Kick: The True Story of Kick Kennedy by Paula Byrne
When Kathleen – or “Kick” – Kennedy was a girl, she and her older brother Jack were strikingly alike, said Bee Wilson in The Guardian. They had the same thick mops of hair and bright blue eyes; both were “witty, sporty and sharp”. Jack, of course, would go on to become president, but though Kick was also interested in politics, her path during her tragically short life – she died, aged 28, in a plane crash – took a different turn. In this “brilliant and sympathetic” biography, Paula Byrne shows the “deep double standards” a Kennedy upbringing involved. While Jack and his three brothers were encouraged to be promiscuous and ambitious, Kick and her four sisters were expected to be “chaste and ornamental”. In 1938, when the family moved to London (where father Joe had been made ambassador), the British press swooned over the “photogenic” Kick; she became a glamorous socialite, admired even by the misanthropic Evelyn Waugh. Yet for all her “huge sexual charisma”, she remained something of “a convent girl”. When a boyfriend tried to kiss her on a third date, she said: “I don’t want to do the thing the priest says not to do.”
The truly sad story at the heart of this excellent biography, said Sue Gaisford in the FT, is the love affair between Kick and Billy Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire’s oldest son and heir to Chatsworth. The two met in 1938, fell in love and resolved to wed. But Rose Kennedy, Kick’s mother, was every bit as appalled at the idea of her daughter marrying a Protestant – she even summoned a papal nuncio to stop it – as Billy’s family was of him marrying a Catholic. (Loathing of Catholics had been a family trait ever since Billy’s ancestor, Sir William Cavendish, helped in the dissolution of the monasteries.) Defying the attempts to stop them, the couple finally married in 1944 (in Chelsea registry office) and had five weeks together before Billy returned to his regiment in France. Months later, he was shot through the heart by a sniper. “All your life I shall love you,” wrote Billy’s grieving mother to Kick, “not only for yourself, but that you gave such perfect happiness to my son, whom I loved above anything in the world.”
How horrible it must have been being part of the Kennedy clan, said Ben Macintyre in The Times. It wasn’t so much a family as a “public political enterprise, turning out a series of overachieving paragons”. Rose’s treatment of Kick was especially “ghastly”: having opposed her marriage, she then “airbrushed” her daughter out of Kennedy family history, covering up the fact that she’d been having an affair with a married man (who died alongside her in the crash). In this “fine” biography, however, Byrne has rescued Kick from such “undeserved obscurity”, providing an “important additional chapter to the story of this dazzling, doomed dynasty”.