by David Taylor
As is the custom in visiting celebrated chanteuses, we are invited to sit, wait, and show interest in the furnishings in order that we may straightway be obliged to stand up again and witness the party make an entrance. “If I can’t get it, I feel I want to lie down and kick,” affects Miss Peggy Lee, mischievously, referring to her favorite, and regular Dorchester suite striding softly across it (quite a distance, at that) to join an awestruck ffolkes and myself, a bell-hop pouring out a fresh brew of tea, a press agent with an engaging grin who says his name is Roger, hello, and some of the contents of thirty-three indexed trunks. There are no dogs, which is a mercy, but there are pigeons; arranged in ordered ranks upon a window-ledge. From time to time she feeds them with wafer-thin mints. “Sugar-shocked,” so she imagines, they queue cooing for more. Peggy Lee is dressed more or less from neck to ankle in near pellucid pink, has fingernails of extraordinary length. It has been quite an effect. All are seated again.
She discovered quite some time ago that if a girl doesn’t take charge of a stage there’s a risk it’ll take charge of you. The exhibitionism is, then, a necessary tool. “I do not pretend that in the beginning I could gauge an audience. It comes, with practice, with work. I suppose that I do try and think about them for some time before I step out, to achieve some quiet about me at that time. Perhaps I shouldn’t tell you this, but what I then do is stomp my foot in a girlish, hystrionic way and right on cue – Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Peggy Lee – I come flying out. Without wires. Or wings. Well, then, once out, the music takes charge. If I didn’t sound quite so woolly and abstract, I might say that the audience, the orchestra and myself become one, like a circle. You have, of course, taken great care with all of the side-effects like your hair, your gowns. It’s all part of it. But if it were just that exhibitionism, I’d be happy to retire. You have to pick the music, to think in depth about each song – for one thing it makes it ten times more interesting. But I don’t like to have the thought that there may be celebrities, or family, or anyone I know out there in the audience. Perhaps because I’m really two people – I’m not even me when I’m out there. Now I’ve really confused you, yes? Peggy Lee is a schizophrenic? It’s not an easy thing to describe; it is, as you suggest, just about the most self-conscious way there is to make a living. OK, maybe I’m a jazz singer the way they say I am. I’m not too sure what a jazz singer is; Al Jolson? If you say that I’m held in esteem for using my voice like an instrument, perhaps, I’ll say that’s fine and then thank-you very much.” Peggy Lee has gauged this audience just fine.
At one time, the time of Pete Kelly’s Blues, Peggy Lee had an all too short-lived career in films. We asked her what went wrong. “I would have liked to do more movies. Agents would not have me do more movies. Point one. (They take a percentage off the top of her highly successful singing and argue, lucidly, why meddle?) Then for another thing I was playing the part of an alcoholic singer and it got uncomfortably close to people assuming the part was autobiographical.” People from the U.S. Alcoholics Anonymous would drop by. In a way, filming just might start up again. Peggy Lee does read a lot and was recently so taken by a novel account of Debussy’s days that she has bought up the rights. “No, this does not mean I’m financially astute. I do invest some. Shopping centres can be fun. I used to resent what we might call the business side terribly, once. Now I have a first-class business manager and I do not anymore. That part of my work is in fact annexed into offices at my home. The hoped-for feel of the whole is one of serenity. It started off, I had one room painted out in pale yellow. Now pretty well the whole place is pale yellow. With lots of ferns. And dogs. Well, three dogs. To have more, you need a kennel license. These they do not issue. I have three dogs. I do also paint, by the way. Not stunning as an artist, but I get paid a great deal.” She said to ffolkes that she was sorry about that, and so was he.
Oh, and talking about films, which a quarter of an hour ago we were, Peggy Lee recalls that she always found it easy to memorize scripts because she is blessed (she was the last to discover) with an eidetic memory. It was her habit to have in mind the entire script, everyone’s parts. Once a fellow-actor skipped five pages in error and, unruffled, she pressed right on into the next line. Very odd. It may account for the fact, too, that Peggy Lee has always found it easy to get along with people, unable to forget telling details. A line we were not to pursue because Roger, now, with likable tact, felt he had to keep Miss Lee to schedule. “I really don’t have that many run-ins,” she was saying as we parted, “people by and large are very nice to me.”
You could well see that they might be, she’s a very nice girl.