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

by Barbara Leaming

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Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy was the incandescent life-force of the Kennedy family. The daughter of the American ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, Kick swept into Britain’s aristocracy like a fresh wind on a sweltering summer day. Kick was the girl whom all the boys fell in love with, the girl who remained painfully out of reach for most of


Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy was the incandescent life-force of the Kennedy family. The daughter of the American ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, Kick swept into Britain’s aristocracy like a fresh wind on a sweltering summer day. Kick was the girl whom all the boys fell in love with, the girl who remained painfully out of reach for most of them.

To Kick, everything about this life was fun and amusing—until suddenly it was not. For this is also a story of how a girl like Kick, a girl who seemed made for happiness, confronted crushing sadness. Willing to pay the price for choosing the love she wanted, she would have to face the consequences of forsaking much that was dear to her.

Bestselling and award-winning biographer Barbara Leaming draws on her unique access to firsthand accounts, extensive conversations with many of the key players, and previously-unseen sources to transport us to a world of immense wealth, arcane rituals and rules, glamour and tragedy that has now disappeared forever. This is the coming-of-age story of the female star of the Kennedy family, and ultimately a tragic, romantic story that will break your heart.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Kennedy biographer Leaming (Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis) is unlikely to persuade readers who aren’t already Kennedy completists that their time is well spent in reading about the last decade of the short life of Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy (1920–1948). Kennedy’s childhood is largely skipped over, with Leaming presenting the 18-year-old daughter of the new U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain in 1938 as she’s introduced to the British aristocracy. The British aristocratic lifestyle waned during the interwar period and the “Little American Girl” became for them a symbol of their “vanished world.” The book traces Kennedy’s relationship with various scions of the nobility in detail, building up to her growing attachment to William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington. Their romance distresses her Catholic parents, who can’t countenance their daughter marrying a Protestant. Kennedy marries anyway, in 1944, but Hartington is killed in battle within a few months. Kennedy’s herself is killed in a plane crash in 1948 along with her married lover, Peter Fitzwilliam. Despite Leaming’s extensive interviews with the surviving members of Kennedy’s “aristocratic cousinhood,” she fails to make the case that such attention to Kennedy’s life is warranted; many will reach the last page wondering what was so special about Kennedy, apart from her last name. (Aug.)
From the Publisher

Praise for Kick Kennedy

“It is Barbara Leaming’s achievement to have coaxed some reticent upper-class Englishmen and Englishwomen—all now dead—into sharing their candid memories of Kick. The resultant book is supremely an exercise in European ancient-regime nostalgia—and therefore more strikingly original than yet another tome on the self-seeking Kennedys.”—The Wall Street Journal

"Biographer Leaming candidly demystifies the life of one of the least-known Kennedys and vividly illuminates the complex world of British aristocracy." —Booklist

“The fascinating, little-known story of an unforgettable woman…Riveting.” —

“Barbara Leaming evokes the luminous spirit of Kick Kennedy." —Vanity Fair

"The age of Downton Abbey offers fresh context for this story of American royalty and its more tradition-minded British counterpart." -Kirkus Reviews

“The memories of Kennedy’s contemporaries…bring to life Kick’s effervescence...Leaming excels in providing a rich historical backdrop to Kick’s story.” —The Washington Post

“Barbara Leaming reveals fresh insight into the Kennedy daughter who died in a plane crash.” -People Magazine

"Leaming, author of groundbreaking books about both John and Jacqueline Kennedy, delivers a vivid, sympathetic portrait of the irresistible charmer known to most as Kick." -Austin American-Statesman

"An absolute must-read biography that flows like a richly woven novel." -The Knot

"Poignant...Leaming ably intertwines Kennedy family history and English war history into a lively personal drama that is also an important historical record." -The Missourian

“Leaming, a Kennedy scholar, has the distinct advantage over Byrne... Leaming's account is more nuanced, more authoritative, more compelling.” -The Sydney Morning Herald

“Barbara Leaming weaves a colorful, interesting tale…Masterfully written…I found myself intensely reading like there was no tomorrow.”

"Barbara Leaming provides by far the more perspicacious and politically astute of the two books. Extensive interviews with surviving members of the Devonshire circle richly supplement the Kennedy archive to present a complex portrait of how English Protestant power and privilege came to admit this American Catholic during the social upheaval of the second World War.” -The Irish Times

"Leaming's huge amount of research made the story impressive work." -Redding Record Searchlight

Kirkus Reviews
A biography of the comparatively unheralded sister closest in age to John F. Kennedy strains to find something new to say about the Kennedy clan. How this book was written might be more interesting than the actual contents, as Leaming apparently stumbled across her story while researching more substantial biographies (Churchill Defiant, 2010, etc.). The framing sustains some suspense, as the book begins with an unnamed source whose identity isn't revealed until the final pages. In between, Leaming chronicles a changing Britain through World War II and its immediate aftermath, as the country's mood changed from isolationism and appeasement—in line with the position favored by Ambassador Joseph Kennedy—to a patriotic engagement with the Nazis, which found many sons of the British aristocracy serving and dying in the war, to an aftermath that saw both Churchill and the aristocracy challenged by a populist surge. Amid all this is a love story that wouldn't fill a book if it didn't involve the Kennedys. Leaming mainly examines the romance between a feisty debutante and Billy Cavendish, heir to a prestigious dukedom. Marrying Billy would give Kick an identity, wealth, and power independent of her family, but it would also mean crossing her family by marrying outside the Catholic Church. True love weathered those challenges, but the war ended Billy's life a month after they wed, with Kick in America (to the displeasure of her new British family) mourning the recent death of her brother in the war. Should Kick remarry, as Billy prophetically advised? Will she retain her British ties or return to live in the States? While the young widow tried to figure out her life without becoming a duchess (a future she seemed to miss as much or more than her late husband), she made a surprising choice that would further alienate her family and result in her early death. Leaming doesn't present much new for Kennedy buffs, but the age of Downton Abbey offers fresh context for this story of American royalty and its more tradition-minded British counterpart.

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St. Martin's Press
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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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

BARBARA LEAMING is the author of acclaimed biographies of Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, Orson Welles, and many others. Two of Leaming’s books have been New York Times bestsellers and three have been New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Her articles have appeared in many publications in the United States and Europe, including the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, and the Times of London.

Barbara Leaming is the author of three New York Times bestsellers, including her most recent book Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Leaming’s previous book, Churchill Defiant received The Emery Reves Award from the International Churchill Centre. Her groundbreaking biography of America's 35th President, Jack Kennedy: The Education of a Statesman was the first to detail the lifelong influence of British history and culture and especially of Winston Churchill on JFK. Her articles have appeared in the NY Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, the Times of London and other periodicals. She lives in Connecticut.

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