Peggy Lee hobbled into my life on a walker wearing a blonde, banged wing, dark bubble glasses, and a Miss Piggy-style, fur-trimmed peignoir, but no shoes. “Please don’t shoot my feet,” she begged the photographer. “They got squeezed tapping my toes, which caused an ingrown toenail and an operation.” When asked to pose holding a hand to her face, she said, “Please don’t shoot this hand. It’s swollen because I’m writing my memoirs longhand. Suddenly my ring doesn’t fit.” But on the other hand was an amethyst bigger than her world-famous beauty mark. It fit.
Peggy – who’s playing the Ballroom – draped herself across her Ritz-Carlton suite couch as if it were Cleopatra’s barge, and talked in those “fever all through the night” tones that could turn a gay man straight, or vice versa. She’s been through “some heavy personal experiences,” including multiple-bypass heart surgery (though the beauty mark is benign), and sometimes wishes she could “have a vacation before I go on to the next grade.” But in the school of hard knocks, she’s learned, there is no time off. Alarmingly enough, all the events in “Is That All There Is?” have happened to her. “I saw my brother and my father preparing to get out of a burning building, for example, and that’s still interesting to me. It shows you what people think under stress. Grace under pressure. Or maybe not Grace, but Mary. Or Myrtle.” She’s weird, but in that endearing Las Vegas beatnik way that made Carolyn Jones a star. All her experiences will be in those memoirs, though unfortunately Peggy says, “I can’t do the dishing thing.” Well, then – get a ghostwriter.
A former shy girl who once likened the spotlight to a freight train coming at her, Peggy’s been sublimely in control onstage for decades. Her hands outstretched a la Evita, her hips doing the world’s most minimal bump and grind, she sometimes seems on her own planet, but always take the audience with her. In the flesh, she comes off strangely in and out of touch (though she doesn’t seem to know that “Is That All There Is?” was used prominently in After Hours, she knows how to pronounce Sade), but always willing to plod ahead. “If they say, ‘Go to bed,’ ” says Peggy, “I’ll start writing the book or something else I can do lying down.” I throw her a look; there are a lot of careers that can be done lying down. “I haven’t tried that yet,” she laughs.