Remembering Leslie Kenton

Remembering Leslie Kenton

To her junior colleagues at Harpers & Queen Leslie Kenton was an awe-inspiring figure, sweeping into the office in a blur of white like an advertisement for Omo washing powder. With her blue eyes, blonde hair and gleaming teeth, she was a classic American beauty, radiating confidence and enthusiasm. The only thing about her that didn’t dazzle was her Porsche, which was black.

We knew little about her personal life, except that she was the daughter of a famous band leader, Stan Kenton, and had four children – the youngest of them, Aaron, said to have had a carefully orchestrated birth at home by candlelight, surrounded by his older siblings. She also famously advised new mothers to eat their placentas, and we imagined her frying up her own in sage butter. Though this practice has yet to enter the mainstream, many of the then outlandish subjects she wrote about as health and beauty editor of Harpers in the 1970s and ’80s – from Pilates and juicing to the importance of organic food – have now become commonplace.

So serene was her manner that none of us guessed her to be the product of an appallingly dysfunctional family, whose shortcomings she would chronicle in an extraordinary memoir, Love Affair (2010). Its main focus was her father, with whom she claimed to have had an incestuous relationship. Despite this, she saw parenthood as the most fulfilling thing in life, and took pride in having had four children by four different men.

Leslie Kenton was born at the Queen of Angels Hospital, Los Angeles on 24th June 1941. Her arrival was not entirely welcome: her jazz-pianist father was about to start touring with his first band, into which he had sunk every last cent; her mother, Violet, lived for beauty and glamour and was horrified by the messiness of child-rearing. As a result, Leslie spent her early years in the care of Violet’s mother – a disciplinarian whose friends included L. Ron Hubbard, the inventor of Scientology. Not until her father’s success allowed him to buy a house in the Hollywood hills did she experience something approaching normal family life; but while her parents entertained showbusiness stars such as Nat King Cole and Ronald Reagan, her one companion was a collie called Tuffy – who, she said, taught her the meaning of love.

Accompanying her parents on tour did nothing to lessen her sense of insecurity. The pressure of running a large band pushed Stanley Kenton towards drugs and alcohol, and in 1949 Violet left him. Leslie now only saw her father on occasional holidays, and during one of these – she alleged in Love Affair – he raped her. She was eleven; the abuse continued for three years. Eventually she suffered a breakdown, and was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy which blotted out her memory of her ordeal for twenty years. Yet she refused entirely to condemn the relationship, describing it as ‘wondrous and horrific’, and dedicating the memoir to her father ‘with all my love’.

At 17, during her first year at Stanford University, she befriended and became pregnant by a medical student, Peter Dau. Though not in love, she agreed to marry him. With their son, Branton, they moved to New York – where Leslie studied Russian and worked as a model – before separating in 1962. Almost immediately, she found herself pregnant again, following a brief liaison with a family friend, Barry Comden (who would later marry Doris Day). This time the child was a girl, Susanna.

Moving to Paris, Leslie embarked on her second marriage, to Dan Smith, a journalist; their son Jesse was born in 1965.

It was the break-up of this relationship five years later, and the need to earn a living, that set Leslie on her writing career. By this time the family had settled in England, where a brief though promising career as an actress had been scotched by work-permit difficulties. Her first paid article was on heavy-lifting gear for Industrial Management magazine.

In 1974 she was invited to become beauty editor of Harpers & Queen – but, believing that beauty came from within, she insisted that health should also be her province. She held the position for thirteen years, gaining a reputation for meticulous research: the buried herself in the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine, and consulted experts such as the Nobel Prize-winner Linus Pauling. At the same time she was fascinated by alternative therapies, from shamanism to transcendental meditation.

Above all, she argued that food and nutrition were the cornerstone of healthy living. Her books The Joy of Beauty (1976), Raw Energy (with her daughter Susanna, 1984) and Ultrahealth (also 1984) were among the first to highlight the negative effects of fast food, excessive animal fats and a sedentary lifestyle, emphasising instead the benefits of exercise, raw food and high-potency vitamins and minerals. She wrote over 40 books in all, including a ‘spiritual thriller’ about Beethoven entitled Ludwig.

Leslie was part earth mother and part canny businesswoman: it is hard to imagine anyone else acting as a consultant both to Greenpeace and to Estée Lauder (for whom she developed the Origins skincare range). Her refuge from London was a fisherman’s cottage in Pembrokeshire called Blue Dolphins, where she rose at 4am to meditate and run on the beach. She was kind and generous to her assistants, always encouraging them to develop their potential.

In 1998 she moved to New Zealand, where she and her son Aaron created a programme for natural weight loss and personal growth, Cura Romana. She died at home aged 75 on 13th November 2016, surrounded by her family.