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Treasures from Chatsworth

Treasure of the Week: John F. Kennedy Letters

New York
The Devonshire Collection encompasses thousands of objects that have been carefully collected over 500 years. Because of this extraordinary breadth, choosing the 43 pieces that would travel to Sotheby's New York as part of the Treasures from Chatsworth exhibition was a challenging feat. Spotlighted here are letters from former U.S. President John F. Kennedy to the Duchess of Devonshire.
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Two letters written by John F. Kennedy to the Duchess of Devonshire, in 1944 and 1963 respectively.

K athleen Kennedy (known as 'Kick'), the exuberant younger sister of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, met William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington (Billy Hartington), in 1938. The pair met in London's high society; the Kennedy children had just arrived in the city from Boston, having come on account of their father, Joseph P. Kennedy, who served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1938-40.

Despite obstacles raised by their differing religious backgrounds, Kick fell in love with Hartington, the son and heir to the 10th Duke of Devonshire. In 1944, they married in a civil ceremony at the Chelsea Register Office.

The marriage of William Cavendish and Kathleen Kennedy, 1944
The marriage of William Cavendish and Kathleen Kennedy, 1944

Sadly, the Second World War would prove fatal to the union. Just five weeks after the wedding, Hartington's battalion of the Coldstream Guards was posted in France; on 10 September 1944, he was tragically killed by a sniper in Belgium. Hartington was just 25 years old.

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The first letter, written by John F. Kennedy to Duchess Mary on 21 September, 1944, offering sympathy for the passing of her son, William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington.

Upon learning of his brother-in-law's fate, J.F. Kennedy wrote a letter of condolence to Duchess Mary, Hartington's mother. The hand-written letter is equal parts eloquent and emotional, with Kennedy drawing parallels between Hartington and Raymond Asquith, who died in the First World War:

When I read Caption Waterhouse's letter about the cool and gallant way Billy died, I couldn't help but think of what John Buchan had written about Raymond Asquith "Our roll of honour is long, but it holds no nobler figure. He will stand to those of us who are left as an incarnation of the spirit of the land he loved...He loved his youth, and his youth has become eternal. Debonair and brilliant and brave, he is now part of that immortal England which knows not age or weariness or defeat".
- John F. Kennedy, writing on Billy Hartington's passing
Duchess Deborah, Duchess Evelyn and Kick Kennedy
Duchess Deborah, Duchess Evelyn and Kick Kennedy

Just four years later, Kick herself was killed in a plane crash; she was 28 years old. Alongside generations of the Cavendish family, she was buried in Edensor Churchyard, part of the Chatsworth estate village. It would be years until J.F. Kennedy visited his sister's grave – the pair had been very close, and he could not bring himself to attend her final resting place.

However, in June 1963, when he was President of the U.S., he diverted to Chatsworth from his planned state visit to Ireland.

The second letter was written to Duchess Deborah after this visit, and just four months before his assassination. In it, he notes:

I was sorry to miss you, however, all of us felt that the arrangements that you have made for Kathleen were beautiful. The inscription 'Joy she gave - joy she found' is so appropriate and moving. I hope the next time we come we can make a longer visit.
- J.F. Kennedy
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The second letter, written by John F. Kennedy to Duchess Mary on July 12, 1963. Kennedy wrote the letter after visiting the grave of his sister, Kathleen (known as 'Kick'), in Edensor Churchyard, Chatsworth's estate village.

He slightly misquotes the inscription on his sister's grave, which is "Joy she gave; Joy she had found."

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