Seventy years ago today, a plane crash in southern France ended the life of Kick Kennedy, oldest sister of Jack and Bobby, and her lover, Peter, Earl Fitzwilliam. This story recounts the series of events that lead up to the tragedy, and the remarkable Irish connections to each of the protagonists.
Lismore, Co. Waterford, August 1947. Standing by the banks of the River Blackwater, the future American president John Fitzgerald Kennedy must have winced when his eldest sister whispered to him, ‘I’ve found my Rhett Butler at last.’ It was not yet two years since Kathleen – known as Kick – had become a widow when her husband Billy Hartington was shot dead in a gun battle with SS troops in Belgium.
Her marriage to Billy had been profoundly controversial on many fronts. As heir apparent to the Duke of Devonshire, he was one of Britain’s preeminent Protestant peers while Kick was the daughter of a man widely reviled in Britain for his support of both Catholicism and Irish nationalism.
But now, as Jack Kennedy well knew, Kick had taken another giant leap into the mire by falling head over heels for Peter Fitzwilliam, a charming but notorious womanizer and party animal. She had her heart set on marriage, just as soon as Peter divorced his devoted Irish wife.
Kick’s romance with the 8thEarl Fitzwilliam was destined for a tragic finale seventy years ago this week, as recounted by Catherine Bailey in her definitive epic, ‘Black Diamonds – The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty.’
The Fitzwilliams, the subject of Bailey’s book, were one of the wealthiest families in Britain with over 20,000 acres in Yorkshire, centred on an enormous mansion, Wentworth Wodehouse, which boasted a room for every day of the year and 5 miles of internal passageways. Located just north of Sheffield, it was built in the 1720s for Thomas Wentworth, later Marquess of Rockingham, from whom it passed to the Fitzwilliams.
As Bailey observes, their fortune derived from ‘a spectacular stroke of luck’ when it emerged that their estate straddled the Barnsley seam, the main artery of the South Yorkshire coalfield. As one friend put it, the collieries were ‘within a rifle shot of [the Earl’s] ancestral seat.’ The ‘black diamonds’, or coal nuggets, duly gave the Fitzwilliams enough money to buy a 50-room house in London’s Mayfair, a vast portfolio of shares, 80 racehorses and a priceless collection of art and books.
The family also owned the 100-room mansion of Coolattin, near Shillelagh, Co. Wicklow, with 85,000 acres, marking one fifth of Co. Wicklow. There had been Fitzwilliams in Ireland since the Tudor Age; Sir William Fitzwilliam served as Lord Deputy of Ireland for the bones of a decade, co-founded Trinity College and secured his massive Wicklow estate after the defeat of Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne, Lord of Ranelagh. In 1716 Sir William’s descendant was created the 1st Earl Fitzwilliam, of the County of Tyrone; his eldest son was given the subsidiary title Viscount Milton, in the County of Westmeath.
The 4th Earl, who served as Viceroy to Ireland on the eve of the 1798 Rebellion, was dismissed from office for his pro-Catholic stance. The family fortunes continued to grow through the 19thcentury and by the time Peter Fitzwilliam was born in 1910, his father Billy, the 7th Earl, was one of the richest men on earth with a fortune estimated at over €3.5 billion in today’s money.[i]
With four older sisters, Peter had been an unpromising and rather mollycoddled child. However, he emerged from his Eton schooling as a confident boy and became ever stronger as the years passed. In 1933 he married Olive ‘Obby’ Plunket, the youngest daughter of Benjamin Plunket, a Guinness heir and former (Protestant) Bishop of Meath.[ii]The bulk of her childhood was spent between Bishops Court in Navan and St Anne’s, an imposing Liffey-side mansion in Raheny, at the mouth of the Liffey, overlooking Dublin Port.
The wedding took place at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin with 12 bridesmaids and over 1000 guests; you can see it on YouTube. Tens of thousands lined the 5-mile route from St Patrick’s to Saint Anne’s, as the bridal party set off in three Rolls-Royces, bearing the Fitzwilliam family crest, shipped over from England for the occasion.
Slim, petite and full of joie de vivre, the coppery blond Olive was one of the most beautiful debutantes of her generation. She and Peter adored partying and were constantly dashing off on spur of the moment trips, chartering a plane if necessary. Paris and Le Touquet were frequently on their agenda.
The marriage got off to a shaky start when Obby arrived at Coolattin midway through the honeymoon explaining to her startled sisters that Peter had ‘gone off somewhere else.’ [iii]The aristocratic quest for a son and heir also played havoc with their marriage when, following the complicated birth of a daughter Juliet in 1935, Obby was told not to have more children. She tried, but each one resulted in a miscarriage.
The war changed everything for the Fitzwilliams. A German bombing raid decimated the coalfields; the family home at Wentworth was requisitioned by the Intelligence Corps; and Peter’s father died, at which he became the 8thEarl Fitzwilliam.[iv]
A trained officer, Peter had joined the Commandos and saw action in the Middle East.[v]He was then headhunted by the Special Operations Executive to lead a series of daring motor boat raids behind enemy lines to secure badly needed parts for British airplanes from Sweden.[vi]He was awarded a Distinguished Service Order for his courage.
Meanwhile, headed his way in 1946, was the woman formerly known as Kick Kennedy. The vivacious American widow was regarded as one of the most alluring women in London. She had first come to the city in 1938, along with her eight siblings, when her father Joe Kennedy was appointed American Ambassador to the Court of St James. The freckle-faced, red-haired Irish-American Catholic had been a divisive choice. His grandparents were among the hundreds of thousands who crossed the Atlantic during the Great Hunger and he was unlikely to look favourably on the British elite. Moreover, the ambassadorship was traditionally reserved for the heads of America’s powerful old moneyed Protestant WASP families.
It came down to money. Kennedy was a self-made millionaire who made his fortune boot-legging alcohol during the Prohibition and as a movie mogul in Hollywood, where he produced the first talking picture starring Gloria Swanson, his sometime mistress. He not only survived the Wall Street Crash but profited from it so that, by 1930, he was reputedly worth over $100 million. He used a healthy chunk of that money to sponsor Roosevelt’s victorious campaigns for the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
The ambassadorship was Roosevelt’s payback.
From the day he and his wife Rose arrived in London, Joe Kennedy played the British press perfectly, who lapped up his showbiz life and the photo-calls with his nine handsome, wholesome children.
Kick was the most dazzling of all. Although not conventionally beautiful, her personality captivated everyone. ‘She was very genuine, very kind and very funny’, recalled her close friend Janie Compton. In 1938, her first Season as a debutant, she made more of an impact than almost any American woman had done before. She also behaved unconventionally, kicking off her shoes in stately homes, and sharing an unabashed but good-humoured disregard for social etiquette. However, the good times came to an abrupt end in September 1939 when, with the outbreak of war, Joe Kennedy sent his family back to the United States for safety.
Britain turned against Kennedy when his ferocious opposition to American intervention and his defeatism earned him the wrath of almost everyone, including Churchill, who forced him to resign in November 1940.
In the summer of 1943, Kick returned to England as a Red Cross volunteers.[vii]Unlike her father, she had been an enthusiast for American intervention since the beginning. She had been pining for England ever since her departure nearly four years earlier, envious of all her English friends who were involved in the war – the men fighting overseas or training, the women working in armaments factories and secret establishments like Bletchley Park. Her brothers Joe and Jack were also serving in the American forces.
On arrival she was posted to an exclusive offices-only club in Hans Crescent in Knightsbridge, London, where her job was to boost the morale of the American GIs with a routine of, as she described it, ‘jitter-bugging, gin rummy, ping-pong, bridge and just being an American girl among 1500 doughboys a long way from home.’
Word was soon out that Kick Kennedy, ‘the merriest girl you ever met, was back in town. In post-Blitz London, the party scene was carrying on regardless, with big bands playing through the night.
On her first Saturday night in London she was taken out by Billy Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington, heir apparent to the 10thDuke of Devonshire and an estate of 180,000 acres of Britain and Ireland, including Lismore Castle. Billy had been in love with her since they met four years earlier; she had strong feelings for him.
The Duke was highly unimpressed with his eldest son’s choice of girlfriend: an Irish-American Catholic whose father supported Irish nationalism. Lord Frederick Cavendish, the Duke’s great-uncle, had been assassinated in Phoenix Park in Dublin in 1882 by Irish Nationalists just after he had arrived in Ireland to take up office as Chief Secretary. The 8thDuke of Devonshire subsequently founded the breakaway Liberal Unionist party in absolute opposition to Gladstone’s policy of Home Rule for Ireland.
Hostility to Catholicism was deeply ingrained in the Cavendish genes for long generations before Billy’s father apparently contemplated moving the master bedroom of his London townhouse in order to avoid seeing the spire of Westminster Cathedral, the mother church of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
In January 1944 the 10thDuke compelled Billy to resign his commission in the Coldstream Guards and stand for parliament at a by-election in West Derbyshire. Kick, by now madly in love with Billy, stood by his side during the whole miserable campaign, despite the Duke castigating her as an “evil influence ” and warning her not to even open her mouth. An increasingly vocal audience ridiculed Billy throughout the campaign; unjust allegations of cowardice and his privileged position were used against him. So too was the fact that his brother Andrew had recently married Deborah Mitford; her sister Diana was the wife of Oswald Mosley, the British fascist.
As Billy predicted, there was a massive swing to the Socialists and his opponent Charles White swept the poll. The result convinced Billy that post-war Britain was going to be completely different, that socialism would be the new world order and that his family would no longer even be allowed to live at Chatsworth.
With such convictions in place, he shed his concerns about being the first impending duke to ‘marry an RC’ and proposed to Kick. The Duke’s first reaction was to send her a book for a birthday present – The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. Perhaps the old bigot could derive some consolation that this particular commoner was an heiress with a fortune estimated at $10 million.
Billy’s one pre-nuptial condition was that any sons be raised as Protestants. Kick assumed she would be able to get clearance from the Catholic Church, not least as the Kennedys had represented the United States at the Papal Inauguration in 1939. However, to her horror, her father wrote that he was unable to secure the necessary permission from the Vatican. One assumes he didn’t try too hard, not least with his wife breathing down his neck.
Kick faced a stark choice – give up Billy or marry him and risk exile from the Catholic Church, which she held very dear. As she agonized, she received significant support from the Duchess of Devonshire who recognised how much Billy loved her and how wretched she must be feeling.
When it became clear that Billy would not compromise on the education of their future sons, Kick reluctantly chose the church. The couple nearly broke up but after a bout of intense soul-searching, they realised their love was too strong. Moreover, Kick had a breakthrough when the Catholic Bishop of Westminster advised her that marrying Billy would notbe a mortal sin and that, while he couldn’t offer immediate dispensation, it was possible that dispensation would be given at some point in the future. After three days in Yorkshire together, Kick said yes.
Rose Kennedy was appalled by news of her daughter’s impending marriage. Joe was also hostile, not least because having a Protestant Duke as a son-in-law would greatly undermine his electoral appeal amongst Irish Catholics. Archbishop Spellman, the Archbishop of New York, was assigned to break up the marriage but his envoys failed.
Kick was devastated by her parents’ reaction, and the failure of all of her siblings, except Joe Junior, her oldest brother, to offer any form of congratulations. Joe junior calmly assured his parents that Billy was a perfectly nice man. ‘I think he is ideal for Kick.’
They were wedded in a 10-minute civic ceremony at Chelsea Town Hall on London’s Kings Road on 6 May 1944. Joe was the only member of the Kennedy family to attend. Instead the flashbulbs of the world’s press had to satisfy themselves with the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, as well as of Billy’s grandmothers. The London Newscrowed that the descendent of a man who destroyed Parnell was now married into one of ‘the great Home Rule families of Boston’.
Rose did not speak to her daughter for two months.
After a short honeymoon in London, Billy rejoined his regiment ahead of the Normandy landings.
And then the dominos began to fall.
On 12 August, Joe junior – Kick’s ‘pillar of strength’ and closest sibling – was killed when his plane, a Liberator bomber, exploded on a secret mission over the North Sea.
Just over a month later, Kick returned to the Kennedy home in Manhattan after a visit to a department store to find her father with a telegram from Europe. Billy had been shot through the heart while taking on a crack squad of German SS troops in the Belgian town of Heppen, shortly after they had liberated Brussels. It was three months since he had rejoined his regiment in France.
Her parents were not terrific in Kick’s hour of sorrow. Her mother repeatedly instructed her to go to mass; her father took her out to a French restaurant and suggested a show on Broadway. Kennedys were brought up not to cry.
Kick went into silent grief.
Rose took her back into the fold content that, according to the teaching of Saint Paul,
Kick’s mortal sin was absolved with Billy’s death. The irony of this was not lost on Kick who felt like she had lost her own soul as well as that of her husband.
Billy had instructed Kick to marry ‘someone good and nice’ in the event of his death. That was Billy – a good, nice, moral man.
Peter Fitzwilliam was not quite the polar opposite – he was extremely generous to his friends – but he was certainly a man of questionable morals.
Since the end of the war, he had been deeply embroiled in a losing battle with Manny Shinwell, the Minister of Fuel and Power in Britain’s radical, new Labour government, who was determined to break the power of families like the Fitzwilliams.
Midway through the war, Peter paid 8000 Guineas for a horse at the Newmarket sales. As well as being the highest price on record, it was the equivalent of 40 years wages for a well-paid workmen and that did as much as anything to put Manny Shinwell on the war path. On his watch, Wentworth’s beautiful formal gardens were requisitioned, along with nearly 100 acres of parkland trees, and thousands of acres of farmland, and the Fitzwilliam estate was converted into the biggest opencast mining site in Britain.
Despite a public outcry against the destruction of the land at Wentworth, Peter could barely secure an audience with Prime Minister Clement Attlee. In 1945 he had been practically able to ring Winston Churchill directly. On 15 April 1946, Peter met Atlee but the PM had already made his mind up that the Fitzwilliam estate was to be the source “first of all, of coal, [and] secondly, of more coal.’[viii]
Perhaps weary of so much war and destruction, Peter found solace with a heavy-drinking, hard gambling jetset of rich tycoons, frequenting White’s Club in St James’s, where the baccarat stakes often exceeded £10,000. He reputedly lost £20,000 (circa ½ million in today’s money) on the betting tables. Summers were spent chartering private planes to beautiful Mediterranean villas; winters were for foxhunting and horse-racing in France, England and Ireland.
He formed a particularly strong friendship with Prince Aly Khan, the suave son of the Aga Khan (the billionaire leader of an estimated 15 million Ismaili Muslims in Asia and Africa) whose wife Joan Yarde-Buller, one of the ‘Bright Young Things’, was the former wife of Loel Guinness of the Anglo-Irish merchant banking Guinnesses.
Meanwhile, his eleven-year marriage to Obby was on the rocks. Their separation during the war years, the destruction of Wentworth, his obsession with horses and Obby’s failure to produce a male heir all played their part, as did Peter’s philandering while Obby remained faithful.
And then Peter met Kick.
On 12 June 1946, Peter attended a ball at the Dorchester Hotel in Mayfair, a fundraiser for families of Commandos killed and injured in the war. It was the first Season since 1939 and the future Queen Elizabeth was among the guests enjoying the Latin American music, the Rumba and the Mambo.
In a blink, the decorated ex-Commando had invited the alluring widow to dance and it was love at first sight. Eighteen months after Billy’s death, Kick entered into an extraordinary and tragic affair that would scandalise and divide London society.
Although they both led a high-octane lifestyle, Peter and Kick were an odd couple. His friends were drinkers and gamblers; hers were intellectuals who could only assume that Peter was eager to seduce an ‘unobtainable’ Catholic or that he was ‘a very good lover’. Catherine Bailey notes that Prince Aly was a renowned expert in Imsak, an ancient Arabic love making technique that apparently enabled him to delay orgasm for hours. In 1947, the prince had numerous affairs, including one with Pamela Churchill, recently separated from Winston’s son Randolph. Aly married the actress Rita Hayworth in 1949.
Peter certainly made Kick laugh and her taught her how to play and have fun and reinstalled the happiness she had lost amid the sorrow of the war. Over the course of 1947 they spent many weekends at Château de l’Horizon, Aly’s gleaming white Modernist villa on the Riviera.
London may have know of the affair but the Kennedys were kept in the dark until Kick told Jack over a weekend at Lismore Castle, the Devonshire estate in Waterford, the autumn before her death. By Christmas, she was telling close friends that Peter was going to divorce Obby and marry her. Nobody supported her but Kick either wouldn’t listen or seemed to no longer care about consequences.
The love between them does appear to have been genuine but, once again, the issue of children’s education became a sticking point when Peter insisted that none of his children could be raised as Catholics.
Kick was still ruminating on this when she joined the Kennedy family at Hyannis Port, their holiday home in Palm Beach, for the traditional winter break in February 1948. It took her over two months before she told her parents of her plan to marry Peter. Rose point blank vowed that she would be disinherited and never seen or spoken to again if she went through with it.
When Kick returned to London, Rose followed, hounding her around her own house for days on end demanding the romance end. Terrified that Rose really would banish her, Kick rang her father who was more supportive and suggested they meet up at the Ritz Hotel in Paris on Saturday 15 May.
It was 18 months since the affair began when, after one last visit to Wentworth, Peter and Kick chartered a 10 seater de Havilland Dove on 13 May to fly them from Croydon Airport to France. As 37-year-old Peter put it, ‘we’re going to try to persuade old Kennedy to agree to our getting married.’ The couple planned an illicit weekend on the south of France before they met Joe Kennedy. However, when the flight briefly stopped to refuel at the upmarket La Bourget airport near Paris, Peter seized the opportunity to scoot into Paris with Kick for a long lunch.
By the time the “star-cross’d lovers” returned 2 ½ hours later, Peter Townshend, the captain of their plane, was livid and threatened not to fly because of a bad weather report. Somehow Peter persuaded him to carry on south to Cannes and the small plane then flew into what transpired to be one of the worst thunderstorms the Rhône Valley had experienced in years. Hailstones the size of French francs were sighted shortly before 5:30pm when the plane burst from the clouds and disintegrated in mid-air over the Ardèche mountains, north of Avignon, broken up by the massive G-Force.
It took nearly an hour for a farmer who watched the horror unfold to reach the wreckage. All four people inside had been killed on impact: the pilot, the co-pilot, Peter Fitzwilliam and Kick.
The Kennedys, Fitzwilliams and Devonshires presented a united front to conceal the truth. As well as a newspaper blackout in England, Joe Kennedy pulled strings to ensure that the story got minimum coverage in America. The official story was that Lady Hartington just happened to be offered a flight by Lord Fitzwilliam, an acquaintance, who was going to visit horses in the south of France.
The destruction of any incriminating correspondence continued until at least July 1972 when the 10th and last Earl Fitzwilliam destroyed 16 tons of the family’s 20th century archive, including Peter’s private papers, in a bonfire that blazed for three weeks. The fire is also thought to have included records relating to allegations that Peter’s late father Billy was a changeling.[ix]
Neither Kick’s parents nor her siblings ever spoke of the affair or acknowledged it. It took 40 years before any of the Devonshires or Fitzwilliams broke the silence.
Kick was buried at Chatsworth, the Devonshire’s home in Derbyshire, on 20 May 1948. Joe Kennedy was the only Kennedy present at her funeral and comes across surprisingly well in the story, forming a bond with the Duchess of Devonshire who chose Kick’s epitaph: ‘Joy she gave, Joy she has found.’
Inevitably there were conspiracy theories. Some said they had been off to Rome to obtain special dispensation from the Pope to marry. Others believed that Rose had put a curse on her own daughter. Evelyn Waugh believed they were simply killed eloping.
In 1951 when Bobby proposed naming his eldest daughter Catherine Hartington Kennedy, the family agreed on condition that she never be referred to as Kick. However, the family did permit Bobby’s granddaughter to be called Kick.
Lady Juliet Fitzwilliam, the earl’s only child, was just 13 years old when she inherited her father’s fortune, including half of the Wentworth Woodhouse estate, the Coolattin estate and a large part of the Fitzwilliam art collection. The peerages passed to Peter’s second cousin once removed, Eric Wentworth-Fitzwilliam. Peter’s widow Obby died in 1975.
See also “Kick: The True story of Kick Kennedy” by Paula Byrne.
[i]William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, 6th Earl Fitzwilliam, died at Wentworth Wodehouse on 20 February 1902. His eldest son William, Viscount Milton, an explorer, had predeceased him in 1877. As such, the earldom passed to his grandson Billy Fitzwilliam, who was at Coolattin when he heard the news of his grandfather’s death. Some of Billy’s aunts and uncles doubted Billy’s legitimacy and, with hundreds of millions of pounds at stake, there was much subterfuge among his aunts and uncles.
The Fitzwilliam estate descended through the female line from Black Tom, first Earl of Stratford, notorious advisor to Charles I. He also built Jigginstown outside Naas before he was beheaded in 1641.
[ii]Obby’s nickname derived from her favourite childhood game of prancing around on a hobbyhorse. Her grandfather was Archbishop of Dublinand has a statue near Leinster House; her grandmother was a daughter of Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness. Her mother was a Butler of Ballintemple.
[iii]Lady Barbara: ‘I was sitting in the drawing room at Coolattin with my mother and my sister when suddenly, in walked Obby. We were all astonished to see her. Peter had left her in the middle of their honeymoon. He had gone off somewhere else.’ Catherine Bailey speculates that Obby’s innocence in bed was too wearisome for Peter, a veteran of many girlfriends.
[iv]Peter Fitzwilliam’s inheritance is estimated to have been something like €80 million at today’s value, perhaps more. The nationalisation of the coal industry, plus Labour’s high taxation of the super-rich, did much to rein that in.
[v]Peter Fitzwilliam, a reserve officer in the Grenadier Guards, was called up the moment war was declared. He was 30 on New Year’s Eve 1940. He spent the first six months of the war training with his regiment at Windsor Castle. By the spring of 1941, he was fighting in a Commando unit in the Middle East. He was regarded as exceptionally brave; a contrast with his pre-Eton childhood when he was known as a feeble boy.
[vi]In early 1943 Peter was hand-picked by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) for a top-secret wartime operation in the North Sea. Codenamed “Operation Bridford”, the objective was to secure tiny ball-bearings obtainable only in Sweden which were absolutely vital to aircraft parts. Without them Britain’s aircraft assembly lines with stumble to a halt. The Ministry of Aircraft Production calculated that it would need 500 tons of ball-bearings to survive… This was a last ditch attempt to break the German blockade. Operating under the pseudonym of Peter Lawrence, Peter Fitzwilliam was assigned as chief officer to the Hopewell … The daring operation began on the 26th October 1943 when the flotilla proceeded down the Humber in diamond formation…by the time it ended in March 1944, it had secured 347.5 tons of its objective.
He was also involved in Operation Moonshine, in which his gun-boat deliveredvital supplies to Sweden for onward movement to the resistance forces in German-occupied Denmark between 13 January and 6 February 1945.
[vii]She sailed on board the Queen Mary which left New York in June New York, bound for England. The luxury liner had been commandeered as a US troop carrier some weeks earlier.
[viii]Realising all was lost, Peter tried to give the house to the National Trust, through its representatives Michael Parsons, Earl of Rosse, and James Lees Milne, but the trust declined. Eventually Peter’s sister Lady Mabel Smith intervened.
[ix]Billy employed Johnston and Long, a firm of solicitors, to defend himself against the allegations – particularly from his aunt, Lady Alice – that he was an impostor, a ‘spurious child’, a changeling, substituted at birth. Up until 1930, the Home Secretary was required to attend all births to guard against the danger of substitution. Witnesses were often called in when aristocrats had babies also to avoid the danger of a changeling. (See page 14, Black Diamonds). However, Billy was born in faraway Canada and, while the doctor and nurse who were present later categorically refused Lady Alice’s allegations, there are still doubts over their testimonies.