Friday, December 15, 2017

Review: Fairy-tale love affair of a Kennedy and English peer

Review of: Kick Kennedy: The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of the Favorite Kennedy Daughter
Author: Barbara Leaming
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Source: Dallas Public Library
Grade: B

Will we ever get enough of the Kennedys? In today’s political scene filled with the dull, the dusty, and the dastardly, the √©lan of the Kennedys, their too-many tragic deaths, their power, even their larger than life failings, still fascinate. Add to that a fairy-tale romance between a sprightly American commoner and the handsome heir to one of the wealthiest dukedoms in Great Britain, and we’ve got the stuff gossip writers dream of, brought to life by biographer Barbara Leaming in Kick Kennedy: The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of the Favorite Kennedy Daughter.

Kathleen Kennedy was the second daughter (and fourth child) of Joseph P. and Rose Kennedy, whose family would become America’s own version of royalty. Kathleen – early nicknamed “Kick” for her irrepressible vitality – was the brighter mirror image of her older sister Rosemary, the developmentally-disabled daughter the Kennedys hid for decades. Her father’s favorite, she still yearned for the approval her mother Rose would ever withhold from her children. 

It was at first startling to find a biography that begins when the main character is in her late teens (and will end little more than 10 years later). But wedged between her tough-minded older brothers, Joe Jr. and Jack, and a press of younger siblings, Kick remained, like a true Cinderella (minus the cinders), for the most part unremarkable publicly until the appointment of her father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom.

The Kennedy children had already moved within circles of political, economic, and artistic aristocracy as the patriarch Joe Sr. worked his way up the social ladder from nouveau-riche Irish to advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt. With their arrival in England in 1938, just in time for the London social season, they would mingle with old-school aristocrats.

The “season” was the round of social events during the spring and early summer during which “debutantes were brought out in the matrimonial market designed to secure them suitable husbands,” Leaming writes. Not that the Kennedys were in search of husband for their daughters there. The aristocratic young men on display were Protestant, the Kennedys staunch Catholics. Never, Joe Sr. and Rose would have vowed (if they had even thought it necessary) would any of their children marry a Protestant.

But American-born Lady Astor had a soft heart for fellow Americans. The pretty daughter of the new American ambassador, she intended, would be accepted into London society.

“For Kick Kennedy,” Leaming writes, “England was but the latest ‘gift’ in a long series of treated presented to her by her adoring father. She had come to England. . . because of Joe Kennedy. And she assumed that, precisely for that reason” the visit would be a happy experience. 

It would be both happier and more heartbreaking than Kick or any of her family could imagine as Kick sets her heart on William (aka Billy), the tall and handsome heir to the Duke of Devonshire, one of the oldest and richest dukedoms in the kingdom. And he sets his heart on her.

As the world descends into war, will Billy break with his family to marry a Catholic? She Kick break with hers? Is there a happy ever after in their future or only heartbreak?

One of the perils of a biographer is how to retain readers’ interest even when the final outcome is known. But Leaming, who has written biographies of the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth, keeps the intrigue going. The story, admittedly, falters near the end. Was Kick truly in love with her handsome Billy or with the storybook life she imagined with him? Would their families ever be reconciled to their children’s differences?

Kick was no intellectual or political match for other members of her family, but a flawed, loving, and loveable human being. Leaming wisely leaves readers to draw their own conclusions about her, and sigh over the unattainable possibilities.

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