by Robert Taylor
Beneath the sterling silver hairstyle, rhinestone-rimmed glasses, flawless matte makeup and dusky pink nail enamel, there is a part of Peggy Lee that remains – as one of her album titles noted – “Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota.”
She was lunching with producers and reporters the other day in the penthouse of the Fairmont Hotel. But as she nibbled on grilled salmon and sauteed mushrooms, she began chatting about grandchildren and gardening, about heart surgery and allergies, about the uncomfortable fit of her mantle as a show business legend.
What Peggy Lee is intent on doing this week is transforming her image as grand dame of the supper clubs into something more cozy and intimate. Tonight she opens at the Marines Memorial Theater, Sutter and Mason Streets, for an 11-performance engagement.
This is her first San Francisco appearance in a theatrical setting, following engagements for years in the more sumptuous – and more expensive – Venetian Room.
“I’ve been playing here since 1945 or 1947,” Lee recalled, and after a well-timed pause she added, “I sound like an old Packard!”
She is just as classic, and one of the few popular singers from the 1940s who remain active, along with Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Lena Horne.
What turns her on now is a new idea, such as the renewed use of Brazilian rhythms in her arrangements. Lee takes credit as the first American singer to use Brazilian rhythms in her arrangements: When she recorded “Mañana” she borrowed a rhythm section from, of all people, Carmen Miranda.
After the commercial failure of her one-woman musical autobiography, Peg, on Broadway three years ago, it is a wonder that Lee would return to the theater.
But in 1985 she won raves when she appeared in a tribute to songwriter Sammy Cahn at the Santa Barbara Theater Festival. She appeared in an expanded show last year at the Westwood Playhouse in Los Angeles. The current production at the Marines Theater is a continuation.
“There is something different about the theater – with no distractions you can really give a performance intense concentration.
“There are two things I want to try on this show. One is something I did in a theater in Chicago, an impression of Billie Holiday, in which ‘she’ sings and then ‘I’ sing. And if we can work it out properly, I’d like to do the insane scene from Pete Kelly’s Blues.”
Lee was nominated for an Academy Award for that 1955 movie, and her performance as an alcoholic blues singer was so convincing that people later asked about her “recovery.”
Her real-life health problems have been serious but have not put her out of commission, and at the age of 66 she looks trimmer than she has in years.
In the early 1970s, a bout with pneumonia led to a respiratory ailment that made it necessary for her to use oxygen before each performance. In 1976, she slipped and fell on a heavily waxed floor at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. In a lawsuit she alleged that the accident resulted in a permanent hearing loss, temporary blindness, head injuries and sciatic nerve disorders.
“Oftentimes, people would say, ‘Why doesn’t she smile?’,” Lee said as she recalled performances after the accident. “I couldn’t. I had to learn how to smile again with one side of my face.”
Three years ago in New Orleans, she was hospitalized with chest pains and underwent four hours of double-bypass heart surgery.
“They had to open me twice, because there were two very bad infections. I think my recovery had to do with my faith, and all the help I received from the people. Wires and letters from so many, and the President and Nancy. I was on my way to the White House when it happened. But that’s in my book,” she concludes with a smile. (She has written eight chapters of an autobiography.)
If “legends” are survivors, then Lee deserves the distinction. But she said she was uncomfortable when she was first called one. “I thought that only people like Paul Bunyan were legends,” she said. “I really didn’t know how to react.
“Naturally, it’s nice. But it’s a list that grows and grows. Lately you find people who have just started, and you don’t even know their names, and they’re considered legends.”
Among her other honors is a Peggy Lee Rose registered with the American Rose Society; it’s among the 38 rose bushes she tends in her Bel Air garden.
There is also a dog named after her, Peg the Pekingese, in Lady and the Tramp.
“I even saved the life of one of the dogs,” Lee explained. “Old Trusty, the bloodhound, was killed in the original story. I couldn’t bear it. So I pleaded with Walt to let him live.”