by Sherryl Connelly
Peggy Lee is speaking of the view from her lofty home in Bel Air, California. “I can see the ocean. I can see the boats out there with my field glasses,” the 66-year-old singer says, then gently edits her own statement. “That is, I don’t see the boats terribly well, but I know they are there.”
The same could be said of her future.
Miss Peggy Lee, currently appearing at the Ballroom through July 19, is not long out of a New Orleans hospital. She spent six months there, recovering from complications after a multiple bypass operation.
“I was really very pleased that the people there – a well there I was, you know, no makeup, nothing – and they really just liked me for myself,” she says in her whispery voice. “It meant a lot to me.”
It would. Lee, whose first hit dates back to 1942, always has made a point of putting her best foot (the leg sheathed in silk, the shoe matching the gown) forward in public. To such an extent that her club acts, if they didn’t receive raves, were panned on the grounds she delivered more polish than performance.
Then, three years ago, she staged a Broadway show, Peg. It was the story of her life, in which she spoke emotionally and appeared for the first time in public with no makeup.
In the show she sang a calypso number, “One Beating a Day, Maybe More,” which referred to the treatment she received at the hands of her stepmother way back when in North Dakota. And she told of other unhappy truths from a sometimes sorry lifetime. It closed in one night.
“It was a terrible shock,” she says, her eyes hidden behind dark glasses. “I don’t recall having one that was any greater than that.”
The criticism was varied but encompassing. Perhaps, though, it was a friend of Lee’s who said it best. He told her the show about her life was just too depressing. “How do you think I felt living it?” she reportedly snapped back.
“Actually,” she says now, “very little of the depressing part was put in. But it was a friend and a fan who made that comment, and he prefers the happiness he gets from my performances.”
Peggy Lee onstage embodies glamour. She’s all silken pastels, a swirl of white blond hair and intimate delivery. A serious stylist, she’s also a perfectionist. (“She can be difficult, yes, because of wanting it right,” a long-time friend says.)
Lee credits the substance of that style to her rough beginnings in life. And what propelled her career beyond a natural lifespan (How many singers are popular for the duration of their adult life?) was a series of personal disappointments. Possibly that’s what she was trying to tell her fans from her podium on Broadway.
The aforementioned stepmother (Lee’s mother died of diabetes when she was four) took advantage of her husband’s absences working on the railroad to abuse his children. Lee helped her three brothers and two sisters run away, but she stayed, just biding her time.
“I always knew I would be a singer. I knew it was a matter of time. All the things that happened back then, I just walked through them because I knew. But I do remember wondering how I was going to get out there.”
She got out. First she toured with a college orchestra. She also did a stint as a waitress and a carnival barker. Then, it happened one night, Benny Goodman heard her in a Chicago nightclub. She joined the band, the big band and the big time.
I remember the first night. When the spotlight hit me it felt like a roaring freight train coming at me. I still suffer when I talk about it.”
Lee’s first hit with the tune “Why Don’t You Do Right?” in 1942. Of course, there were other hits, most notably: “Fever,” “Mañana” and “Is That All There Is?” Then there were the misses – her marriages.
Musician David Barbour was the man she loved. “There was only one marriage, really,” she says, speaking figuratively, for in fact there were four. But it’s the sentiment that counts.
Singer and friend Margaret Whiting believes it was during Lee’s marriage to Barbour that she first considered closing down her career.
“Her career was really just taking off. She was so in love with David. They were living in a small house when she had her daughter, Nicki,” recalls Whiting. “They didn’t have a lot of money and she had a lot to do.”
Lee remembers: “We were very happy, but he had a problem with alcohol. He didn’t want Nicki anywhere near that. And much against my wishes, he asked me for a divorce.”
I n 1964 Barbour died, after 13 years of sobriety and just four days after he and Lee agreed they should remarry. The other three marriages Lee refuses to discuss; barely acknowledges, in fact.
“Each one could have been annulled. They were like costume parties. I was just trying to make a home for my daughter. The whole attitude of the world was different then. But I was just trying to be proper. And I’m sorry if I hurt anyone.” Still…
It was Lee’s inability to become just a housewife that kept her in a career. “I wanted to be Mrs. So-and-So. But the thing was that the unfortunate men I had the costume party for would immediately become Mr. Lee. It bothered me that it took their pride away. You know, adulation can be a terrible thing.”
Or so she thought then. But she thinks differently now. Once she gave up on marriage, she pursued her career with such vengeance that following a case of double pneumonia she toured with an oxygen tank in tow. The career that once stood in the way of personal happiness is now the mainstay of her life.
“I may have thought that I would have been happy being Mrs. So-and-So, but now that I’ve had the time to observe what happened, if I’d had any idea of how wonderful it would be…”
This year she was the first person to receive both the Songwriters Guild of America Aggie Award and its President’s Award, and the first woman to receive either. The Aggie she got as a composer, the President’s Award for helping others in her field.
“Peggy shows great concern for the future of young songwriters,” Guild president-songwriter George David Weiss explains. “She’ll come down, in person, to help, for free.”
Such honors. But they are fillips. It is the fans who are the bedrock of the road she now travels. “Everywhere I go people send me things,” she confides. “Oh, the notes, the flowers, even pastries made without sugar. Thoughtful things, you know.”
Though her health is now carefully monitored, Lee’s ambitions are not limited. She’s talking about writing a book. She speculates she might one day produce a show of some kind. She is interested most definitely in doing a television special.
So the future isn’t quite clear. But like the boats, she knows it’s there.