Kathleen Agnes Kennedy or “Kick” as she was called by her close friends and family was born into the prominent Kennedy family in 1920. Her grandfather “Honey Fitz” was the mayor of Boston. Her father Joseph P. Kennedy was a business man and politician. Kathleen was born into a huge family and was especially close to her brother John F Kennedy “Jack” who later became US President.
The Kennedy family moved to London in 1938 when Joe became the US Ambassador to the Court of St James (Great Britain). Kathleen enrolled at Queen’s College in London. Kathleen used her American-ness to her advantage and charmed the pants off of London society. She was named “Debutante of 1938” by the English media, no small feat especially for an American. It was in the elite social circles that Kathleen first met her future husband William “Billy” Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington and heir to the Dukedom of Devonshire.
It wasn’t exactly love at first sight (at least not on Kathleen’s part), but Billy and Kathleen became good friends. Kathleen was a little distracted as she was being chased by all of the important eligible bachelors in England at the time (including Billy’s younger brother Andrew). However, the pair did talk seriously about marriage. And it was a seriously difficult topic. As the Protestant heir to the Dukedom of Devonshire, Billy couldn’t (or wouldn’t) convert to Catholicism for Kathleen. Neither would she convert or risk eternal damnation by marrying outside of her faith. They were at an impasse.
Kathleen and Billy were forced to part when war broke out and the Kennedy’s moved back to the US in 1940. Kathleen was devastated. She loved London and all of the friends that she’d made and hated returning home. After a stint as a gossip columnist in Washington DC, Kathleen returned to London in 1943. This time she was back on her own steam. She joined the American Red Cross to help out with the war effort. Her timing couldn’t have been better. Billy had just broken off his engagement to Sally Norton.
Kathleen and Billy reunited and they married in a small civil service at Chelsea Town Hall on 6th May 1944. The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire were present, along with Kathleen’s brother Joe who acted as her witness to the union. By this time, Kathleen had grown very close to her brother Joe. They were the only Kennedy children in the UK at the time, and Jack was busy in the South Pacific being a Navy hero. Rose Kennedy got the shock of a lifetime when she found out that her daughter had married a Protestant. From that point until Kathleen’s death, mother and daughter were estranged. Kathleen may have lost a mother but she gained the title Marchioness of Hartington. Surprisingly, automatic entry into the most important family in Britain after the royal family, didn’t do anything to calm Rose or reassure her that her daughter wasn’t going to hell.
Kathleen and her new husband spent their one week honeymoon at the family’s estate at Compton Place in Eastbourne, East Sussex. A month later, Billy was deployed with the Coldstream Guards to fight in France. Kathleen settled into married life with her in-laws and started to learn about her wifely duties that went along with being a future duchess. During Billy’s absence, Kathleen got the devastating news that her brother Joe had been killed when his plane exploded on a secret mission over the English Channel on 12th August. Sadly, a month later when Kathleen was in the US mourning her brother, she got another piece of devastating news. Her husband Billy was shot dead by a sniper during the liberation of Belgium.
A year after Billy’s death, the new Marquess and Marchioness of Hartington were ennobled (Kathleen’s brother-in-law Andrew and friend Deborah “Debo” Mitford). Now there were two Lady Hartingtons. Kathleen started to get the hint that it was time for her to move on. She started socialising again and quickly became the toast of the town, just like she was before the war. The new debutantes of the season bemoaned the fact that there were so few eligible bachelors and they all wanted to dance with Kathleen Cavendish. They simply couldn’t compete with a rich American widow.
When Kathleen flirted with Richard Wood in 1946, she also flirted with the idea of marrying him. Richard was a war hero without legs who was an old friend of hers, gentle, with a teasing sense of humour who reminded Kathleen of her husband. He was also getting pretty used to his prosthetic legs. He could hobble around with a cane as good as any other man with legs. In the end the pair decided not to proceed with marriage. Richard was after all another Protestant, and Kathleen wasn’t sure she had it in her to fight for him now that she was back in the safe confines of the Catholic Church.
There was however, one Protestant aristocrat that Kathleen was willing to risk her eternal damnation on. When Kathleen met Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam, in 1946 sparks flew. The earl was a bon viveur was a passion for racing horses and seducing women, a bit of a scoundrel really. He came with his own baggage – a wife Olive “Obby” Plunket and a daughter. His estate Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire was even grander than Chatsworth. Both sides of the Atlantic were completely scandalised by the union. Rose Kennedy threatened to divorce Kathleen’s father as emotional blackmail if Kathleen proceeded to marry Fitzwilliam. The stakes were high.
In an effort to get Joe Kennedy on her side about Fitzwilliam, Kathleen invited her father to meet the couple in Cannes, France. Unfortunately the couple never made it and crashed in the Ardèche in France. Joe Kennedy, who was already in Paris got the call with the bad news. He made his way to the crash site and identified the remains of his daughter. Joe Kennedy was the only member of the Kennedy family to attend Kathleen’s funeral at the Jesuit Parish of Farm Street Church in Mayfair, London.
Straight after Kathleen’s London funeral, her friends boarded a train for Derbyshire and proceeded to her final burial place. The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire offered for Kathleen to be buried at the family plot in Edensor, near Chatsworth. They still had the space left for Billy who had been buried in Belgium where he fell with his men. Joe took them up on their offer. It was probably hard for him seeing his daughter buried in a Protestant plot of a notoriously anti-Catholic family. Joe’s old foe Winston Churchill sent a wreath and a handwritten note. Joe barely even looked at Duke and Duchess of Devonshire as he left despite all that they had done for Kathleen during her life. The Duchess chose the epitaph for Kathleen’s tombstone as Joe had been too bereft to decide.
JOY SHE GAVE JOY SHE HAS FOUND
Finally Kathleen was at peace and resting in a place that she loved. Such a tragic end for such a remarkable young woman.