Several lots in the upcoming Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire auction offer rare collections of books on the Kennedy family that reveal the Duchess’s close ties to both JFK and his sister, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy.

In July 1963, a few months before his assassination, the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, landed by helicopter at the back of the churchyard in the small village of Edensor, near Chatsworth. The purpose of this largely unreported stop on his journey from Ireland to London was to pay a visit to the grave of his sister, Kathleen. She is buried in the Cavendish family plot close to where Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire now rests along with her husband, Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire. Against the wishes of her Catholic family, Kathleen had married William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington, (Andrew’s older brother) affectionately known as Billy, in 1944, but just four months later, he was killed in combat in Belgium.

Kathleen first came to London in 1938 as a teenager along with her father Joseph, who had just been appointed U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. Her vivacious nature made a great impression on British society, as the Duchess wrote, “Her high spirits, funny American turn of phrase, so like her brother Jack’s, and extreme good nature made her far more attractive than most pale English beauties. She was loved by everyone who knew her.”

Kathleen introduced the Duchess, or Deborah Mitford, as she was then, to John Kennedy in 1938, when his family were visiting London. The Duchess recalled, “he already had something about him that separated him from the crowd. He was very thin, the legacy of serious illnesses, but he put everything into the moment, which in 1938 was to enjoy himself... My mother, watching him at a dance, said, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if that young man became President of the United States.’” They became close friends, with the Duchess attending both Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961, and later, his funeral alongside Prince Philip, the Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition, Harold Wilson.


Writing in 2006, the Duchess recalled the Kennedy siblings: “The sheer vitality of brother and sister made us think them immortal. Alas, they were not.” Only four months after their wedding, William Cavendish, who was serving as a major in the Coldstream Guards, was killed by a sniper in Belgium while his company were trying to capture the town of Heppen. After his death, and following the early death of their father, his younger brother became heir to the title and to the Chatsworth House estate. As a second son, Andrew Cavendish, who had married Deborah Mitford in 1941, had grown-up with no expectations of such a role.

Kathleen’s husband’s death followed the shocking death of her beloved brother, Joe Jr. a month earlier, who was killed when his plane exploded on a secret bombing mission in Europe. She spent some time at Chatsworth before she decided to return to live in London, where she bought a townhouse. But in May 1948, she was killed when her chartered plane crashed in stormy weather on the way to France. Today, visitors to the small churchyard find by her gravestone a small plaque marking the June 1963 visit of JFK, just months before his own death.


The Duchess amassed a large collection of books about the Kennedys, and many are inscribed to her in affectionate terms by various members of the Kennedy family. A first edition presentation copy of Portrait: the Emergence of John F. Kennedy by Jacques Lowe is inscribed by John F. Kennedy to Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire: “For Debo – with happy thoughts, John Kennedy, L.O.” The letters L.O. are thought to stand for “loved one,” a nickname for Kennedy used by the Mitford sisters.

Lead image: A detail of a portrait of John F. Kennedy by "Charles J.Fox" (A.K.A. Leo Fox, but Irving Resnikoff).