Modern Maturity, January/February, 1999

How Peggy Lee Changed My Life

by Mary Cleere Haran

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Before she was a cabaret singer, before she seduced New York City audiences with her sassy wit and her sensuous voice, Mary Cleere Haran was a hippie in San Francisco. And then she saw Peggy Lee.

I was born and raised in the beautiful city of San Francisco. Sometimes I think it’s why I always wanted to do something beautiful with my life, like sing or dance or host my own beautiful talk show. I was progressing very nicely, if I do say so myself: I studied ballet as a child, I played the violin, I listened to countless Broadway cast albums, and I always watched The Loretta Young Show for pointers on all-around poise and loveliness.

But unfortunately, or fortunately – I still haven’t decided which – the Summer of Love threw a monkey wrench into the whole thing. It was 1967, and the bus I took to my idiotic high school – the Star of the Sea Academy for young ladies – rolled right through Haight-Ashbury. Twice a day, five days a week, for four years I checked out this wild, happening place, sitting wide-eyed in my bus seat. Everybody who was anybody became a hippie, including myself. Well, maybe I wasn’t an out-and-out hippie, but I did live in the Haight, I wore a lot of paisley, my hair was long, and I had at least two pairs of handmade sandals. I was a big fan of Chairman Mao and the Long March. I played the recorder, sang in a madrigal group, ate organic brown rice, and attended very long-drawn-out rock concerts, with very long-drawn-out guitar solos. Yet all the while, when no one was around, I clandestinely cooked beef stroganoff dinners, read movie-star biographies, and watched The Tonight Show with Doc Severinsen and his fabulous orchestra.

These counter cultures finally clashed in 1972, on one of those wonderful afternoons when idle youth comes face to face with destiny. I found myself in front of the Fairmont Hotel. Why not a stroll in the lobby, I thought. Inside, I ran into a friend from college. (I had spent all of three semesters in college before I dropped out – to find myself, or something.) My friend had dropped out, too, and was waiting tables in the hotel’s coffee shop, which was as good a place to start as any to discover oneself. She was on her break, and was about to sneak into the Venetian Room on the other side of the lobby to watch Peggy Lee rehearse. Did I want to come along?

“Yeah, why not,” I said. “That sounds trippy.” When we arrived, Peggy was on her break, and my friend had to go back to work, so our little plan fizzled. But the spotlight operator, whose name was Willy – I’ll never forget him – said I could come back anytime during the week and watch the show with him from the lighting booth.

I don’t know exactly what possessed me – fate, boredom more likely – but a couple of nights later I was back at the Fairmont, sitting next to Willy in the Venetian Room’s stuffy, crammed little lighting booth. The atmosphere was radically different from anything I had ever known; different from the Fillmore or the Winterland or any of the concert halls that I usually went to. The band was playing dinner music. My friends would have thought they were listening to Lawrence Welk’s warm-up act. There were candles on the tables and wonderfully kitschy murals of Venice on the walls – gondolas gliding lazily on the Grand Canal next to elaborately hideous wrought-iron sconces, their electric wicks quivering with romantic excitement. The tuxedoed waiters were pouring wine and champagne, with that faux bonhomie that made each patron feel as though he or she was the most important person in the room. The men wore jackets and ties, the women wore jewelry and evening gowns. And people were dancing – in each other’s arms. This certainly wasn’t the half-hearted dancing I’d been doing with my friends, which was more akin to an Aztec sacrifice ritual.

Then the lights dimmed. There was a drum roll, and a deep voice filled the room. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer cooed, “the Fairmont Hotel high atop Nob Hill is pleased to present the one and only Miss Peggy Lee!”

The room burst into applause. Willy moved the spotlight to stage right, and there appeared the woman of the hour. The audience gasped as she floated slowly across the stage. Her striking, placid face was expressionless. Only her eyes moved; her half-closed, heavily made-up eyes, which surveyed the room with a sort of bemused indifference – like the Mona Lisa, except platinum blonde, her hair fashioned in that Roman courtesan style so popular in the ‘60s, her lips thick with shiny pink lipstick, setting off that unbelievable beauty mark near the corner of her mouth (“It looks so vulgar!” my mother always said.) She wore a floor-length, many-layered, white chiffon gown. No one, especially at the Fillmore, ever came close to wearing something as lovely and ethereal as white chiffon, except maybe Donovan. Her jewelry sparkled, and at one point she told the audience that she was wearing real diamonds.

How gauche. How depraved. How fantastic!

But all of her Las Vegas sleazy supper-club glamour was transformed when she began to sing. It was heavenly. Beautiful, sexy, funny yet emotional. And the songs were beautiful, too. So grown up. She began a slow, playful version of “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” whispering that last line – “the world will pardon my mush, ‘cause I have got a crush…” – so seductively that the flocked walls blushed. She then segued into “Wait Till You See Him,” and the lyrics danced out of her in a kind of ghostly trance. I had never heard “Wait Till You See Him” before, but listening to it that night, sung with such beauty, I felt a profound joy. Certainly like nothing I had felt listening to Jefferson Airplane or the Grateful Dead. (Who needs drugs when you’ve got this kind of performance?)

As her final big number she sang “Is That All There Is?” I had found this song an almost laughable novelty when it played on the radio. But to hear it performed live, as the penultimate moment in an extraordinary show, it became a world-weary, wry anthem to existentialism, lost hope, and the sad wisdom that often comes with age.

I was hooked. It felt so thrilling to be in the room, to hear these songs, and to feel that I had gotten a sense of who this person Peggy Lee was: fascinating, graceful, wise, troubled, complex, occasionally inappropriate Peggy Lee. Because she was such an odd, original weirdo, I realized that this evening was unique to her and her only, and when I left the Fairmont that night, after I’d walked all the way home, I finally understood: This was the beautiful thing I wanted to do with my life. I was too young to put it into words, but it was something I felt strongly about. It was not merely about being in the spotlight. It was about coming to that spotlight in my own way, from my own little perch. It was about keeping something alive.

Mary Cleere Haran’s most recent CD is Pennies From Heaven, a collection of movie songs from the Depression era.

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