by Victor Davis
She’s been in this country only three times – and on her first visit we almost killed her.
So Miss Peggy Lee arrived in London this week treading very warily.
Here to record a Christmas show with Julie Andrews, Peggy recalled the first time she dropped in twelve years ago.
“I’m not blaming London, you understand. But things do seem to happen to me here,” said Peggy, who has the title of her biography all worked out. It will be called The Perils of Peggy.
“I was doing three shows a night in cabaret and performing for the BBC. I had no time to get back to my hotel to rest. I ran myself into the ground, contracted pneumonia and pleurisy and spent seven months in bed.
The legacy was a permanently damaged lung. To prevent it atrophying she has to keep a breathing machine always at hand.
And wouldn’t you know? When I called at the Oliver Messel suite at the Dorchester Hotel to pay my respects, I stumbled upon further drama.
There was a doctor present to give her a once-over and her machine – she calls it Charley – had sprung a leak.
Actually, she had to plead to get to London.
At home in Beverly Hills she had done a skid on the mat and somersaulted into the bath where her wardrobe mistress found her concussed.
She also wanted to let us see her in the flesh at the Palladium, but her doctor said: “Cut that out or I won’t let you go at all.”
In view of all this, I was expecting a battered crock to make an entrance.
But in she swept, a shimmering blonde in a billowing brown kaftan.
Unbelievable! She’s 53 and has three grandchildren by her only child, Nicki, age 29.
Peggy Lee has been husking her way along the jazz and soul trail that started in North Dakota when she was 14 and was named Norma Egstrom.
This railway worker’s daughter earned 50 cents a night singing with a college orchestra. Today she fills concert halls and supper rooms whenever she chooses to appear.
Her private life has known its sadnesses. She was married four times but has been husbandless for 11 years. Still, she can laugh heartily.
“Yes, I’ve heard that people think I must be a sad lady. But my sense of humour has always kept me in balance. I’m sure the sad thing started when I was a little girl.
“I only had to sit quietly for an adult to come up, very concerned, and say: ‘What’s the matter, little girl?’”
She works ten month of the year and has twice tried to retire.
“The first time I was married and was very much in love. I just wanted to keep my little house.
“I used to pick up the phone, turn down the wildest money and go back to scrubbing my floors. Then my husband said, ‘I feel you have too much talent to stay home. You have much further to go than you think.’
“The second time I felt I should protect my husband’s pride. It is very difficult for a man to be married to someone as successful as I was.
“He suddenly had a streak of bad luck and crumbled. I wondered if it had anything to do with my fame.
“If anyone called him Mr. Lee, I had to be physically held back. Probably it bothered me more than it bothered him. Finally we had to talk it over and sadly we went our ways.
“The truth is I don’t feel extraordinary at all. I enjoy being bossed around by a man I like and respect.”
And now? “Well, I can tell you that there isn’t a lack of love in my private life. I have several fine gentlemen friends who keep me laughing and entertained. They have no responsibility and nor have I.
“Why, if I meet that mature and secure man I need, I might even marry again.”
She stops suddenly, flashes me a coquette’s smile and says, “Have you noticed how anonymous I am keeping my men friends?” I commended her discretion.
I express surprise that she had not pursued a film career after her Oscar nomination for playing an alcoholic in Pete Kelly’s Blues.
She tells me a strange story of finding helpful pamphlets from Alcoholics Anonymous under her door. Her screen self had been too convincing.
“For years people went around thinking I was playing myself. Producers kept away, assuming I would be too difficult to work with.”
She gives a yelp of indignation. “I only ever drank socially, and now I don’t drink at all.
After 40 years, she now plans to ease off that career and to concentrate more on painting. Recently she sold a portrait in oils for $13,500 – about £5,500.
“Don’t forget to put in the 500,” she said.