Kathleen Kennedy simply wanted to break from the confines of her suffocatingly restrictive life. She almost made it.
Called “Kick” because of her exuberant nature — she was a real kick in the pants, if you will — she was the fourth child and second daughter of the Kennedy clan and lived the kind of life her less fortunate older sister Rosemary Kennedy should have. While both girls caused a huge sensation when they made their debut at royal court in London in 1938, Kick was the one who walked away with one of the most eligible bachelors in the U.K.
She wasn’t a raving beauty. In her book Kick Kennedy, Barbara Leaming wrote, “Her hair was a shade of ‘mousy brown,’ and verged on being frizzy. Her shoulders were also unfortunate, set much too high, and her neck was far too short. In height, she was not quite five foot three and her figure was, at that point anyway, ‘on the lumpy side.'”
But the British aristocracy were totally captivated by her enthusiasm for life and her absolute willingness to laugh at herself. When she met William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington — known as Billy Hartington to his friends — the pair hit it off immediately. But their romance would have to wait. The entire Kennedy family, save for patriarch Joe, who was serving as the American Ambassador to Great Britain, was shipped back home to the states at the outbreak of World War II.
Both Kick and Rosemary were devastated. We’ve examined how this move led to a horrific life-changing decision on Rosemary’s behalf, but Kick was able to channel her disappointment into action. She slyly volunteered to work in a center for servicemen in the U.K. with the Red Cross, and by 1943 had resumed her relationship with Hartington.
Their thoughts soon turned to marriage, and this presented a huge problem for the couple. Joe’s philandering aside, the Kennedys considered themselves staunch Catholics — especially their mother, Rose. Hartington’s family was Protestant, and their children would be raised in the Church of England. Rose rejected the couple’s relationship and tried to delay their wedding. They ran off and married anyway in a civil ceremony at a registry office. Kick’s oldest brother, Joe Jr., was the only family member to attend.
Their newlywed bliss was short-lived. Hartington returned to the French front after D-Day, and just four months after the marriage, he was killed by a sniper’s bullet in Belgium. Kick’s brother, Joe Jr., had been killed in action one month prior.
The marriage had driven a deep wedge between Kick and Rose to the point that Kick did not return home to the States after Hartington’s death. Two years later, she met another Brit — Earl Peter Wentworth Fitzwilliam, an aristocrat with even more money than her late husband. But there was a problem. He was already married to someone else.
He claimed to already be separated from his wife and offered to push forward his divorce if Kick would agree to marry him. She did, but there was still that nagging problem: her strict Catholic family.
The huge wedge that her marriage to Hartington had driven between Kick and Rose only deepened when she told her devout mother she now intended to marry a soon-to-be-divorcée. Kick was told in no uncertain terms that if she ran off and married this man like she did her first husband, not only would she be cut off financially, but considered dead to the Kennedy family.
Kick didn’t consider it a lost cause. In 1948, knowing she was her father’s favorite, she arranged a meeting between Joe, herself and Fitzwilliam in Paris to plead their case. They planned a quick jaunt to Cannes first — but that desired getaway cost them their lives.
During a quick stop to refuel, the pilot insisted weather conditions made it impossible to continue — and just as forcefully, Fitzwilliam insisted they take off. So they did. Radio contact was lost one hour into the flight as they entered the center of a storm. An investigation found the four occupants endured 20 minutes of extreme turbulence and when they finally emerged from the clouds were in a deep dive just moments from impact. A last-ditch attempt by the pilot to pull up caused the plane to break apart, and Kick and Fitzwilliam were killed instantly, along with pilot Peter Townshend and navigator Arthur Freeman.
Kick was just 28 years old.
Even in the face of tragedy, Rose could not forgive her daughter for turning her back on the Catholic Church. Joe, who was already in Europe anyway, was the only family member to attend Kick’s funeral, which was generously arranged by Hartington’s family in the U.K. Rose also didn’t attend the memorial service in Massachusetts.
Kick lies at rest in the Cavendish family plot in Derbyshire, England.
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