Stan Kenton's daughter opens door to their dark past

Book review: "Love Affair," by Leslie Kenton. St. Martin's Press, $27.99


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You won't learn how badly damaged at birth Leslie Kenton's sister was from her sensational account of her incest with her father, jazz bandleader Stan Kenton.

For those details, visit www.lesliekenton.com, the website where she hawks beauty products and weight-loss advice.

She's a diversified talent credited with inventing the Origins cosmetics line. She's written many books.

I read her new one out of curiosity about Kenton, a jazz figure best known for orchestral jazz and arrangers including Shorty Rogers, Pete Rugolo and Bob Brookmeyer.

I came away with insight into a Hollywood marked by narcissism, extravagance and addiction to trend, a Hollywood familiar from the vantage point of the film industry. Getting a jazz-based slant is refreshing, if saddening.

In this fulsome memoir, we learn of the horrendously indulgent and perverted upbringing the talented, tortured Kenton and his wife, the lovely Violet, imposed on their lonely, super-sensitive daughter.

Leslie tells a harrowing story, couched in prose that often careens into purple. It is at its stormiest when she describes the affair her father forced on her when she was 10. The incest didn't end until she was 13.

That Leslie forgave her father is touching. It doesn't mean we should. That she dedicates this to him is startling.

"Love Affair" is creepy, as might be expected. It's a New Age soap opera with detours into Dianetics, Freudianism, psychedelics and serial marriage -- and with a happy ending.

That Leslie survived to not only tell the tale but also thrive as a wellness entrepreneur, spiritual adviser and journalist attests to her perseverance and her talents. She can write. She can analyze. She can forgive. But why publish this now?

The answer, it seems, is that it took her decades, a lot of therapy, some LSD, tempestuous relationships that produced four children, and a surprising friendship with Kenton's last wife to come to terms with the taboo that defined her life.

There's much dish about the bandleader's musical struggles, alcohol addiction, compulsiveness, attractiveness and talent. There's less about Violet, "a shining, scrubbed, wholesome blonde" Kenton first spotted in 1934.

There's too little about Stella, Kenton's mother, who seeded in her son what Leslie calls a "dissociative identity disorder" in which he effectively functioned outside himself, in a drunken haze on the bandstand, in unthinking deference to the witchy, manipulative Stella and in bed with his daughter.

Her father's symbiosis with Stella led her to place Leslie in what the Kenton elders euphemized as a sanatorium. It was an insane asylum where she underwent electro-convulsive therapy. Small wonder it would be years before some memories of that horrific stay, not to mention the affair her father launched by raping her, would break through.

That Stella called her "damaged" thereafter is undeniable. I wish Leslie had explored her grandmother more; her passages on Stella's family are provocative and intelligent.

The incest at the core of this book is inherently sensational and numbingly sad. Accounts of Leslie's marriages and the births of her children provide a kind of relief, attesting to her craving for normality and ways to express her talents.

"Love Affair" is an innocuous title for a book about the unspeakable. Then again, it's a title with many meanings.


Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.


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