By Leslie Kenton
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Leslie Kenton
All rights reserved.
WHAT FOLLOWS IS a true tale of innocence, blood and grace. It begins with two births and ends with a death. It tells of the man who was my father and of the daughter who loved him. It journeys into the darkness of isolation and unknowing that, sooner or later, each of us is called on to enter — a borderland of being, where known rules and structures no longer apply. When I began to write, I believed this story was personal to me. Now, as I near the end of my work, I see that it is a tale belonging to all of us and to these dark times in which we live.
Each of us enters the world as an innocent. We arrive on earth, take pot luck, and hope to survive — maybe even to thrive. For some, my parents among them, innocence lasts way beyond childhood. Timid yet headstrong, passionate yet terrified of life, my mother was still adolescent when she gave birth to me at the age of twenty-six. The letters she wrote are filled with young girl preoccupations: clothes she wants to buy, parties she is going to, how drunk she plans to get. My father was as innocent as she. Smart yet naïve, gifted but with little belief in himself, he was an awkward 'country boy' driven by a powerful need to make his mark on the world and a terrible fear he might never manage it.
Fate, choice, providence — who knows what — managed to turn the three of us into a family. At times each of us was singular, as isolated from each other as three animals of different species. At others, together and crazy, we swam with sharks, slept in the back of cars (or forgot to sleep at all), smuggled whisky into dry states, drowned in seas of screaming brass and blundered our way across the Americas year after year — from the insanity of Hollywood to the sultry streets of New Orleans and snow-covered peaks of the Andes.
I, Leslie, was born at the Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles — a Catholic edifice of vast proportions where Dr Alfonso McCarthy, head of obstetrics, reigned supreme. On a warm June day in 1941, Dr McCarthy stood by, holding my mother's hand through an agonising, endless, gas-filled labour.
My mother's name is Violet. She curses so loud that incense-laden, black-robed priests, floating down corridors to chant last rites for the dying, are stopped in their tracks by her shrieks and her profanity. 'Stanley, remind me never to do this again!' my mother will say to my father for years to come.
But my father is nowhere near the Queen of Angels Hospital while his wife of six years struggles to bring me into the world. She has been left to sweat it out alone in a dreary little room, until finally I emerge, scarred and bruised by the metal forceps used to get me out. I am not a pretty sight; at least according to my paternal grandmother, Stella. When she sees me a few hours later, Stella takes one look at me and declares, 'This child cannot possibly be a Kenton. She is far too ugly.'
The phone call comes from the hospital in the late afternoon of 24 June. My father, Stanley Kenton, a six-foot-four, lanky piano player with size 13½ AAA feet and ambitions to match, is rehearsing for the night's performance in the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, California: my birth has taken place the same month and year that my father has pawned everything he owns (and it isn't much) to start his own jazz band. 'The Stanley Kenton Orchestra' consists of fifteen men and its birthplace is the Rendezvous. At this time, my father has no track record for success. Nor does he see himself as a leader. Shy and self-deprecating, he had tried hard to find someone else to front the band. When that failed, stuck with the job, he got on with it himself.
'Mr Kenton, congratulations, you have a strong, healthy daughter,' says Dr McCarthy.
Stanley tells no one at first. No cigars are handed out. No celebration takes place. After the job that night, he and two friends — a woman named Audree Coke and her fiancé, Jimmy Lyons — wander over to a nearby bar, the Bamboo Room. There, huddled over drinks and empty glasses, he confides, 'Violet has given birth to a baby girl.'
Back at the Queen of Angels, the hospital staff take me from my mother, place me in a glass cage and stick a bottle in my mouth. They say this will give her a chance to rest and regain her figure after the messy business she has been through. My mother never deals well with messiness. It does not belong in her world.
While there was general agreement that my own birth was best forgotten, the other Kenton issue — the birth of the band — was greeted with great celebration. Even so, it plunged my father into a morass of anxiety. 'How am I going to pay these guys? Oh my God, have I done the right thing?' And, 'Jesus Christ, why is Violet in that hospital instead of here with me when I need her?'
That first summer my father worked like a man possessed. Each night when the job was finished, the guys in the band would head for the Bamboo Room to jam or wind down: Chico Alverez, Red Doris, Howard Rumsey, Jack Ordean, Marvin George and the rest. Stanley remained on the bandstand. Alone in the now empty ballroom, hunched over the piano, every night he composed and arranged the music he wanted to play the next night. Two or three hours later, when his musicians passed by again on their way home, he would still be sitting there, playing chords and scribbling on sheets of paper.
The Kenton sound was like nothing anybody had heard before. Kids got high on it. As for Stanley himself — he mesmerised them. All his life — even towards the end when he was ill, incontinent and too weak to move centre stage to conduct — my father's presence on a bandstand was something wondrous to behold.
I can see him now as he strides centre stage, spreads his arms like a commanding angel, pounding the floor with his right heel so hard that the whole ballroom shakes. This signals the downbeat. Jazz reviewer Del Bodey once wrote: 'What Toscanini does with his head in conducting, Kenton does with his whole body.'
As the first strains of my father's theme song, 'Artistry in Rhythm', burst forth, mouths would drop open. People stop breathing. Screaming brass, drum rolls, offbeat syncopation. They give way to lush piano sounds, changing tempos, changing time — always surprising, yet somehow forever the same. As a young child, I was to spend most of my life on the road with the band. I would hear 'Artistry in Rhythm' three or four times each night. Over the years Stanley orchestrated more than a hundred permutations of it. Each time I heard it, the hairs on my arms rose to attention. Chills ran through my body. They still do.
My parents loved to tell stories. While I was growing up they told me endless tales — about my birth, about our ancestors, about how they met, who said what to whom — about what Stanley did, what Violet did, what I had done. Many of their stories were repeated so often that they became etched deep into my memory bank. Sometimes when I close my eyes, images dance out of the darkness as though they portray events in my own life. Like the way my parents met.
A shining, scrubbed, wholesome blonde, my mother had not been an easy catch for my father. He first spotted her in 1934 at the Rendezvous Ballroom where he was playing piano for the Everett Hoaglund band. She liked music. She loved dancing.
'When she moved,' my father always said, 'she stood out on the dance floor like a gem in a swirl of pebbles. I was far too shy to go near her. So I watched, I hoped and I waited.'
One evening, this man-who-would-one-day-be-my-father trotted home to his mother, Stella, and announced, 'I've just seen the girl I'm gonna marry.'
'Who is she?'
'I don't know yet. But I'm gonna find out.'
Weeks passed. Every time Violet showed up at the ballroom, he watched her from afar. She hardly noticed the gangly piano player who had already made up his mind she would spend the rest of her life with him. Every Saturday night she showed up on the arm of a different man. There was never a shortage. To her they were all the same: OK so long as they danced well. If one of them tried to get serious about her, she just moved on to the next in line.
One night, after hours on the dance floor, my mother's suitor-of-the-moment drove to the top of a mountain, parked his car overlooking the romantic lights of Los Angeles and swore eternal love for her. Then he asked her to marry him.
'No,' she said.
'I don't love you.'
He pleaded. To no avail. Hurling himself from the car in tears, the young man staggered towards the edge of the cliff. 'If you won't marry me, I'll kill myself!' he shouted.
'Jump,' was her reply. Needless to say, he didn't.
I remember when this story first came alive for me. I was sixteen and beginning to find my own way into the dating scene. I was so impressed by the way my mother had handled the guy's blackmailing melodrama. If it had been me, I would have promised him anything just to get us down off that mountain. Then I would have run away as fast as I could. Not my mother. She could be sharp as a stiletto — a woman who brooked no nonsense.
After weeks of my father watching Violet from afar, one night their eyes met. By all accounts — and there are many of this event — it took place just like it does in the movies, but almost never in real life.
He is playing piano. She is dancing with the latest beau. Suddenly she stops and stares up at him. His fingers switch to automatic pilot on the keyboard. Everyone around them disappears. Alone in this huge room, woman and piano player meet right here, right now. This is it.
Leaving the piano, Stanley jumps off the bandstand and asks her to dance. She accepts. But he has forgotten something. Since, like most musicians, he has spent most of his life on a bandstand, he has never learned how to dance. Together they stumble around the floor for five minutes. Embarrassed, he suggests she might like to 'sit this one out'. She is quick to agree. He buys her a Coke. They talk.
He tells her how he dreams of doing 'something great'. An inveterate dreamer herself, she drinks in his words. 'His innocence and awkward charm disarmed me,' she always said. 'But there was something else too. Some kind of energy that flowed from him. He was radiant — like a beacon of light.'
As far as he was concerned, she was the most wonderful creature he had ever met. It was not just her looks that grabbed him either. In her he sensed something he had not encountered before. He never could describe it, but whatever it was, he wanted more of it.
While courting my mother, my father did everything he could to spend as much time as possible with her. He wanted to enchant her. He played songs he thought she might like. He got to know her favourites. High on the list was 'Sophisticated Lady'. He always let her know whenever he was going to play it so she would know it was just for her. He searched her out at every intermission. He asked if he could drive her home after the job. Sometimes she said yes.
That night in 1934 when they first spoke marked the beginning of a lifetime of animated conversations between them; eventually between all three of us. Stanley and Violet talked in the car, in the shower, at meals, from early morning to late at night.
My father often spoke about his work, his dreams, the hassles he was forever getting into with managers, promoters and musicians. When I was older, he would invite me into his inner world, the secret repository of all the energies that fuelled his ambitions. Sometimes he would speak with passion and determination. Others, his words would be dipped in sadness, like when he spoke of his longing to compose 'great music' — music that would take audiences to places in the Universe they didn't know existed.
Most often my mother talked about what was beautiful. She loved paintings, especially the works of Rembrandt. All her life she wanted to go to Berlin so she could see, first hand, The Man with the Golden Helmet. She never did. She too spoke of her longings, but they were different from Stanley's. She ached to live in a magnificent house and to wear fabulous clothes. She wanted to visit Paris and Rome and Rio.
A lot of Violet's words were designed to encourage Stanley, to bolster his confidence, to help him solve his problems. Again and again, she urged him to hold on to his dreams. 'One day,' she said, 'they will come true.' She was sure of it.
My mother's belief in her husband, coupled with his own all- encompassing commitment to fulfilling his dreams, made them a formidable pair. Come hell or high water, at the time of my birth they were riding the rising wave of creative optimism they sensed all around them. The excitement was palpable. Stokowski and Disney had brought Fantasia to birth. CBS had demonstrated the miracle of colour TV and begun experimental broadcasts from the top of the Chrysler Building in New York. A search for 'Rosebud' was on, to wild acclaim, as Orson Welles made his Hollywood debut with Citizen Kane. Meanwhile, 400,000 coal miners in Harlan County, Pennsylvania, ended a protracted strike for a $1 pay raise, elated that they would be earning $7 a week from now on — before taxes of course. These were hopeful times.
When my parents first met, my mother was living in a small apartment with her lifelong friend Nona La Force and Nona's sister Rae. Violet and Nona had known each other since high school when they shook pompoms and cheered together at ball games. Like most young women in the 1930s, they went dancing every chance they got. Their favourite dancing spots were the Rendezvous in Balboa, where my mother met my father, and the Biltmore Bowl — an extravagant dance hall in Los Angeles' Biltmore Hotel, where the Academy Awards were held each year. The Biltmore held tea dances every Sunday afternoon. Violet, Nona and Rae seldom missed one. Saturday afternoons they usually spent at the Coconut Grove discussing men, clothes and parties, always on the lookout for fun wherever it might present itself.
My mother was devoted to glamour. This was not so much out of vanity as from a frightening belief — at least it frightens me — that a woman's worth is determined by physical beauty alone. Yet Violet had the potential to be far more than beautiful. Her vibrant, unstable spirit came packaged with some amazing talents: like the gift of making beautiful everything she laid her hand to. And her ability to see right inside people and know what was real and what was bullshit. In her late twenties, she shimmered with a passion for just being alive. It was as infectious as her laugh.
Given her devotion to the high life, it may seem curious that she had been briefly married to a truck driver; a marriage Nona disapproved of and which was swiftly annulled. When Stanley came along, following Violet's long line of what Nona and Rae looked on as 'boring young men', they celebrated his presence: 'He was interesting, awkward and shy,' says Rae, now in her nineties. 'He was easily the most charming man any of us had ever met. They looked great together as a couple.' And looks mattered a lot.
At the time, my father was no more than a hired musician in somebody else's band. But he was smart so his responsibilities had already grown far beyond piano playing. Now he wanted to get married.
Violet was not so sure. Then, on the morning of 25 July 1935, with no word of warning, she woke up and went out to find a minister. She and Stanley were married in the late afternoon, and Stanley went to work as usual in the evening. Neither her family nor his showed the least interest in the event. No gifts were forthcoming — neither pots and pans nor money to wish them well. The two of them were on their own.
That night, when Stanley returned from work, he told his wife of several hours that he had just lost his job. It was the middle of the Great Depression. They set up house in a one-room apartment in Hollywood, for which they paid $25 a month. It had a pull-down Murphy bed and little else. There they struggled to survive on a mere 25 cents a day for food. Stanley hustled work with studios and at the Musicians' Union.
'We ate nothing but Boston Baked Beans,' my mother always said. (I have always assumed that is how she learned to cook the best baked beans I've ever tasted.) 'We ate them and ate them until we got so sick of them we couldn't swallow another mouthful.'
Stanley's mother, Stella, continually interfered in their lives. She would arrive uninvited in the early morning, to find them still in bed. When she discovered they slept in the nude, she was horrified. When she learned they took two showers a day, she raised hell. 'That's dangerous,' she warned. As for their sleeping with the windows open, together with all those unnecessary showers, it was bound to make her son catch his death of cold. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Love Affair by Leslie Kenton. Copyright © 2010 Leslie Kenton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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