31 January 2017

American princess, British aristocracy - the Kennedy tragedy

Inspired by the blog bookaddiction, I thought I better familiarise myself with the story of a relatively unknown Kennedy. The book review analysed The True Story of Kick Kennedy, JFK's Forgotten Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth, written by by Paula Byrne.

For people of my generation, who came to adulthood when JFK died and his brother Robert had been Attorney General for JFK and for President Johnson, there was little known about those Kennedy sib­lings who died earlier. I knew that Joseph Kennedy (1915–1944) died during WW2 while serving in the Navy. And I knew that rebel­lious Rose­mary Kennedy (1918-2005) had been lobotomised in 1941 at her fat­her’s demand and lived the rest of her life in a psychiatric inst­it­ution. But who was Kathleen Kennedy (1920-1948) and why was she not filmed every time the family had a get together in the 1950s and 1960s?

Kathleen was the fourth child of Joseph & Rose Kennedy. She was sent away to the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich Conn and hated it. But most historical articles about Kathleen started when her father was given the job as American ambassador to the Court of St James London in 1938. Joseph, the first ever Irish-Catholic American EVER thus honoured, arrived in a fanfare of publicity. Beside him were his wife, daughter Kathleen and the younger children

Edward, Jeanne, Robert, Patricia, Eunice, Kathleen, Rosemary and John, then Rose and Joseph Kennedy, London 1938
Photo credit: Daily Mail

Joseph and Rose thought their daughter Kathleen was very unattractive but the British aristocrats thought she was liberated and fun, unlike English girls. The parents decided to arrange for Kathleen to be presented at Court, as a debutante. The London Season consisted of a round of dinners and dances that took place each summer, as the girls from top quality families were placed on a marriage market. Clearly Kathleen made an impact; the 18-year-old was named debutante of the year as she caught the eye of every aristocratic lad.

I had heard this type of story before – when American money married British aristocracy in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. But the Kennedys did not intend to emulate these wealthy Americans who had bought British titles and palaces for their daughters. Kath­leen would go home with her family to the USA and get married there!

She did not. The opp­or­t­­unity to meet suitable men arose at a Friday evening house party at Cliveden, Lord and Lady Astor’s Italianate palace in Buckinghamshire. Note that Lady Nancy Astor, originally an Americ­an herself, was very supportive of young American girls in Britain.

But the real joy came in April 1938 when she met William Cavendish Marquis of Hart­ington, Duke of Devonshire's son. Yes the Marquis was one of the city’s richest and most eligible bachel­ors in the entire British Empire, but his family was vigorously Prot­est­ant and the Ken­n­edy family was vigorously Catholic. Since there was no wiggle room on either side, the relationship seemed doomed.

Kathleen Kennedy with the Marquis of Hartington
at Goodwood Races, Sussex
in July 1938

Once the war started in August 1939, Joe Kennedy sent his family back to the USA, despite the young couple’s desire to be together. For the next four years, Kick unhappily stayed in the USA while William was still serving in the British Army. Determined to make her way back to the UK, Kathleen joined the Red Cross and sailed to Britain.

Rose Kennedy wrote in her diary that she was horrified and heart-broken by her daughter’s decision to marry William. For Kathleen, who loved and protected her mother, it was an agonising choice. After months of meetings with both Anglican and Catholic clerics, a compromise was reached: they would marry in a registry office and any children would be brought up as Protestant. Despite her parents’ temper tantrums, wed they did in May 1944; it was a civil ceremony in Chelsea. Her brother Lieutenant Joe Jr was the only Kennedy there.

Tragedy struck almost immediately. In August of the same year, Joe Jr (aged 29) was killed when his plane exploded while he was over France on a bomb­ing mission. William returned to his unit in France and was kill­ed in action in Belgium, barely four months after he had married the new Lady Harrington.

Eventually the social whirl of dinner parties in the city and estate weekends in the countryside reduced the pain. The next time Lady Har­t­ington fell in love, her parents were totally out­rag­ed. Peter Went­worth 8th Earl Fitzwilliam was of course aristo­crat­ic, Protestant and VERY wealthy, but he was married! Fitz­william was in the pro­cess of divorcing his wife before he fell for Kathleen, but the Kennedys didn’t care. During the worst days when Kathleen didn’t know what her parents would do, she enjoyed some sort of life in a pretty Georgian house in Smith Square, Westminster. [Fitzwilliam lived nearby].

Kathleen & William's wedding photo 
with the Duke & Duchess of Devonshire, and Joe Kennedy Jr
Chelsea Registry Office,
May 1944

Joseph Kennedy demanded he speak to the young couple, but this too ended in tragedy. While flying to Cannes tog­eth­er, the plane stopped in Paris to refuel. When the pilot insisted that the turbulent weather conditions had made it unsafe to take off, the Earl demanded that the aircraft leave without delay. Storms caused the small plane to crash in the mountains, killing all pas­sengers and crew aboard. Kathleen was 28. Rose Kenn­edy did not attend her daughter's funeral and dis­couraged the eight surviving siblings from attending. So her father Joe was the only Kennedy at the funeral. 

I am not sure if I believe this next story. Because JFK's Washington political career was on the rise, and because of the "scandalous" circumstances surrounding Kathleen's affair, the Kennedy family agreed never to mention Kathleen’s name in public.  Kathleen Kennedy Cavend­ish, Marchioness of Hartington, was buried almost secretly on the Chatsworth estate. Years later JFK finally wrote to the Duchess of Devonshire, thanking her for the beautiful arrangements that she had made for his late sister Kathleen.


Some families seem blighted. In 1984 Robert  Kennedy’s son David died of a drug overdose aged 28. In 1997 another of Robert’s sons, Michael, died in a skiing accident in Aspen Colorado, aged 39. Two years later John Kennedy Jr along with 2 other family members were killed when the plane he was flying crashed in Martha’s Vineyard Mass. He was 39.


Deb said...

Good grief. I knew her father was horrible but the mother also sounded heartless.

Hels said...


Joseph Kennedy never hid what he was - an anti-Semitic, anti-workers' rights man who was a strong supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Plus Kennedy requested and succeeded in getting his "wayward" teenage daughter lobotomised.

But I truly believed Rose was a loving mother who protected her children as best she could. That Rose thought their daughter Kathleen was very unattractive was unpleasant. That Rose wouldn't allow Kathleen's siblings to celebrate her marriage or mourn her death ... was unconscionable.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Frequently when I read about rich and powerful families, their meanness and bad personalities make me less jealous of their high status. On the other hand, even a short while ago (and oftentimes even now) families were much less accepting of mixed marriages and alternative lifestyles. Withdrawal of support and affection seems to me a mean and petty way of controlling guilt. However, lobotomizing does seem to be going a bit far.

bazza said...

Richard Condon's novel Winter Kills is a thinly-disguised take on the Kennedy family. 'Joe' is seen as a nasty master-puppeteer manipulating 'Jack's' career. The Kennedy name seems to be a tragic curse.
Incidentally, speaking of intolerance, I had a friend who told me he would 'sit shiva' if his son married the girl he met at University. He didn't marry her - he married my daughter Laura instead!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Andrew said...

A remarkable yet blighted family. Rose must have lived to a very old age as I remember seeing her on tv. Parents outlawing relationships with those they deem inappropriate rarely has a good outcome.

Hels said...

Parnassus and bazza

quite right about parents not accepting of mixed marriages and alternative lifestyles, even for their adult children. I have seen it many times myself. But eventually most caring parents say "I think my child is making a mistake, but I would never ever cut myself off from him/her or from my grandchildren".

Hels said...


re the lobotomy

Rosemary (1918–2005) was certainly slower than the other children from birth, but she was pretty and liked being with men. Joe Kennedy was terrified she would have sex before marriage and that the news would "get out". By 1941, he was prepared to sacrifice his daughter for his sons' political careers.

Rosemary, then 23-years-old, had regressed back to infancy, losing her ability to walk and speak. Joe immediately sent his daughter to a secret psychiatric hospital and I don't think any member of the family could ever find her again.

Hels said...


unbelievably Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy lived from 1890-1995. She was passionate about her family (most of them) and her Catholic religion, but once Joe died in 1969, Rose was finally free to raise a lot of money and scholarly interest in mental retardation, its causes and treatments.

peppylady (Dora) said...

Isn't it amazing all the so called things (items in the closet) about one family. Sure we're not rich as the Kennedy or most us never had the life they held.
But I bet all of us have family skeleton in closet.
Anyhow religion sure does a lot damage in our society.

Coffee is on

Hels said...


we may be related :) My husband's name is Peppa in Czech.

Re family skeletons, I agree totally. I suppose it depends on how vigorously the family try to defend their unblemished honour in public or how they destroy the black sheep family member who did the blemishing. Think of the Guggenheim family with unexplained deaths all over the place. It must have been terrible for them but no individual black sheep was hidden away in perpetuity.

Ann ODyne said...

The Kennedys Of Camelot would most certainly not have survived socio-politically if we had had Twitter when Joe was running things. I have a book 'Gloria & Joe' about his Gloria Swanson phase. What a hypocrite to think his daughter's potential for an ex-nuptial pregnancy would harm his political ambitions. USA overlooked all trumps adulteries.
Our Billy Hughes PM had a daughter shipped off to London where a child was born without fanfare here. Women always left holding the engorged abdomen while the inseminators slip away to repeat their crime on another dumb girl.
Trump is on record saying very bad stuff about that poor boy of his, conceived when Donster was 60. However, the cost of asperger's medication is thousands of dollars a month in the US and that at least [is what I suspect] has Donster sicced onto BigPharma. we shall all benefit from that I hope.
Brit royals are known to have stashed some NQR children behind nursery doors with Nanny.
Ethel Kennedy did found The Special Olympics, I suppose that was some kind of Catholic contrition.

CherryPie said...

There was a lot of tragedy in that family, all very publicly displayed.

At that time I am sure lots of families out of the limelight suffered similar tragedies due to the war and the divide between Catholic and Protestant.

There are a few tales in my family history, so I expect it is repeated in others too.

Hels said...


of all the issues you raise, let me focus on the Special Olympics (for athletes with intellectual disabilities) which I knew very little about. Eunice Kennedy Shriver was very close to her sister Rosemary but thought that her father, and the wider community, treated people with intellectual disabilities badly. Bless her heart! Shriver believed that if people with intellectual disabilities were given the same chances in life that average people had, they could achieve success and happiness as well.

Eunice had been working on her beloved project years before the first International Special Olympics Summer Games were held in Chicago in 1968.

Hels said...


Absolutely so! I had a relative who was an important judge and a fall-down drunk. His clerks used to brief him QUICKLY early each morning before the booze had addled his brain by 8.30 AM.

ChrisM said...

Did the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire admire Kathleen? They seemed to treat her respectfully.

Hels said...


I think the Devonshires found Kathleen energetic and vivacious. Of course they didn't like her Catholicism but the American daughter-in-law remained close to her late husband's family until her death in the plane crash.

In 2014 a later Duchess of Devonshire was laid to rest with great dignity, right alongside the grave of Kathleen Kennedy.

Viola said...

Thank you so much, Hels. I am glad that my blog inspired you to write such an interesting post about Kathleen. I am sorry that this has taken me so long - we have been in Sydney and busy.
I will certainly include a link to your post in my review!

Viola said...

I just want to add another comment. Joe was pretty awful, but according to the book, he was a sympathetic father - to Kathleen, at least.

mem said...

oh its still going on . I have a friend who is having a nervous breakdown because her daughter is engaged to a man who loves her , is supportive of her chronic illness, is financially very secure and generous . Why , because he happens to be Muslim! My best friend married a divorced man when she was in her early 30s . Her mother refused to come to the wedding and made her father stay away as well. All this because her priest ( catholic) told her to. This priest was later defrocked for abusing children . I hope that stupid woman had some regrets and apologized to her daughter on bended knees but I doubt it.

Hels said...


I am not so keen on the concept of monarchy for us, but it strikes me as fascinating that the Kennedy family is thought of royalty in the USA. Thus I found "The True Story of Kick Kennedy, JFK's Forgotten Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth" to be terrific. Of course it must feel really VERY invasive for every generation of the Kennedys :(

You are correct about Joe Snr. Because he was so fanatic about promoting the political careers of his older sons _at any cost_, I probably underestimated his support for Kathleen.

Hels said...


If my son wanted to marry someone I thought was violent or alcoholic or drug addicted, I would ask him to think long and hard about the decision. But to cut off the mother-child relationship is so counter-productive, it would be insane. I would be the heart broken loser :(