter weekend festivities.

In anticipation of Kick's arrival, Lady Astor worried that the newcomer might prove too shy and too stiff for her sons' rather wild set of friends. That was the reason why, just behind Kick on the staircase in the Great Hall that evening, there hovered a shy, dark-haired girl with delicate features and the palest of porcelain white skin. Lady Jean Ogilvy, the nineteen-year-old daughter of the Earl of Airlie, had been raised at Cortachy Castle in Scotland and had been brought out in the 1937 London Season. Joseph P. Kennedy's predecessor in the ambassadorship, Robert Bingham, had hosted a dance in Jean's honor at the American Embassy residence in Prince's Gate on the occasion of her coming out. Now Nancy Astor had assigned Jean the bedroom next to Kick's, with the directive: "I've got this little American girl. You have to look after her." Kick had indeed seemed "rather lost" at first. Still, as Jean laughingly remembered many years later, it became instantly apparent, even as she endeavored to carry out her appointed role, that her high-mettled new charge "didn't need any looking after!"

For Kick Kennedy, England was but the latest "gift" in a long series of treats presented to her by her adoring father. She had come to England, and to Cliveden in particular, because of Joe Kennedy. And she assumed that, precisely for that reason, both would prove to be happy experiences. Heretofore, "Darling Daddy" had been the one who could always be counted on to provide her with a life full of adventures, excitement, and surprises. He had given her screenings of the latest movies before they were officially released, tickets to Broadway shows for herself and her friends, dinners in the best restaurants, and all the pretty dresses that a girl could want. He arranged for her to ski in Switzerland during her school break. He set up meetings with influential men to assist her in unfamiliar cities. He paid for her travels and foreign schooling, and gave her extra money when she asked for it. He let her sip Shirley Temples with her two elder brothers, Joe Junior and Jack, in Palm Beach nightclubs. And when she wished the rules to be altered in her favor, he had even provided special perks to the Sacred Heart nuns who administered the convent school in Connecticut that she'd attended since the age of thirteen. Most of all, the old man had instilled in her the conviction that whenever anything went wrong, whenever some unforeseen obstacle materialized in her path, he could be counted on to "fix" things. As a consequence, Kick expected life to be wonderful, each chapter more delightful than the one that had come before.

To Jean Ogilvy, Kick had started down those steps at Cliveden with "unshakable self-confidence." Kick's only complaint about England thus far was that since she had arrived a few weeks previously, the boys had all seemed rather dull and humorless, at least compared with her favorite brother Jack's set at home. But that certainly seemed about to change when she spotted the gangly, exceedingly good-humored fellow racing up the steps. From the moment Andrew Cavendish addressed her, the words tumbling out of his mouth so swiftly that they were barely if at all comprehensible, Kick appeared to sense that life was once again meeting her expectations after all.

For a long moment, the three young people stood in place on the staircase, like figures in a frieze: proper, nervous Jean a few steps above Kick and eager, ebullient Andrew a step or two below. As ample as Kick's experience of life had been to date, for all of her travels and for all of the people she had encountered, nothing in her past had quite prepared her for the particular world to which Jean and Andrew were about to introduce her.

This was the world of the aristocratic cousinhood, a world that more often than not remained hermetically sealed against outsiders. Its members shared feelings, books, manners, habits, history — and most of them, blood. In their rarefied milieu, cousin married cousin for generation after generation, until the web of interrelationships was so tangled that everyone seemed to be related to everyone else many times over. Yet for all of the apparent sameness, for all of the like-mindedness that seemed to have been bred into them, there were also important nuances that distinguished them from one another, critical differences bearing on such matters as politics and religion that, imperceptible though they might be to an outsider, were often the cause of tremendous conflict and pain. Jean was the ideal guide to this world, as she had had so little experience of anything else. To her the aristocratic cousinhood was, really, the only world.

That evening on a staircase in a great house overlooking the River Thames, an extraordinary story was about to begin. Kick Kennedy was poised to enter a centuries-old society of which she as yet had little understanding, a world in which, however improbably, she was at length to play an important — to some minds, emblematic — role. Among the surviving members of the tribe, her story would continue to resonate, to be passionately, even obsessively, discussed and debated, long after the Little American Girl herself was dead.

For the moment, however, as she laughed and bantered with Andrew, whom she seemed not entirely to comprehend, and who was himself not always quite certain of what she was saying, all that appeared to matter was that the young nobleman wished to claim her for his own. By the time they reached the bottom of the stairs, however, with Jean in avid pursuit, Andrew realized that he was to have no further opportunity to advance that claim, at least not that night. Almost without transition, Kick was soon conversing easily with the other, somewhat older males waiting to go in to dinner.

Among these were nineteen-year-old Jakie Astor, an irrepressible jokester, as well as Andrew's great friend; twenty-two-year-old Michael Astor, the incipient ladies' man in the group, as well as a major crush of Jean Ogilvy's; and David Ormsby-Gore, nearly twenty years of age, who had been brought up virtually as a brother to Andrew, their mothers, the granddaughters of the Victorian-era colossus Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, being sisters.

Kick possessed qualities that these young men had rarely if ever seen in a girl. The girls they knew, the eighteen-year-olds who were brought to London by their families from rural England and Scotland to be presented at Court and to make their social debut, tended to be silent and nervous when they encountered boys for the first time. They were girls who simply were not used to being around young males other than their brothers, and they made their discomfiture clear in everything they did and said.

Kick was notably different. She did not hang back shyly or demurely. On the contrary, she instantly propelled herself into the fray, laughing at the boys' jokes, making teasing remarks of her own, and cackling with delight when, half in gaiety, half in gravity, Jakie Astor complained that her accent made it impossible for him to understand so much as a word that she was saying. The newcomer was willing to laugh at herself — her mistakes, her gaucheries, and even her physical flaws — in a way that was simply unknown among the English girls. Andrew later described that willingness (which, he pointed out, Kick shared with her brother Jack, but with no other Kennedy family member) as "the essence of charm."

She was, moreover, a strangely blended character whose personal contradictions were of immense appeal to the boys in this particular set. On the one hand, Kick was clearly more outgoing and at ease than the girls to whom they were accustomed. She had grown up in the often raucous, at times violent, company of two older brothers, the eldest, Joe Junior, and the second son, Jack. She had traveled with them, accompanied them to nightclubs, been adopted as a mascot by Jack's entourage of mischievous male friends. Racy talk, cabaret gossip, knowing references to Hollywood movies and Broadway shows — all these were as nature to her.

Paradoxically, Kick might also be said to have had a cloistered upbringing, owing to the doctrinaire Roman Catholicism of her mother, to whom she was devoted. Kick had attended convent schools, both in the U.S. and in France. At eighteen years of age, she had been long and deeply inculcated with Roman Catholic principles. Kick would no more consider missing Mass on Sundays and holy days than she would failing to drop to her knees and utter her prayers before she went to bed at night. In contrast to her older brothers, both of whom were sexually active, Kick was nothing if not innocent. Her brothers — Jack especially, careless though he might be of the sensitivities of a girlfriend — worked hard at preserving Kick's innocence, which was as important to the brothers and to their father as it was to Rose Kennedy.

That Easter weekend of 1938, Kick's unique combination of innocence and experience proved irresistible to the Astor boys and their young friends: "country-member bad boys," as Andrew later characterized them, by which he meant fellows who, however wildly they might talk and behave, would, at this point in their lives anyway, probably have been terrified had a truly worldly American girl appeared among them.

The scene in the Great Hall was cut short by a summons to dinner. Meals at Cliveden tended to be chaotic affairs, with conversations conducted not merely with one's dinner partners, but often literally shouted up, down, and across the table. Andrew and David, particularly, had the reputation of marathon talkers. Through their mothers, both boys were descendants of the Cecils, one of the great Protestant families of England, known through the generations for their acute minds and distinctive sparring manner of speech.


Excerpted from Kick Kennedy by Barbara Leaming. Copyright © 2016 Barbara Leaming. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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