The Duchess That Never Was. Kathleen Kennedy's Tragic Life and Love

Lady Kathleen Kennedy Cavendish, 
Marchioness of Hartington

No family name in the world ever come closer to the fascinating glamour, legend of beauty, intellect and power, than the Kennedy name. 

For many decades, the name captured the world's imagination with bewildering fascination and enchantment.

Its enduring legacy of power, wealth, wit and splendor in American politics and society continues to be fancied and sensationalized in the world with so much fervor. 

The name reverberates mystic.

It takes center-stage again when the second to the youngest Kennedy siblings died at the age of 91. Jean Kennedy-Smith, who shared a birthday with her older sister, Kathleen, the most controversial among the Kennedys, died last June 17, 2020.
Jean Kennedy-Smith
the last of the Kennedy siblings to die

Jean Kennedy-Smith was the last of the Kennedy siblings to die. She was the former US Ambassador to Ireland, the country where the roots of Kennedy and Fitzgerald can be traced. 

Her death revisited the glamour of the Kennedy name, and the family’s unparalleled  prominence in American politics and society.

The Kennedy was often regarded as America’s royal family and reached their golden age of popularity and enchantment in the era called Camelot. An age where the Kennedy siblings attained their meteoric rise in politics and distinguished public service.

However, the splendor and magic that the Kennedy name brings is often overshadowed by painful losses, tragic deaths and best-kept family secrets.

Behind the myth of the fabled Kennedy name

The Kennedys were scion of Irish Catholic immigrants in Boston, Massachusetts and both families of Joseph Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald, were immensely rich and came from illustrious Massachusetts businessmen and politicians.

Joseph and Rose had nine children, most had remarkable career in various fields, three sons reached the highest pedestal in American politics – President John F. Kennedy, Senator and Presidential nominee, Robert Kennedy and Senator and Presidential hopeful, Edward Kennedy.

Joseph and Rose Fitzgerald 
and their nine children

But most of their children died tragically. Joe, the eldest son, a US Navy fighter pilot, died while in active service in England during World War II, JFK was assassinated in 1963, Robert was also assassinated during the California primary for his Democrat presidential nomination in 1968, and Kathleen died in a plane crash in France at the young age of 28.

Two children, Eunice and Edward, the last of the Kennedy brothers, died from chronic illnesses in the same month and year, August 2009. The eldest daughter, Rosemary, was institutionalized and kept hidden from the public for many decades. 

However, it was Kathleen’s controversial life and death that brought  so much inconveniences to the Kennedy legacy. 

Her marriage to a wealthy aristocrat, Lord Hartington, who descended from prominent British politicians, received an intense disapproval from the family, partly because Lord Hartington, heir to the Dukedom of Devonshire, and great-grandson of the British Prime Minister, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, was a protestant.

Kathleen would create more scandalous headlines when in 1948, four years after Lord Hartington's death, she was involved in another forbidden romance. 

This time, regarded as more scandalous. Not only Lord Peter Fitzwilliam, the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam, was  a protestant but he was married and on the brink of divorcing his wife.

Her mother was particularly incensed with the circumstances and tried to take her back to America with no success.

The relationship was particularly controversial because Kick's father was a leading member of the US Democrat party and a prominent member of the Irish Catholic community in Boston. While her brother, John, was slowly introduced in the American political scene as a rising Democrat party leader.

Kathleen's romance to a protestant married man was viewed as a political poison to her brother's bid for public office, and a liability to the Irish Catholic votes.

She died tragically in 1948. The circumstances that led to her death were so scandalous, the tragedy and her passing were concealed and were not made public.

Her name was rarely mentioned in the political family affair since then. She was almost airbrushed from the family history that people would even surprise to know President John F. Kennedy had a sister named Kathleen.

The Rebellious Kick

Kathleen Agnes was born in 1920, three years younger than President JFK, whom she closely resembled physically. She was nicknamed Kick because of her quick-witted and vibrant personality and energy, like some of a “kick”.

Kick with her parents and four siblings

Like most prominent families with a high prized standing in the society, the Kennedy children were expected to be morally upright and virtuous because they had a name to protect and a political career to be spared of intrigues. 

But Kick was different, she was considered the “black sheep” in the family and had rebellious tendencies.

“She was the only rebel in the family”, says Lynne McTaggart, author of “Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times”. Adding that among the nine Kennedy siblings, it was only Kick who “did not march down the prescribed road”.

Kick and her brother, JFK 
who would become the first Catholic US President in 1961

Kick was pretty much of a charmer. She had a vibrant approach to life, almost unconventional and laced with stubbornness. She threw herself to a party and anything outdoor, dated her brothers’ friends and alarmed her family with her unorthodox lifestyle choices.

Her mother was so horrified she sent her to an all-girls school then to a convent. When her father served as US Ambassador to the United Kingdom, the first Irish-Catholic to hold the post, they moved to Britain.

Entry to Britain’s Aristocracy

The Kennedy’s arrival in London caused so much sensation according to reports. They were treated like royalty. Kick, with her vivacious personality, quickly adopted the London’s fascinating lifestyle and suited to partying with the British upper-class.

The British socialites were captivated with her warmth and wit, and the men were charmed with her vitality and intelligence. But she could be rowdy and naughty, petrifying the British elites with her uncanny wit. 

She called the Duke of Marlborough “Dukie-Wookie” and would throw rolls of bread to friends in a party.

However, it did not harm Kathleen's popularity and allure, she was even viewed as a breather to the upper-lip system of the English society.

Kathleen quickly became part of the British scene and was made a debutante in 1938. She befriended the aristocrats. 

In one of the parties she attended, she met Lord William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington, a British politician and soldier. She called him Billy, an Americanized nickname for William.

Lord Hartington and Kathleen Kennedy

Lord Hartington was the son and heir of a wealthy British aristocrat and politician, Edward Cavendish, 10th Duke of Devonshire and Lady Mary Gascoyne-Cecil, a granddaughter of former British Prime Minister and 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil.

Lady Mary would eventually become Queen Elizabeth II's Mistress of the Robes in later years, a position in the British Royal Household that could only be occupied by a woman born of noble blood.

However, Kick's mother, Rose Kennedy, was not impressed with the wealth and noble pedigree of this British prominent gentleman.  

She heavily objected her daughter’s romance because Lord Hartington was a protestant, an Anglican, and she did not want any of her children to switch religion and abandon Roman Catholicism.

Moreover, Kathleen's relationship to a protestant might create scandal within the very conservative and traditional Irish Catholic community in Massachusetts where the Kennedy clan was a leading member.

In 1939 at the outbreak of World War II, Ambassador Kennedy sent his wife and children back to the United States for safety. Kathleen, who did not want to leave England, was forced to join her family.

In 1943, having been left school and did various volunteer services, she longed to go back to England.

She enlisted in a center for servicemen set up by Red Cross which would send volunteers to England. She went back to Britain and reconnected with Lord Hartington.

The Marchioness of Hartington

Kick, a Roman Catholic, and Lord Hartington, a protestant, involved into a romance which was regarded as very controversial in their time. Not only the two descended from prominent political families, they were on a different side of faith viewed in Massachusetts as unconventional and harmful to the survival of the Kennedy's political career.

It was not comfortably received by the Irish Catholic community in Boston, and from then on Kathleen was branded as the most rebellious among the Kennedy siblings who went astray.

However, the intense disapproval from the Kennedy clan did not stop Lord Hartington's avowal of love for Kick, sort of Romeo and Juliet plot from Shakespeare play.  

On May 6, 1944, at the age of 24, without consent from Rose Kennedy, Kick and Lord Hartington wed in a civil ceremony. 

Only her older brother, Joe Kennedy, who was serving as a US Navy fighter pilot stationed in Britain, attended the wedding ceremony.

Lord Hartington and Kathleen Kennedy 
on their wedding day
with the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire 
and Kathleen's brother, Joe Kennedy

Nonetheless, despite the painful snub of Kennedy family, the couple looked happy and very much in-love. Kathleen gave up her voluntary service in Red Cross to devote more time to her husband.

Following the marriage, Kathleen became Lady Kathleen Cavendish, the Marchioness of Hartington and in line to become Duchess of Devonshire.

The Succession of Tragedy

After their wedding, the Marquess and Marchioness of Hartington, spent only one month as a couple.

Lord Hartington returned to his regiment, the Coldstream Guards, following the honeymoon, and was dispatched to the battlefield, marching to France.

The Marquess and Marchioness of Hartington

Three months later, on August 12, 1944, the first tragedy in the Kennedy family befell. Joe Kennedy died in action when his plane exploded over the English channel while on a secret bombing mission.

The Marchioness of Hartington briefly returned to the United States to mourn with her family. Then went back to England.

Meanwhile, Lord Cavendish’s unit was on the height of fighting in the Western Front. They had crossed to Northern France and met the fierce German troops in the battlefield.

By September, the battalion had successfully reached Belgium to liberate the city of Brussels. However, on the 9th of September, while leading his unit to capture the town of Heppen, Lord Hartington was fatally shot in the heart by a German sniper.

He fell mortally wounded and died. He was only 26 and just four months into his marriage. At his wishes while still alive, his wife and family agreed to bury him in the ground where he died.

Despite early widowhood, Lady Hartington did not head her family's call to move back to the United States. She remained in England.

The Dukedom of Devonshire was eventually inherited by Lord Hartington's younger brother, Andrew Cavendish, in 1950. He was the father of the current Duke of Devonshire, Peregrine Cavendish, one of the richest aristocrats in Britain today.

Lady Hartington’s Scandalous Affair

Lady Kathleen Cavendish remained in Britain after her husband’s death and became even more popular in the London society circuit. But the Kennedy family's relief towards Kathleen's romantic misadventures was brief.

in 1948, she was involved again in another scandalous relationship that mortified the Kennedy. 

Lady Hartington

Lord Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam, a wealthy British nobleman and politician, was still married and on the brink of divorcing his wife when he and Lady Hartington were romantically involved.

And not only that. Lord Fitzwilliam, who sat in the House of Lords in the parliament, was a protestant and in communion with the Anglican church.

Rose Kennedy was incensed with her daughter’s indiscretion. She was even more aghast when Lady Hartington and Lord Fitzwilliam planned to get married as soon as his divorce will be finalized.

The death that was kept secret

In May 1948, Lady Hartington heard that her father would be traveling to Paris for an official trip, she wanted to get his consent for the marriage, so she flown to the French capital with Lord Fitzwilliam.

It was not clearly known if she had received her father’s permission to marry, but on the 13th of May, she and Fitzwilliam proceeded to the French Riviera for a stopover on board a private plane.

They were navigating the sky under a thick fog and heavy turbulence. With the storm approaching, the plane lost in the radar and plummeted to the ravines. Lady Hartington, Lord Fitzwilliam and the flight crew died instantly.

Her death was concealed by the family and was not publicly announced due to the scandalous circumstances. In order to protect the budding political career of her brother, the future US President, it remained a secret family tragedy.

Her death came four years later after her husband's death and her brother, Joe, death in the same circumstance. 

She was buried in England at the Cavendish burial ground and only her father attended the funeral. Lady Hartington was only 28 at the time of her death.

Following the tragedy, no one in the family had ever talked about Kick in public. She was never mentioned in the propaganda of any of her brothers’ candidacy both in the senate and presidency. 

Her scandalous relationship to a married protestant was viewed as a political poison to John F. Kennedy's bid for Congress in Massachusetts and to the White House, 13 years later after Kick's death. It was regarded as a huge liability to the conservative Irish Catholic community voters.

But the so-called repugnance of Rose Kennedy towards Kick was debunked by most historians. In fact, she was not completely shun by the family. 

In 1957, "her parents and siblings dedicated a new physical education building in her honor at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York", according to John F. Kennedy Museum Library website.

Memory of the Forgotten Kennedy Sister

For years, no one ever heard about Kathleen Kennedy-Cavendish, and no one knew that once, there was a Kennedy member that married into a prominent British aristocracy.

Her legacy of public service and unique vitality and charm prevalent to a Kennedy name, was not publicly celebrated and remain hidden in the family's secret doors.

Kathleen Kennedy-Cavendish

It was only recently that the Kennedy clan is comfortable of bringing Kathleen Cavendish into a conversation.

The current generation of the Kennedys were sympathetic to the great-aunt they did not meet.

Kathleen Kennedy, granddaughter of Senator Robert Kennedy, had a funny recollection why she was nicknamed Kick.

“When I was a little, I wondered why I had a funny name “Kathleen Kick Kennedy”. I was named after my great-aunt who was a lot of fun. She was Kick!”, she said in a New York Post.

I can’t imagine anything more devastating”, says the younger Kick, referring to the sad circumstances of Lady Hartington’s life.

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