Reviewed by Ruth Latta
When John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected President of the United States in 1960, the public couldn’t get enough information about him and his family. People not only loved reading about his beautiful wife, Jacqueline, and their cute children, but also about his eight siblings and his parents, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, daughter of Boston mayor, John “Honeyfitz” Fitzgerald, and business tycoon Joseph P. Kennedy.
As time passed, books and articles about the Kennedys became less laudatory and more critical. Historians pointed out that when Joseph P. Kennedy was U.S. Ambassador to Britain he supported Prime Minister Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler, made anti-Semitic remarks, and opposed President Roosevelt’s efforts to assist Prime Minister Churchill in the early years of World War II. Writers revealed Joseph P.’s ruthless business dealings and his extra-marital affairs, and also delved into John. F. Kennedy’s and Robert F. Kennedy’s infidelities, including their relationships with the ill-fated Marilyn Monroe.
The notion that the Kennedys were under a curse arose because of the violent untimely deaths of so many of the clan. Joe Kennedy Jr., the eldest son of Joseph P. and Rose, was killed in World War II in 1944. Both President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, in 1963 and 1968, respectively. In 1999, JFK’s son, John, and his young wife were killed in a plane crash.
Recently, another family member has become the subject matter of fiction and non-fiction works. Kathleen Agnes, “Kick” (1920-1948), the fourth child of Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy, was a celebrated debutante, the toast of London, when her father became Ambassador in 1938. She fell in love with William (“Billy” ) the Marquess of Hartington, eldest son of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. Four months after their wedding, in 1944, Billy was killed at war. A few years later, Kick had an affair with another aristocrat, the 8th Earl of Fitzwilliam, and died with him in 1948 when his small plane, en route from Paris to the south of France, crashed in a storm.
Two novels based on the life of Kick Kennedy have recently been published:
Kick Kennedy’s Secret Diary, by Susan Braudy (New York, Blanche Wolf, 2019) and The Kennedy Debutante, by Kerri Maher (New York, Penguin Random, 2018) Apart from Kick being the central character in both, these novels are not at all alike.
One conspicuous difference is that Braudy’s novel is written in diary form, while Maher’s is a third person, omniscient author narrative. Braudy chose the diary form because, in her research, she read Kick’s actual diaries and found them unrevealing and innocuous, probably for her parents’ eyes. Braudy invites readers to suppose that Kick kept a secret diary, discovered long after her death, in which she expressed her true thoughts and feelings. Yet Maher’s the third person omniscient narrative also reveals Kick’s thoughts while providing more context.
A novel in diary form has certain limitations. It succeeds if the diarist is an introspective person and a skilled writer, but Braudy’s Kick does not demonstrate these qualities. A diarist, writing first and foremost for him or herself, may not bother to present settings and contexts, but takes them for granted. Too often Kick drops famous names rather than properly situating characters for the benefit of readers who may not know the Kennedy family story or historical figures from yesteryear.
Maher’s novel is primarily about the love between Kick and Billy, which endured through wartime separation and religious differences. Braudy was inspired by Susan Mary Alsop’s remark that Kick was ‘full of charm and love of life with undercurrents of uncertainty…[that] must have to do with religion”. Indeed, Kick’s Roman Catholic parents’ opposition to her relationships with Billy Hartington and Peter Fitzwilliam, both Church of England, looms large in both novels. Braudy presents dramatic confrontations over this issue, including one between the Kennedy and Devonshire parents, which may or may not be historically true.
The most glaring historical inaccuracy in the advance copy of Kick Kennedy’s Secret Diary is an invented conversation between Kick and Eleanor Roosevelt at a Red Cross function in “Spring, 1946″. Kick says to Eleanor, “Be honest. Will your husband ever forgive my father?” Eleanor replies, “When they met recently, my husband asked the Ambassador to leave, and then shouted at me, ‘Make sure I never set eyes on that son of a bitch again.’”
President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, a year prior to this diary entry. Did FDR come back from the dead to scrap with Joseph Kennedy? This novel is supposed to be historical fiction, not fantasy. Perhaps this error in the advance copy will be corrected in the final version, to be released in February 2019.
Braudy commits little inaccuracies; for instance, she has Kick speak of her younger brothers playing in their “Sunday go-to-meeting clothes”. “Sunday-go-to meeting” is a Protestant expression; Catholics would speak of “going to Mass.” Although John F. Kennedy’s nickname was “Jack”, Braudy has Kick calls him “Johnny”.
The chief deficiency in The Kennedy Debutante is one of omission; it ends with Billy’s death. Maher avoids mentioning Kick’s affair with Peter, the 8th Earl of Fitzwilliam, except for two paragraphs in her Author’s Note, presumably because this relationship doesn’t fit the romantic picture of young lovers long separated by circumstances, who have their happy marriage cut tragically short. Yet by leaving out the last years of Kick’s life, Maher fails to provide a full picture of her.
While Braudy’s Kick is focused on pleasure-seeking, Maher’s Kick is presented as deeper and less worldly. Maher writes:
‘She would kneel by her bed and pray with clenched hands, ‘Holy Virgin, hear my prayer. Send Billy home soon so that we can begin our own family. I might not be able to teach our children my faith but I can teach them about being a Kennedy, which you have shown me is more than just mass on Sundays and all the sacraments And please give my love to Joe. Tell him I miss him ever minute. Even though he had his own doubts about reaching the pearly gates, I am certain he’s with you now.’
In contrast, much of Kick Kennedy’s Secret Diary involves sex and scandal. The first page sets the tone by showing “Brother Johnny” telling Kick that he saw Gloria Swanson, “ a famous movie star”, taking off her bathing suit for Daddy on his boat. Later Kick overhears “Grandpa Honey” accusing Daddy of shaming his family. Much later, as a young widow in England, Kick says of Swanson, “That round-heeled floozy carried on with Father for years under Mother’s nose.” Her friends, however, have affairs; she writes that “Hon. Pam Digby, [wife of Randolph Churchill] has “added a new man to her charm bracelet… the most powerful American in London” – Averill Harriman. “Hon. Pam brags Harriman’s an expert lover.”
Braudy’s emphasizes upper class dalliance and debauchery to show that Kick grew up in a culture of partying and sleeping around, so it was no wonder that, as a young widow, she got involved involved with Peter, the 8th Earl of Fizwilliam. According to Braudy, Peter fully awakened Kick’s sexuality, but he was an older, married man with a reputation for womanizing and gambling. On the plus side, he was very wealthy.
Neither novelist introduces characters to act as a corrective to the values of Kick’s crowd, or to her lack of social awareness. Both novels are about an over-privileged young woman whose chief claim to fame was her war with her rich parents over her wish to marry into the British Protestant aristocracy. Bigger issues, such as her father’s flirtation with fascism and her friendship with Lady Astor, leader of the Hitler-loving Cliveden Set, get short shrift in both novels. The hardships everyday people faced during Great Depression and the Second World War barely come into the stories. In Braudy’s novel, Kick is vaguely aware that her lover, Peter Fitzwilliam, is battling with the British government, and takes his word that he is being unfairly treated. Readers are not told that the issue is the nationalization of the coal mines by the new Labour government, that coal miners suffered from low wages and dangerous working conditions, and that Fitzwilliam and other mine owners received compensation.
Readers attracted by the Kennedy name will find that, of the two novels,
Kick Kennedy’s Secret Diary by Susan Braudy is the more risque and sensational. Readers who want a love story should choose Kerri Maher’s The Kennedy Debutante. Those seeking an historical novel about a woman breaking free of convention and achieving things through her own hard work should look elsewhere.
About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s central character, Grace, in Grace in Love (Ottawa, Baico, 2019, firstname.lastname@example.org) is the antithesis of Kick.