by Gene Arceri
“Let’s go into the bedroom,” whispered the smoky voice of the famous blonde magic.
“We’re talking to you from Peggy Lee’s bedroom in the Fairmont Hotel,” I began, as we settled in for our interview for National Public Radio. “You’d better explain that,” she laughed, “…we are having a little party in the living room and we have kind of stolen away to have a private moment together,” she paused, “…that sounds even worse.”
As for me, I loved it. But for the record – it was a press party given by the Fairmont, organized to perfection by Sue Christensen and Anya Ushakova, the Fairmont Public Relations girls, to welcome back Peggy Lee for her Venetian Room engagement.
The reception rooms in the Cambridge Suite were filling up with celebrities and well known media. Looking for a quiet place to tape the interview, she chose the bedroom. We sat across from each other with a microphone in between. Face to face she is far more striking, with a MGM glamour refined to a satin sheen.
“What is the first thing you notice about someone?” I began. Slowly and thoughtfully, she answered, “I think it’s their eyes…and then I like to watch people’s minds work.”
As Miss Lee paints and sculpts the hands of musicians and the heads of great men like Albert Schweitzer, whom she admires, I anticipated a different reply. Conversely, Miss Lee’s eyes are experienced and honest, with a mind that works astutely, measured in an intent observant path.
Those eyes have lived all the emotions of life, tinged by some sadness and loss but bright with an inner spirit shining through. The mind has been places, too, the lady has lived, and become her own champion over time.
Why, I wondered, after decades of work, accomplishment and success does the talent of Peggy Lee seem still at the peak of her career?
Working through an apprenticeship, as a product of the big band era, Peggy got a solid foothold, with an ability to sing anything from jazz to blues, to sing with a heart and enough power to be heard above the band. Only a few vocalists from that time have loyally captured a lasting cult. The lady’s brand of perfectionism is stamped on her career as a composer, lyricist, arranger, actress and business woman – a stamp of professionalism on everything she touches.
Born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota, a farm town on the Great Plains, on May 26th, of Norwegian and Swedish ancestry, she was the seventh of eight children born to Mervin Egstrom, a station agent for the Midland Continent Railroad. Mother Egstrom died when Norma Deloris was four years old.
A musical family?
“They’re not in the entertainment business. I have two sisters, two have passed away, and two brothers and one has passed away. They all could sing and do sing, but all for fun. It’s just as well. I think that I’m stronger than they are. It really requires a lot of strength to tour around the country,” Miss Lee summarized.
Encouraged by the recognition she had received for her singing with the high school glee club, the church choir and semi-professional college bands, Norma headed for Hollywood, after she graduated from high school, with eighteen dollars in cash and a railroad pass she had borrowed from her father.
She managed to get a brief singing engagement at the Jade Room, a supper club on Hollywood Boulevard. Making little impression on the film capital, she got a job as a waitress and a carnival spieler at a Balboa midway.
Deciding to try her luck nearer home, she found work as a singer over at WDAY, in Fargo, North Dakota, whose manager christened her Peggy Lee.
“My beloved Ken Kennedy and his dear wife Jeannette, were so, so very much a part of my career,” she said lovingly, “I saw them just last May (1975) when I was there. And saw all of my wonderful friends back there.” Very proudly, she said, “They gave me an honorary doctor’s degree of music.”
To supplement her income, while at WDAY, she worked as a bread slicer in a Fargo bakery.
At first she laughed about it, but becoming very serious, looking back, said, “You don’t know how dangerous that was. I had three jobs at that time, to earn enough money so I could sing for nothing. I was so tired by the time I got to the bakery, I used to take a cold shower, on what I called a hot-bread break. The others would go down the street for coffee; not me, back to the shower. Because I didn’t want to slice myself up, with the bread. I worked until four in the morning at the bakery. Then I went home. I had a noon radio program so I had to get up early and prepare.”
Her prospects for a career brightened when she moved to Minneapolis, singing in the dining room of the Radisson Hotel, appeared on a Standard Oil radio show and sang with Sev Olsen’s band, breaking into the big time with Will Osborne’s band. However, it was at the Doll House in Palm Springs, California that Peg first developed the soft ‘cool’ style that was to become her trademark. Unable to shout above the clamor of the audience, Peggy got attention by lowering her voice. The softer she sang, the quieter the audience became. Benny Goodman discovered Peggy Lee singing in the Buttery Room – what better place for a former bread slicer. Goodman was in Chicago looking for a replacement for Helen Forrest. For the next two years she toured the United States with the most famous swing outfit of the day.
“I learned more about music from the men I worked with in the bands than I’ve learned anywhere else,” Peg recalled. “They taught me discipline and the value of rehearsing and even how to train…band singing taught us the importance of interplay with musicians. We had to work close to the arrangement.”
In July of 1942 Peg recorded her first smash hit “Why Don’t You Do Right?” It sold over a million copies and made her famous. The following year Peg married Dave Barbour, the guitarist in Benny Goodman’s band. A year later Peg had another hit, a daughter, Nikki.
Peggy and her husband wrote musical lyrics to “Golden Earrings,” “It’s a Good Day,” “Mañana” and “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” selling in the millions. If I may interject a personal note here, I am very lucky to have an album, Forever Young, with Peg as vocalist on “Where Can I Go Without You?” to the music of Victor Young. I have taken that with me half way around the world. I cherish it, even more so since my fortunate meeting with this star.
In the 50’s Peg made her screen debut in Mr. Music, opposite Bing Crosby, then she went into The Jazz Singer with Danny Thomas. Critics praised her start in films – as a “poised and ingratiating ingenue.” But it wasn’t until her shattering performance as a despondent and alcoholic blues singer in Pete Kelly’s Blues did she prove her ability as an important new dramatic actress.
She won a nomination for an award from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Peg did not get the award from the Academy but in the balloting conducted by the Council of Motion Picture Organizations, the moviegoers, the ticket buyers, voted her the “Audie” statuette.
I asked about the film offers that surely must have pursued her after so unforgettable a performance in Pete Kelly’s Blues.
“What offers?,” she said. “There weren’t any offers – you know, that’s rather a peculiar thing. Because it’s something that I wanted to do and I still hope to do. But I never received any offers after that and I never figured it out. The interesting thing about it,” she reflected, “I…played the part of an alcoholic and for some time after that I used to receive literature from AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), where I would go and sometimes sing for them. A really fine organization, I think they (the producers) probably assumed by my having sung there and my playing so convincing an alcoholic – I often wondered whether I was typecast as an alcoholic. And I don’t drink.” The drink in her hand at the time was of distilled water. “The role was so interesting, a meaty role, after all, she went insane, she (the role) thought she was five years old, a very sad character, sort of a composite of people I’ve known over the years. I really would love to act again. In fact, the morning we did the scene, a drunk scene, the makeup man said to me, ‘you’d better have a drink.’ I said ‘No! Why?’ He said, ‘anyone who plays a drunk should have a drink before.’ I said, ‘How would I know if I’m a good actress or not, then?” I didn’t have a drink; besides, it was nine o’clock in the morning.” In the respect Miss Lee commands from the critics both as a vocalist and jazz artist and actress, Peg is a rarity among singers, becoming increasingly irreplaceable with time.
Her accolades from every part of the music profession are imposing. Although she has guested on every television musical variety show opposite the greatest names in the business, she undertook a straight dramatic role in So Deadly, So Evil for the General Electric Theater, burning up wattage with a performance, I have to say it, one must call electrifying.
In what she called the high spot in her career, she was selected to appear at Philharmonic Hall of New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. An extremely hard worker, a perfectionist of her craft, out to give all to an audience, Peggy Lee’s health has suffered on several occasions. As a result, Peg has a more selective performing schedule.
After the breakup of her marriage to Dave Barbour, Peg married movie actor Brad Dexter, divorced him and on a third try took dark and handsome Dewey Martin, an actor as well.
When Peggy Lee walks into the spotlight in the Venetian Room, in a pink gown, fingering a pearl rope swaying from her throat, she turns on all the show biz elegance to her audience. “I’m feeling too good today!,” she sings. With minimum movements, a maximum of finesse, Miss Peggy Lee sings her siren’s songs.
Her philosophical “Everything Must Change,” her fascinating “Professor Hauptmann’s Performing Dogs,” her final disappointment in “Is That All There Is?”
She moved like an ethereal, elusive dream, her moon-toned voice taking you on a voyage of the soul. A&M Records have aptly titled her new album Mirrors. Certainly, the lady reflects many-sided emotions vocally.
Peg speaks of the arts as part of some spiritual sense, “They must be where inspiration comes from…”
“…A writer, that’s perhaps what I should have been most of all. I never wanted show business. I wanted to sing, nothing else but sing…” She is writing a book at this time, “…not the big book, yet, the difficulties, the tragic things…I’m not ready for that yet. No, something light and frothy. A part of my life is so sad, why should I make people sad? Maybe I could make them smile, and maybe, laugh.”
Her rather cunning humor is effective, but mostly her direct honest approach is at times really funny.
Peggy Lee has been coming to the Fairmont for over twenty years. Anya G. Ushakova, in public relations, used to the demands, problems and headaches of the stars booked there, said of Miss Lee, “I really love her, she has an incredible amount of compassion for humanity, for other people.” I mentioned to Anya Miss Lee’s aloofness, toughness one hears about. “Perhaps when you first meet her, but when you talk to her, know her, she is totally unlike the image presented.”
In Peg’s own words, “I’ve been given a talent and feel a responsibility to try to improve the presentation of it…”
She has found much in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “I wouldn’t still be working if it weren’t for the strength I’ve derived from some of his essays. He said, ‘God will not have his work done by cowards.’ To me that means ‘Don’t let your personal problems get in the way of your life’s work.’ I’ve had to remember that rule several times during my career.”
Peggy Lee’s accounting of her success: “…a fulfillment of what you were born to be.”
The reception room was filling up with guests waiting to greet her. She had to leave, but did not say goodbye; “A tout a’l’heure,” she sighed wistfully, and joined the throng of visitors, that would soon surround her.
I watched the small woman move about the room, hazel eyes looking up at each person, listening, her blonde hair catching different light changes. Somehow she never became absorbed by them, something about her remained, alone and apart.