Sunday 15 January 2017

Kick: The True Story of Kick Kennedy, JFK's Forgotten Sister

I'd read a bit about Kick Kennedy in Wait For Me! by Deborah Devonshire, as Kick married her husband's elder brother, and since then have wanted to read more about the Kennedys in general, just not got around to it. Kick by Paula Byrne was one of Nan from Letters from a Hill farm's favourite books of 2016 and as Nan liked this book so much I decided to give it a go and was lucky enough to find a copy in my local library.

Kathleen Kennedy, known to all except her mother as 'Kick', was born in 1920 and was the fourth child and second daughter of Rose and Joseph Kennedy. She made up one third of the three Kennedy children known as the 'personality kids', the other two being the eldest two boys, Joe junior, and the future president, Jack. But Kick was special. As Joe senior said:

'All my ducks were swans... but Kick was especially special.'

From a very young age she shone. She was brave and fearless, intelligent, charismatic... the sort of person who lit up the room when she entered... everyone but everyone adored Kick Kennedy. It was not an easy family to grow up in though. The children's mother, Rose, was a devout Catholic and dedicated her life to making sure her children were as devout as her. Plus, with so many siblings you had to be something special to be noticed and had to be able to hold your own in family discussions, of which there were many as of course the Kennedys were an intensely political family. They were the first Irish Catholic family to rise to political prominence in America and it was Joe's ruthlessness which had made that so.

In the years leading up to WW2 the family led an idyllic life, educated in the best schools, money no object, and wonderful holidays in Florida and Cape Cod. In 1937 Joe was appointed American Ambassador to Great Britain and the family moved to London in 1938. In less than eighteen months the country would be at war with Germany but until then the Kennedy children became celebrities in a country which had never seen anything like them. The 'personality kids', young and good looking, were especially popular and Kick in particular discovered that men really liked her. They were in fact falling over themselves to court her. It wasn't long before Kick fell completely in love with England, its people, and its ways.

She had many admirers and dated a lot of them but eventually she was to meet Billy Hartington, eldest son and heir to the Duke of Devonshire and owner of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. They fell in love but there was one huge obstacle to their marriage: religion. Kick was Roman Catholic... the Devonshires not just fiercely protestant but historically one of the most anti-catholic families in the land. It was to cause Kick huge heartache and cause a rift with her family that was very slow to heal.

So here we have my first Goodreads five star book of 2017. I *loved* this book to bits... whizzed through it in about 3 days and now want my own copy. (Nan said I would...) The Kennedys are a family that I've wanted to read more about for a while, but I didn't know where to start, so I didn't. Kick, in fact, turns out to be the perfect place. There is much casual information about the family, ie. the parents, Joe and Rose Kennedy, where they came from, what they were about and so on. I say 'casual' because it's put over in a very readable way and there aren't pages and pages of dry reading to plough through. It's all very accessible and easy to absorb.

The book, of course, centres on Kick, but I learnt an awful lot about the two brothers she was closest to as well, Joe jnr. and Jack, because of course Kick didn't exist in a bubble. I knew nothing about Joe other than he died in the war. I knew more about Jack, obviously, but wasn't aware that he was often very ill and constantly in and out of hospital when he was young. Lots of other people come in and out of the story too. Kick was so immensely popular that wherever she went she affected everyone with her vivacity, sheer niceness and ability to make whoever she was talking to feel like they were the only person in the world. Men fell for her in droves even though she wasn't traditionally beautiful, she just had something about her that made people love her.

One of the things that surprised me, even though Deborah Devonshire did touch on it in Wait for Me!, was how the Kennedy family took London by storm when they arrived in 1938. We think the cult of 'celebrity status' is a recent thing. Er... no. The doings of the three Kennedy 'personality kids' were followed massively in the papers and they were photographed constantly, everyone wanted to get to know them and to be seen with them.

Of course, you can't mention the Kennedy family without thinking in terms of sadness and tragedy. Rose Kennedy wrote:

'Rosemary's was the first of the tragedies that were to befall us.'

Rosemary was the Kennedy's oldest daughter, not physically disabled but mentally retarded after a botched birth. Joe Kennedy ordered brain surgery for the young woman and it failed miserably, it made my blood run cold to read about it to be honest. Awful thing. And after that tragedy followed tragedy, starting with WW2 and carrying on after. Even though I knew what happened to Joe jnr., Billy Hartington and Kick herself it still hit me hard as I had felt I'd got to know them by the end of the book. Of course worse was to come with JFK himself but that is not touched on in this book.

So much more I could say about this delightful book. It's overall an excellent read, well written, good with atmosphere (I felt I was right there in the 1920s and 30s) and informative. I now want to read more about the Kennedy family so will investigate to see what's around and what's recommended. I do in fact own Jack by Geoffrey Perret, so will get to that very soon as well. I feel like Kick was a terrific introduction to the Kennedy family and I'm ready now to read on.



TracyK said...

This sounds very interesting, Cath. Might be a good introduction to the Kennedy's for me as well.

Kay said...

This was certainly a nice review. I've not been particularly interested in the Kennedy family as a whole, though I have been interested in Jackie Kennedy because I love reading about the First Ladies. I might want to explore it on audio. Good job, Cath!

Unknown said...

I read the biography of Rose Kennedy years ago. What a matriarch she was. Tough as nails. I don't remember the name or author of this book but I never forgot it. At the end I was glad I hadn't been born in that family. Such an interesting family though and so much tragedy.

Kailana said...

Oh, I definitely want to read this. I have always meant to read more about the Kennedy's.

BooksPlease said...

I've picked up bits of information about the Kennedys over the years from various TV programmes and news reports etc, but you've convinced me that I need to read this book. I've reserved the one copy that the county library holds, so when I'll get it I have no idea. I've got three other reservations and they'll probably all arrive at the same time.

Cath said...

Tracy: I really felt it was an excellent 'intro' sort of book to the Kennedys and their doings. But I am ready for more depth now.

Kay: Thankyou, that's kind of you to say. It was an easy book to talk about as I liked it so much. The Kennedys are not a particular interest of mine either to be honest, but they're so much a part of recent American history which I *am* interested in so I felt it wouldn't harm to find out more. I plan to read 'Jack' by Geoffrey Perret soon and Jackie Kennedy will presumably feature in that quite a lot.

Pam: Yes, gosh, Rose was tough as they come. I must read a proper biography of her at some stage. Oh yes, a *very* tough family to be born into... I too was glad not to be born one of them.

Kelly: I hope you try this as it's so readable and interesting.

Margaret: Yes, me too but it's all 'bitty' information and I felt I needed to read something to paste all the bits together. I hope you enjoy it when you get it. Oh yes, no doubt they will all arrive at the same time.

Peggy Ann said...

Your enthusiasm makes me want to read this, Cath, and I don't usually read biographies anymore. Which is strange as I devoured them when I was young! I'll see if my library has this.

Cath said...

Peggy, it's an 'easy' biography if you get me... not dry and boring... interesting and very readable.

Nan said...

Wonderful, excellent review. You are such a good writer, Cath. I agree with every single word. Byrne made her come alive.

Cath said...

Thank you so much, Nan. I can only do it when the book really inspires me. I'm keen to read more books by Paula Byrne now.