Inside the Scandalous Life of JFK's Sister, Kick Kennedy

A new book gives a peek into her relationship with her family, her marriage to a British nobleman and her secret affair with a married man.

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(Image credit: Courtesy John F. Kennedy Library)

Kick Kennedy was her father Joe Kennedy's favorite child and the "psychological twin" of her older brother Jack, who would go on to become President Kennedy. She led a life in the spotlight in England, where she became an unexpected star in the world of the British aristocracy. She married William "Billy" Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington, but the marriage didn't last long. After her husband died in World War II, Kick became romantically involved with Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, 8th Earl Fitzwilliam, an even wealthier British aristocrat—who was married.  Her scandalous life story is told in Barbara Leaming's new biography, "Kick Kennedy: The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of the Favorite Kennedy Daughter." Here's an exclusive excerpt:

On April 29, 1947, Kick was in a contemplative mood as the hour drew near that the liner Queen Elizabeth, on which she had been traveling from America, was scheduled to dock in Southampton, England. The cause of her meditations was the sight of an American teenager named Sharman Douglas who, with everything ahead of her, reminded Kick of the girl she herself had been almost a decade before. Lewis Douglas was the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to the Court of St James's, and his sprightly daughter Sharman was sailing over in the company of her mother to join him at the American Embassy.

"It made me feel rather sentimental to see the daughter age 18, going to London for the first time like I did," Kick wrote from the boat to the Kennedys, whom she had just been visiting, "although the glories I found have vanished now."

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(Image credit: Archives)

In her day, Kick had been one of London's most popular debutantes. She had swiftly and skillfully penetrated the hermetically sealed world of the aristocratic cousinhood. She had been courted by various young noblemen. She had fallen in love with the heir to a dukedom, and by sheer persistence and obstinacy she had managed to keep that love alive in the face of monumental obstacles. She had struggled with ethical and religious dilemmas and she had finally taken a decision with which she, at least, could be at peace. She had become a wife and a widow in a matter of months. She had made a glittering future for herself and she had had that future abruptly snatched away by a German sniper's bullet. She had endured and emerged from paralyzing grief. She had moved to a new home of her own and she had established a political salon there.

And now, though Kick spoke wistfully to the Kennedys of vanished glories, she perceived herself as having a chance not only to retrieve much of that glory, but perhaps even to surpass it.

One of Britain's wealthiest peers, a man whom she found incomparably attractive and whom she regarded as a hero in the great societal struggle of the postwar era, wished to marry her. This time, however, should she finally consent to become Peter Fitzwilliam's second wife, it seemed highly unlikely that she would ever discover a way, as before, to be at peace with her decision. Though Kick had defied both Hyannis Port and Rome in the past, she had never ceased to think of herself as a Catholic to whom the tenets of her faith were precious. When she married Billy Hartington, she had by no means agreed to abandon Catholicism, only to consent that any children she and he might have would be raised as Anglicans. By the time of Kick's initial plunge into the world of the aristocratic cousinhood, in 1938, Catholic principles had been long and deeply inculcated in her—and so, for all that she had experienced in the interim, they remained.

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Kick with her oldest siblings. From left:  Joe Jr., Jack, Rosemary, Kick, and Eunice.

(Image credit: Archives)

Such were the contradictions of Kick's nature that the same woman who had lately become a Whig grandee's mistress also at intervals went on retreats to convents whose "peaceful and tranquil" atmosphere, as she described it that emotionally turbulent spring of 1947, were as a balm to her. Because as a committed Roman Catholic Kick was deeply troubled by the fact that Peter was married, her excruciating conflict was not simply with her family and with her church—it was with herself. This time, nothing anyone else said or did could alter her conviction that marrying him would in fact be a sin.

In the course of her second postwar visit to the U.S., which had taken place between February and April, Kick had refrained from disclosing that dilemma to her family, who as yet knew nothing about her affair with Peter Fitzwilliam.

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Peter Fitzwilliam with his wife, Obby.

(Image credit: Archives)

Jack would be the first Kennedy family member with whom she broached the subject of her affair. Newly elected to represent the 11th District in the House of Representatives—a campaign that Kick had followed from afar with intense interest and enthusiasm—Jack Kennedy came to Britain that summer on a congressional fact-finding mission.  In the course of his visit, he joined Kick at a house party that she had arranged at Lismore Castle. She told Jack that she was in love with Peter, whom she compared to Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind and she urged her brother not to say anything of the affair to her parents until she had a chance to speak to them herself when she came again to the U.S. in early 1948.

On that visit Kick was booked to return to England on the liner Queen Elizabeth from New York City on April 22, 1948. Shortly before her departure, she joined Joe and Rose [her parents] on the occasion of the reopening of the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, where they had had their honeymoon thirty-four years ago.  Kick postponed the disclosure of her wedding plans until the final night of their stay there. Immediately, there were hot words between her mother and herself. Rose Kennedy stipulated that if Kick committed the sin of marrying a divorced man, she would promptly be cut off from the family—not just from her parents, but from her siblings as well. The threat, whether or not Rose would be able to carry it out in its entirety, left Kick reeling. To her further anguish, her father, also in the room at the time, appeared by his silence to agree with Rose, both about the marriage and the banishment.

She told Jack that she was in love with Peter, whom she compared to Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.

When Kick returned to London without having agreed to break off with Fitzwilliam, Rose did not resort to intermediaries, or retreat to a hospital bed, as she had done when she frantically sought to prevent her daughter's marriage to Billy Hartington. This time, the indignant matriarch pursued Kick, all the way to Smith Square, where the women battled on for four days. In the unlikely event that Kick had forgotten either point, Rose laid out yet again the Church's position on divorce and renewed her threats of expulsion from the Kennedy family circle. She demanded that Kick give up her life in London and accompany her to the U.S. at once. Still, when their war of words had died down, the mother had not succeeded in swaying the daughter from her purpose.

Nor had Rose extinguished Kick's hope that there was something old Joe might yet do on her and her lover's behalf. However much Kick had changed and grown through the years, she had never ceased to believe in the powers of "Darling Daddy" to make everything right.

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Joe Jr., Kick, and Jack Kennedy on September 3, 1939.

(Image credit: Archives)

Soon, the news that Joe Kennedy planned to be in Paris in May seemed to provide an opening. Kick and Peter were due to be in Cannes around that same time, and she asked the old man if they might come to see him. Her father agreed to have lunch with her and her lover at the Ritz Paris hotel on Saturday, the fifteenth. Peter was determined to marry Kick as soon as he could divorce his wife.

Two days before they were to see Joe at the Ritz, Kick and Peter were en route to Cannes on a chartered ten-seat de Havilland Dove plane when they stopped at Le Bourget airfield, near Paris, to refuel. On an impulse, Peter called some racing world friends in Paris and invited them for lunch on the Champs-Elysées. When he and Kick returned to the aircraft some two and a half hours later, the pilot insisted that turbulent weather conditions ahead made it unsafe to take off; any attempt to reach Cannes would require flying directly into a massive thunderstorm. Peter, however, simply would not hear of postponing the flight until the danger had passed. In defiance of the elements, he angrily demanded that the aircraft take off without delay. At twenty minutes past three in the afternoon, the plane, carrying Kick, Peter, and a two-man crew, departed for Cannes.

However much Kick had grown, she had never ceased to believe in the powers of "Darling Daddy" to make everything right.

In later years, [Kick's friend] Jean Lloyd remembered being confused about who might be calling at this hour. Shaking herself awake, she picked up the phone and heard the familiar voice of Tom Egerton, the closest friend of Billy Hartington's brother Andrew, who was a houseguest of Jean and her husband.  Tom explained that Kick had been killed in a plane crash in France with Peter Fitzwilliam.

Andrew's reaction to the news was immediate. He pulled on his clothes and left the house before dawn in anticipation of making the rounds of newspaper proprietors in London. His aim was to ensure that both Kick and her late husband's family were shielded against any mention in the press of her affair with a married man. Thanks to Andrew's intervention, it was generally written only that Lady Hartington and Earl Fitzwilliam had been passengers on the same ill-fated aircraft. Kick was reported to have been en route to Cannes when, in Paris, she had a chance encounter with Peter Fitzwilliam, who, also on his way there, offered her a ride in his private plane.

Meanwhile, Joe Kennedy, in Paris when he learned of the accident, had set off at once for the town of Privas, some ten miles from where the plane had crashed in the midst of a thunderstorm. At the time of his arrival, the bodies were still in the process of being transported to Privas in an oxcart. Kick, whose corpse had been discovered on the sodden ground not far from the shattered aircraft, had been identified with the aid of her American passport. Still, it remained for Joe Kennedy to make the final definitive identification of the daughter he had long designated, in Rose's words to Nancy Astor, his "favorite of all the children." Until he actually saw her, old Joe yet retained a faint hope that there might be some mistake. But when, on Friday night, the four bodies— Kick's, Peter's, the pilot's, and the radioman's—were brought in at last to the town hall in Privas, Joe acknowledged that the young woman with the broken jaw and the deep laceration on the right side of her face was indeed his child.

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Kick with her husband, Billy Hartington.

(Image credit: Archives)

Rose refused to travel to England to see her daughter buried. Nor did any other Kennedy fly over from the U.S. Even Jack, though he said he would be there, failed to materialize in the end. He, Rose, and the others held their own memorial service in Hyannis Port. Joe, meanwhile, was the sole family member to attend the Requiem Mass. While Joe was in London, his palpable and monumental sadness did not, however, restrain him from making a pass at Billy's twenty-two-year-old-sister, Elizabeth.

The very fact of Kick's burial in the Cavendish plot; the inscription memorializing her as the widow of Major the Marquess of Hartington; and the various Cavendishes, Cecils, and other members of the tribe who collected at the graveside—all of these elements conspired to enfold her, both for those present and for posterity, in her late husband's family, even though at the time of her death she had been about to marry into a rival dynasty. 

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Kate Storey

Kate Storey is a contributing editor at Marie Claire and writer-at-large at Esquire magazine, where she covers culture and politics. Kate's writing has appeared in ELLE, Harper's BAZAAR, Town & Country, and Cosmopolitan, and her first book comes out in summer 2023.