Kick Kennedy was "the star of the family" before her tragic death at age 28
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Credit: Bettmann Archive

She wasn’t a great beauty, nor was she noted for her intellect. But when Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy – the fourth child of Joseph P. Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, and his wife, Rose – arrived in London in 1938, she caused an unlikely sensation.

In the new biography Kick Kennedy, author Barbara Leaming reveals fresh insight into the Kennedy daughter who died in a plane crash in 1948, just four years after her eldest brother, Joe Jr., was killed in a top-secret mission during World War II.

Kick, Leaming writes, was “actually quite plain in appearance. 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 aristocrats had never met anyone like Kathleen. “She did not hang back shyly or demurely,” the author writes. “The newcomer was willing to laugh at herself – her mistakes, her gaucheries, and even her physical flaws – in a way that was simply unknown among English girls.”

Not long after Kick made her London debut in 1938, she met Billy Hartington, the future Duke of Devonshire and one of the city’s richest and most eligible bachelors, at a dinner party and they quickly became an item.

It was a classic case of opposites attract – where Billy was quiet and reserved, Kick was adventurous and outgoing. But one of their biggest differences would also cause them great pain. Billy was a Protestant and Kick’s devout Catholic family, in particular her mother, Rose, vehemently opposed their romance.

When Billy, a future duke, proposed to Kick, he insisted that their children be raised Protestant.

For the strict Kennedy family, it was an unforgivable act of defiance. Rose wrote in her diary that she was “horrified” and “heartbroken” by her daughter’s decision to marry Billy.

For Kick, who was known as Rose’s “protector” when her husband frequently paraded his mistresses in front of her, it was an agonizing choice.

For much more on Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, the “rebel Kennedy”, pick up a copy of this week’s PEOPLE magazine, on newsstands Friday.

When Kick and Billy were wed in a civil ceremony in 1944, her brother Joe Jr. was the only Kennedy to attend.

But the newlyweds’ bliss was short-lived. Soon after D-Day, June 6, 1944, Billy returned to France to fight and was killed in action by a sniper in Belgium just four months after they were married.

Within two years, a devastated Kick began an affair with Earl Peter Wentworth Fitzwilliam, a Protestant, married drinker and gambler who was even richer than Billy. (She even compared him to Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind.) When Peter promised to leave his wife and marry Kick, she told her parents, who were furious. Rose threatened to cut Kick off from the family, which left her in further turmoil.

A Tremendous Loss

In 1948, Peter and Kick, always her father’s favorite, arranged to meet her father in Paris to appeal for his help. Two days before the planned meeting, Kick and Peter were en route to Cannes on a ten-seat plane when they stopped to refuel near Paris. When the pilot insisted that the turbulent weather conditions had made it unsafe to take off, Peter demanded that the aircraft leave without delay.

The plane crashed and Kick was instantly killed, along with Peter, the pilot and a navigator.

It was Joe Sr. who identified his daughter’s body and later attended a Requiem Mass in her honor. Nobody from the Kennedy family attended the funeral, hosted by Billy’s mother in England.

Kick’s death was “a tremendous loss” for her family, Leaming says. “She was the star of the family and it left them, particularly her mother, with terrible, unresolved agony over a relationship with the child that was closest to her her mother was left with something that was so unresolved – that she didn’t go to her daughter’s funeral, she didn’t bring the body back here to bury her.”

“I remember Debo [Deborah Cavendish, who was married to Billy’s brother, Andrew] describing to me Joe Kennedy standing there by the grave,” Leaming says. “[He] was this man in this crumbled navy blue suit, and he was as crumbled as the suit was.”

“He was devastated by it.”