The Kennedy Debutante

The Kennedy Debutante

by Kerri Maher
The Kennedy Debutante

The Kennedy Debutante

by Kerri Maher


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“A riveting reimagining of a true tale of forbidden love.”People

The captivating novel following the exploits of Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, the forgotten and rebellious daughter of one of America's greatest political dynasties.

London, 1938. The effervescent "It girl" of London society since her father was named the ambassador, Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy moves in rarefied circles, rubbing satin-covered elbows with some of the twentieth century's most powerful figures. Eager to escape the watchful eye of her strict mother, Rose; the antics of her older brothers, Jack and Joe; and the erratic behavior of her sister Rosemary, Kick is ready to strike out on her own and is soon swept off her feet by Billy Hartington, the future Duke of Devonshire.
But their love is forbidden, as Kick's devout Catholic family and Billy's staunchly Protestant one would never approve their match. And when war breaks like a tidal wave across her world, Billy is ripped from her arms as the Kennedys are forced to return to the States. Kick finds work as a journalist and joins the Red Cross to get back to England, where she will have to decide where her true loyalties liewith family or with love....

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451492050
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/13/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 101,966
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Kerri Maher is the author of The Girl in White Gloves, The Kennedy Debutante, and, under the name Kerri Majors, This Is Not a Writing Manual: Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and was a writing professor for many years. She now writes full-time and lives with her daughter and dog in a leafy suburb west of Boston, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


Presentation day. Finally, Kick thought as soon as she opened her eyes that morning. This is it, she kept thinking, her heart pounding. This is it.


Rising out of damp sheets, Kick stole into the bathroom down the hall and ran steaming water into the tub, then spiked it with a strong dose of lavender oil to cleanse away the sour sweat that had drenched her the night before. Fear had plagued her dreams for weeks, encouraging one of her most embarrassing and least ladylike bodily functions-perspiration-and made daily baths an absolute necessity. Her new friend and fellow debutante Jane Kenyon-Slaney claimed to bathe only a few times a week, and yet she was as groomed and aromatic as the gardens of Hampton Court. Kick blamed her father's insistence on sports for all his children, including the girls. Perhaps if she hadn't exerted herself so often on tennis courts or the harbors of the Cape, she would be as dainty as Jane and the other girls who'd line up with her that day. But then, she thought ruefully to herself almost in her father's voice, she wouldn't have won so many trophies.


Still. Surely even Jane would be nervous in her place. Every photographed move Kick had made since her family's arrival in London two months before had been leading up to the moment when she would lower herself in a meticulously refined curtsy before King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, then drink champagne with the most essential people in England. Kick had always been expected to perform better than anyone else, but here in England she wasn't just Rose and Joe Kennedy's fashionable daughter, eighteen years old and fresh from school, who could keep up with her older brothers when she set her mind to it. She was the daughter of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, the first Irish Catholic ever to be appointed to the coveted post in this most Protestant of countries. This time, she had to succeed. There was more than a trophy on the line.


She'd been waiting for a moment like this forever, through every long mass and from inside every scratchy wool uniform at Sacred Heart. A new life. And now she had a chance at it-in one of her favorite places, thank the good Lord. She'd savored a delicious taste of English society two years before when, on a too-brief break from her year in the convent at Neuilly, she'd attended the Cambridge May Balls in a swirl of music and laughter. Now that she was free of nuns and school, she was ready to embrace it all-but as Kick, not just Kathleen Kennedy.


Add to all that the problem of Rosemary, her beautiful older sister who'd be presented with her that morning, whose erratic behavior could make everything impossible, and Kick judged that her fear was well-founded. A long hot soak in a fragrant tub would do her a world of good. Arms suspended in the water, Kick said a solemn Hail Mary and an Our Father before moving on to a short prayer asking God to guide her footsteps that day.


A knock on the door interrupted her. Typical.


"I'm bathing!" she shouted back, assuming it was Bobby, Teddy, or maybe Jean or Pat, one of her littlest siblings, who didn't give a toss about the few moments of privacy she savored in a day. This day especially. As soon as she got out of the tub, she was in for relentless hours of beauty treatments, photo shoots, and then the presentation itself, followed by the most important party of her life.


"It's your mother," said Rose as she opened the door, letting in a gust of cold air.


She was wearing a tweed suit and black pumps, her dark hair sleekly coiffed and her red lipstick recently applied, looking ready for a ladies' luncheon or a visit to one of the children's schools. No one would know that in a few hours, Rose Kennedy would be stepping into a white Molyneux gown designed just for her and the night's grand occasion. "A work of art," she'd said to her favorite designer on the phone.


Now Rose perched on the rim of the white porcelain tub and looked down at her naked daughter. In an effort to look as slender as possible to her petite mother, who'd been monitoring every mouthful of food she ingested on one of her infernal index cards, Kick pulled up her knees, which she thought made her legs look thinner and her belly concave, then she stretched her arms around her knees in an effort to cover some of the rest.


"I know you'll make us proud today, Kathleen," said Rose, her voice sounding higher and tinnier than usual as it pinged off the tile walls and floors. "This presentation is so important for your father. For the whole family. The English have been so accepting of the Kennedy family so far, but today will show them and the world that there is no difference between us and them."


"Of course, Mother," Kick replied, because it was easier than pointing out that more than half of the many articles written about their family had included references to their Catholicism, or Irish descent, or both. It was only with her new friends-Jane, Debo Mitford, Sissy Lloyd-Thomas, and Jean Ogilvy-all of whom would be queuing with her to curtsy before the king and queen, that Kick could sometimes forget who she was.


Rose made an effort to smile, then said, "You've done a wonderful job of keeping your figure, Kathleen. And, after some initial stumbles, of knowing who everyone is and engaging everyone important in conversation. The newspapers love you."


"Thank you, Mother," Kick replied, now shivering in the tub. Her mother had left the door ajar, and a draft was blowing in, cooling the water and giving her goose bumps. It didn't help that Rose kept referring to her "stumble" from a month ago, when Kick had mistaken Lady Smithson for Lady Winthrop at the opera, a gaffe made worse by the fact that Lady Winthrop was a rotund matron whose husband had expatriated to Paris to live with his French mistress, and Lady Smithson was a statuesque but hardly fat beauty whose husband discreetly kept a French mistress in Bath. Thankfully, Lady Nancy Astor had come to her rescue with her trademark double-edged wit and said to Lady Smithson, "Gretchen, you can hardly expect such a young American to be familiar with the hypocrisies of English society as soon as she steps off the boat. Give her another few weeks and she'll be insulting you without your even knowing it."


It was a profound show of support from Lady Astor, once a belle from Virginia who was now a member of Parliament and one of the most important hostesses in her adopted homeland. When Lady Smithson had huffed off to find her seat, Kick had gushed her thanks to this fellow American, who'd replied with a wave of her hand, "Any opportunity to put that woman in her place is a welcome one, my dear." After that, Kick had made herself a set of flash cards, so that she could study every single name and face that appeared in the papers and magazines, and in the copy of Burke's Peerage her mother had given her to study a week before they'd sailed from New York, insisting she must know who everyone was. She never got another name wrong.


"I remember how difficult it could be, playing a role like this," her mother went on. "There were times when I wanted to run away from all the duties of being a mayor's daughter. But I'm glad I never did."


"Seems like Grandfather would have made everything fun," Kick said, thinking fondly of her mother's father, Honey Fitz, infamous former Boston mayor and number one grandfather. He never tired of playing on the floor with her and her siblings as children, or taking them to races and dockyards and political meetings as they got older.


"He did," her mother agreed, looking down at her hands, "some of the time. But there is a big difference between being a parent and being a grandparent. He was different with me than he is with you and your brothers and sisters."


"Mother," Kick said, sensing her mother's little pep talk was winding down, and wanting very much to warm back up again, "the water's getting cold."


Rose stood and brought Kick one of the plush American towels she'd immediately ordered from New York when she saw the sad state of English towels, which were, as she'd put it, "little more than dishrags."


Kick stood with a waterfall sound and wrapped herself in the blessedly toasty towel that had been waiting on that most ingenious of English amenities, the warming rack. She loved that the English had found so many weapons to combat the constant chill: warming racks in the bath, hot water bottles in bed, chic scarves from Liberty, steaming tea and sweets at four in the afternoon when it seemed the gray would never dissipate.


Rose looked once more at her daughter, appraisingly, and Kick worried she might say more, but after a beat Rose informed her, "Hair and makeup is at eleven." Then, with that heavy sigh she indulged more and more often when thinking of her oldest daughter, she said, "Now to attend dear Rosie. Thank goodness I can count on you to take care of yourself, Kathleen." Rosie. Rosemary. Her mother's namesake and doted-on darling who was nearly twenty, a year and a half older than Kick herself, who so often acted more like she was ten. Which could be charming-until it wasn't.


Rose left in another puff of cold air. Despite the warm towel, Kick felt chilled down to her toes.



At Buckingham Palace, there was a last-minute kerfuffle as Kick and Rosemary were lining up with the other debutantes because Kick's train wasn't properly fastened to the white lace gown that had been hand stitched for the occasion. Curses, she thought as a lady-in-waiting pinned it on, stabbing Kick in the side with a pin. How typical that Kick had been forgotten with all the attention being paid to Rosemary to ensure that she was perfectly dressed and serene as the Tintoretto Madonna she resembled that morning.




Kick tried to reason that this was correct and necessary given her sister's problems. She told herself not to be jealous, to be a good and patient sister. After all, her mother had employed a genius makeup artist who knew how to coax the bones from Kick's doughy cheeks and make her eyes appear larger and more prominent. Her often unruly auburn waves had been brushed and sprayed into glossy submission, curving smoothly off her forehead and skimming her shoulders. It was surely because of their efforts that the photographers and reporters had fawned over Kick's every move, from the ambassador's house at 14 Prince's Gate to the palace.


Hail Mary, full of grace, please make me graceful today. Just for the next five minutes, at least. And Rosemary, too!


To steady herself, she put her nose to her wrist and inhaled the Vol de Nuit, her first adult perfume, which her mother had bought for her on their last trip to Paris. After an exhausting day of fittings and painful facials, Rosemary had retired to the hotel for a nap, and Rose had strolled with Kick down the Champs-Élysées to the Guerlain store. "It's time you had a woman's scent," she said, handing Kick a square bottle with a propeller design molded into the glass and vol de nuit engraved in a circle at the center. "The name means 'night flight.' It's popular, but not common, bold but still refined. I think it suits you." Kick had lifted the stopper, which produced a pleasing ring as it scraped against the glass, and let a tiny golden drop fall on her wrist. It smelled surprisingly sophisticated, not at all flowery and girlie. "Wonderful, isn't it?" Rose had prompted. Kick nodded eagerly and felt tears needle her eyes. For a moment, she rehered her mother had seen her and loved what she saw. And though she didn't say it, Kick relished the idea that night, with all its forbidden pleasures and promises, should be so featured on the bottle. Throwing her arms around her mother, she exclaimed, "I love it! Thank you."


Time to fly, she told herself now.


It was almost her turn to curtsy before the king and queen, and her hands were so slick with sweat inside the white gloves, Kick thought for sure she'd lose her grip on the little bouquet she was holding. Meanwhile, Rosemary's eyes were closed and Luella, the family nurse, was running her hand soothingly over Rosemary's arm because Rose herself had to stand in the audience with Joe, the only man in the room not wearing the traditional knee britches because, with characteristic obstinacy, he'd refused on account of his knock-knees. Kick thought her father should have worn the ridiculous short pants anyway, out of respect for the country with which he was supposed to be forming close ties, especially with so many uncertainties brewing in Germany. But she wouldn't have dared tell him so.


Then it was time. As the king's attendant called "Kathleen Agnes Kennedy" in his full-throated bass voice, Kick put one foot in front of the other. When she stood before the monarchs-King George, encrusted in medals, and Queen Elizabeth, encrusted in jewels-she lowered her eyes deferentially as she curtsied, then hurried on. Just as Kick completed her relieved escape, her stiff white gown rustling as if in genteel applause, she heard a thump and a gulp and a whispered, mortified "excuse me," as stifled gasps rose up all around them.


Kick turned back to see that Rosemary had tripped. In front of the king and queen.


Her feet suddenly winged, Kick rushed to offer her arm to Rosemary, whose own white hand was on the velvet ground, her long body arched over like a giraffe in a wedding dress. Rosemary smiled gratefully at her sister and miraculously recovered her composure. Then, standing one more unplanned time before the king and queen, Kick lifted her eyes to them and nodded. King George nodded back, and Kick saw a glimmer of understanding in his eye. Well, why should that be so surprising? she asked herself. She began to relax, just a little.


Reunited in the receiving room after all the debutantes had been presented, Rose bent over carefully under the weight of Lady Bessborough's diamond-and-platinum tiara, kissed each daughter on the cheek, and simply said, "Marvelous, my darlings. I'm so proud of you both." Their father stood between them and patted each girl on the back, beaming for the flashing cameras with that confidence he always exuded in public, as if he were Laurence Olivier or Errol Flynn. Rosemary appeared unperturbed by the incident, perhaps because their parents had chosen not to mention it and-as usual-to act as if she were nothing less than perfect. In fact, the conspiratorial silence about her sister's fall was so absolute, Kick began to wonder if it had actually happened.

Reading Group Guide

Questions for Discussion

1.In these days of Facebook and FaceTime, it is hard to imagine a love like Kick and Billy’s, which endures four years of their being separated by an ocean and a war, with infrequent letters and telegrams their only means of communication. Why do you think their love survives that distance of time and space?

2.Kick often struggles with the relationship between her internal desires and her external image. Where do the internal and external meet for her? Where are they most different? How does Billy deal with the same struggle?

3.Family, religion, and class are powerful forces in Kick’s life. How does she use them to her advantage? In what cases do they undermine her desire for an independent life?

4.Kick makes a number of observations about the differences between her own life and upbringing, and the expectations of her new milieu, English society. How does she use these differences to her advantage? Which ones does she try to minimize?

5.Have you ever been thrown into a new social scene and felt that you had to perform? How did it make you feel? What did you do?

6.Kick has to make a painful decision between her family and her love. Do you think you would make the same choice?

7.In what ways are Kick’s years in England before the war like a “beautiful dream,” as she described them in the letter she wrote to her father in 1939? Does the dream continue when she returns during the war?

8.Jack, Joe Jr., and Billy all fight valiantly in World War II, but how are their attitudes toward the war different from one another’s? What do they have in common? What seems to be each man’s primary objective?

9.Kick and her English friends tend to “Keep Calm and Carry On”—or maybe “Party On” is a better description. Why do you think that is possible for them? Do you think the modern sensibility about war would produce the same result today?

10.Kick often envies her older brothers for their independence and freedoms. In what ways have young women today transcended those gender roles? In what ways are they still present?

11.Many women have to reconcile personal desires with the constraints of family and society. What do you think of Kick’s strategy? Do you think she would take the same approach today?

12.How does the Kennedy family as portrayed in the book fit with your own picture of the family? What surprises you?

13.The Kennedy women invest a great deal of time, effort, and money on fashion. What role does fashion play for them?

14.Jack tells John White, “There is Saturday night, and there is Sunday morning. Never the twain shall meet.” Do you think Kick agrees?

15.How does the portrayal of Jack as a young man fit or not fit with your image of him as JFK, the man who—as Debo’s mother correctly predicted—became president of the United States?

16.“Some lives are short,” Kick writes to Father O’Flaherty from Washington, DC, “and I increasingly feel that it’s essential to live the life it’s in one’s soul to live.” In addition to the premature death of Kick’s friend George Mead, what do you think prompts this revelation? Do you think Kick lives the life it’s in her soul to live? Why is she so conflicted about her soul?

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