Peggy Lee


A Presence in My Life: Recollections by Peggy Lee

by Elaine St. Johns

“Ernest Holmes was the greatest spiritual influence in my experience of anyone I’ve ever met. His teaching reached into every corner of my life.”

So says Miss Peggy Lee, an American of Scandinavian descent who was born to an unhappy childhood in a small town in North Dakota, sang with Benny Goodman’s orchestra at 20, then grew and grew to become the distinctive and distinguished singing star beloved of successive generations, who has recently received the prestigious Living Legacy Award.

We are all talking together in her French Regency home atop a hill in exclusive Bel Air. It is evening, for Peggy’s days are so bursting with activity that it is hard to believe that not too long ago she underwent open-heart surgery. Health is certainly an area into which Ernest Holmes’ teachings have reached, for here she is, a year and a half later, keeping to such an energetic schedule that we have had trouble finding time for our interview.

First it was an appearance with the Pittsburgh Symphony, then eighteen satellite interviews beamed around the world to celebrate the reissue of the classic film Lady and the Tramp, for which Peggy collaborated in writing the score and recorded the voices of four characters. Currently in the day-time there are rehearsals in her huge living room for a series of performances at the Marines Memorial Theater in San Francisco. So we have chosen these quiet evening hours for our talk, but I arrive before to greet Peggy’s roses.

In her garden are twenty assorted prize-winning roses – I recognize Mister Lincoln, Comanche, Queen Elizabeth – and forty-eight Peggy Lee rose bushes. Peggy says, “The great thing is that the roses are like living friends. There’s a bush outside my window and when I watch it the roses turn toward me and bend, like a bow. They do, they do!” The warm, throaty chuckle that is Peggy’s unique laughter floats off into the dusk, and I believe her. Why not? As an artist, Peggy has achieved a rare rapport with all life that dissolves separateness and before which every knee will end.

“Peach,” she says, handling me a pinky-peach blossom, “is my favorite color.”

Inside the house this is apparent. Done in various shades of peach and white, it is an authentic setting for a star and Miss Peggy Lee, charming in her white charmeuse pants suit, is every inch a star. But I know that this highly original decor has been designed and executed by Peggy, and that she actually refinished some of the period furniture herself. And I am once more amazed at the number of nooks and crannies of her life into which Ernest Holmes’ teachings have crept.

I first met Peggy Lee in the ‘40s in her role as a recording artist and supper club headliner. She was very young, but then so was I, and we sat side by side at the speakers’ table presided over by the eminent Judge Mildred Lillie at a large luncheon for the Los Angeles Business and Professional Women – and they were all eminent too.

I was to speak a few words about my famous writer-mother, Adela Rogers St. Johns, and Peggy was to sing her current hit song, “Mañana.” Thoroughly daunted by all of this staid success, I babbled through my talk and collapsed. Not so Miss Lee. Two years younger, and a newcomer to demanding club women audiences which have been known to turn more experienced entertainers into basket cases, Miss Lee sailed through a poised and flawless performance. It was astonishing, and yet it wasn’t. Although I didn’t know it then, Peggy was relying not only on Ernest Holmes’ teaching but on Dr. Holmes himself – who was “working” for her, which was Ernest’s personal way of referring to spiritual treatment. The next time I saw her, I did know, for she and my mother had met through Ernest and Hazel Holmes and become fast friends, yet Peggy continued to astonish me.

I interviewed her for a national magazine when her velvety recording of “Fever” was topping the charts. While we talked she created four delightful floral hats from an assortment of artificial flowers that surrounded her. I went away wearing one. Later, on her return from a road trip, she presented my mother with a stunning cream-colored stole she had knitted. Later still, when we were assembling art work for a charity exhibition, Peggy decided, instead of lending us one of her nationally recognized paintings, to do a sculpture of her musicians’ hands. The finished piece was impressive.

I once commented to Ernest on her amazing versatility, and he grinned. “Yes,” he said, “Peggy radiates creativity in all departments. She has made contact with the Thing itself, and she accepts the way it works with complete trust.”

Ernest and Hazel are a very real presence in Peggy’s home today. On the wall in her peach and white bed-sitting room illumined by soft light from bronze lamps is a feathered bird of paradise “from one of Hazel’s more spectacular hats,” Peggy chuckles. On a table is a framed portrait of Ernest and another picture, “my favorite,” of them together enlarged from a snap-shot she took showing Hazel, very elegant in smart hat and long gloves, and Ernest, looking droll in casual sports shirt and slacks. There is also an exquisitely carved jade Kwan Yin, Oriental goddess of mercy, “the first of Hazel’s things Ernest gave me after he died.” But it is of Ernest’s influence on her life that Peggy speaks as we settle before the alabaster fireplace companionably sipping orange juice.

“I’m working in my autobiography,” Peggy says, “and there he is, along the way. I started to think of writing the book when I was in New Orleans after the heart surgery. There I was, convalescing in a room crammed with flowers from all over the United States, from Europe, Japan, with hundreds of messages of love and encouragement signed by all kinds of remarkable people – a bellboy at a hotel where I once stayed, the President of the United States regretting that the emergency has canceled my engagement to sing at the White House. And I found myself asking, ‘How did I, Norma Deloris Egstrom, little Miss Nobody, get here from Jamestown, North Dakota?’

“When I wrote that question in the manuscript the other day it had a familiar ring; then I remembered. Ernest and I were standing in the kitchen of their stately home on Lorraine Boulevard one Sunday while he prepared his famous baked beans. We had been talking about our backgrounds, his in the rugged, semi-pioneer backwoods of New England, mine on the endless, empty prairies of the Midwest, when he stopped, waved his wooden spoon, and asked, “Peggy, how did we get here from there?’ My own answer has to be, ‘With a lot of help, a big slice of which came through Ernest himself.’”

It began when she was 25, and at a major crossroad in her life. Hard to believe but, after a nine-year struggle to get to the top, when she finally made it at 23, she promptly retired. It had been a rough road from age 14 when she sang for fifty cents a night in Valley City, North Dakota, to Fargo where she was re-christened Peggy Lee on a radio show and made a very scant living – “I ate mostly peanut butter, a little at a time” – in to Chicago where she was tapped by Benny Goodman to sing with his band. When their recording of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” became one of the biggest hits of all time, Peggy Lee found herself a nationally known vocalist. It was at this point that she quit. Why?

“Well,” Peggy sips orange juice while she collects memories, “I had married guitarist David Barbour, we were very much in love, and then my daughter Nicki was born. I was an idealist, and my ideal in those days was that being a wife and mother was a full-time career. Only there was a lot of pressure – from MGM studios, from Capitol Records, from Dave who felt I had too much talent not to use it, that I’d be unhappy latter on. But I was very confused, very unhappy right then. When Nicki cried I would hold her and rock her, and I think I cried more than she did.

It was at this point that Ernest and his teaching entered her life through a neighbor, Estelle Frombach. Estelle was an attractive, cultured lady who left the young mother a note one day saying, “I never see you go anywhere. I’d be happy to babysit with your child while you and your husband go to a movie.” They became friends and Estelle, who was a student of Ernest and had donated a chair to the lecture hall at the Institute of Religious Science, encouraged Peggy to go to hear him. So one night, while Estelle stayed with Nicki, Peggy went alone to the Institute.

“I was the first to arrive,” Peggy recalls, “and as I sat in the lecture hall I noticed a small brass plaque with a name on it on the chair in front of me. Curious, I circled around to see whose name was on the back of the chair I had selected and I could hardly believe it was Estelle Frombach! I felt a frisson of excitement and then, as I listened to Dr. Holmes I thought, with a deep thrill, “This is it. This is what I’ve been looking for.”

Peggy’s search had been intense. She had memories of her mother for only one short year in her childhood, from the time she was three and became aware of the dainty, warm person who loved and cherished her, until she was four and they stood her on a chair to see her mother stiff and still in her coffin. She couldn’t fathom death, and kept expecting her mother to return. When she didn’t, the child Peggy was told she had gone to God. There and then Peggy set about trying to find out where God was. She knew that He was, but she couldn’t figure out where.

“I’d been looking for God,” Peggy’s voice is soft and very low, “ever since my mother died.” She didn’t find Him in Jamestown, not in the sky, nor on the prairie, nor in the orthodox church. She had some hope when she was to receive instruction for confirmation, but instead she felt rebuffed by the gap between the teachings of Jesus and their interpretations by the ladies of the congregation which included her stepmother. In a silent conversation with her Maker she confided, “God, I don’t belong in this church.” Rather she became an avid Bible student and continued her search, but it was not until she heard Ernest that she felt she had found Him, that she belonged.

She attended lectures, Sunday services when she could, and as she began to absorb what she heard she found herself effortlessly returning to her career without sacrificing husband and child. First she and Dave wrote a few songs at home. A new venture, and one of them, “Mañana,” sold 2½ million records. There was a road trip for them both where she could take Nicki. And there she was, unretired, on her way to becoming the international favorite, Miss Peggy Lee.

“Of course I’m grateful now,” she says. “I came to understand that we have to use the gifts we’ve been given, to let them grow and expand. And it is has led to a wonderful life.”

But she had not yet met Ernest Holmes personally. This came about through a crisis when she was called to New York to substitute for Jo Stafford, who had her own very popular radio show. Peggy, however, arrived by air feeling quite ill. During the night her condition worsened; next day her manager called the doctor who said there was absolutely no way Peggy could appear on the show.

“He couldn’t understand that I had to,” Peggy says, “and my thoughts went immediately to Dr. Holmes. Today, long distance calls to London, Paris, Istanbul, are casual. In 1945, they were Important, and person-to-person they were Very Important. So I put though a person-to-person call, New York to Los Angeles to Dr. Holmes and got him right away. I heard his calm voice say, ‘You’ll be all right. Come and see me when you get back. I’ll continue working for you. You’ll be fine.’

“By air time, I was fine,” she says. “My first experience of spiritual mind healing! When I got back to the coast I went to see him at once. From then on Ernest and Hazel adopted me as one of those daughters they ‘didn’t have.’ Now I began consciously to apply the principles he taught, and to experience their effect in my life. They even reached back into the past, into my childhood, for Ernest taught me to forgive what happened to me there.”

Norma Deloris Egstrom had been an abused child, her stepmother an archetype for all the wicked stepmothers of fantasy and fiction. At home, without her father’s knowledge, she was bruised, battered, beaten until she awkwardly attempted suicide, only to be soundly trashed for her pains. When she was occasionally sent away it was to serve on a neighborhood farm as a drudge doing all the heavy work for $2 a month.

Her reaction at the time was typical of many abused children. At first, with no frame of reference, she thought it was normal to be treated that way. When she discovered this wasn’t so, she was engulfed in guilt, sure that she suffered thus because of her own inadequacies. However, by the time she became Peggy Lee this answer was no longer acceptable.

“They say,” Peggy shudders slightly, “that abused children grow up abusive. I don’t believe that and after I met Ernest I know why. We didn’t deal with this specifically – Ernest never gave me specific advice or psychological counseling; instead he would uncover the principle and encourage me to work from there. In this case he showed me the value of forgiveness – to ‘give for,’ love for hate, joy for sadness, beauty for ashes. He explained that we can’t make any growth until we can do this. And I wanted to grow!”

As her forgiveness grew deep and clear, she herself was given beauty for ashes, a whole surrogate spiritual family enfolded her. She talked with Ernest, occasionally Hazel, on the phone daily. Whenever possible they had family potluck suppers on Sunday at one of their homes, alternately cooked by Ernest or Peggy. She grew closer to Adela Rogers St. Johns, a staunch metaphysician, and her large brood. Dr. George Bendall, the young minister Ernest invited to share his home after Hazel’s death and who became Peggy’s practitioner, was as close to her as a blood brother.

“The greatest part was the way we all gave each other spiritual support,” Peggy feels. “In the beginning I entrusted everything to Ernest as my practitioner. Gradually I learned to help myself, then to help others. Helping others is another way we grow and you don’t have to be a licensed practitioner to help a friend. I’ve had practitioners ask me for help, including Ernest, which indicated he was pleased with my progress. As I m pleased when I call on Nicki for help and receive it.

“Ernest taught me that it was a denial of spiritual principles to feel we haven’t enough understanding to respond to such call and I finally got to the place where I didn’t hesitate to try. But I never got so above myself that I wouldn’t ask for experienced help when I needed it. When I was stricken in New Orleans I immediately contacted George Bendall, spoke to him on the phone myself. And when I came to a major crisis in my career, I certainly turned to Ernest.”

The crisis came with the advent of rock music and its wild informality. When it appeared, the elaborate elegance of Peggy’s performances was in jeopardy. It was not her music that was challenged; she was one of the first to recognize the worth and talent of many of the upcoming rock composers and began including them in her wide repertoire. A recognition Beatle Paul McCartney repaid by writing a song for her.

No, not her singing, but the lavish style that was uniquely her own was said by many to be on its way out, as rock came in. She traveled with her own hairdresser, her own wardrobe mistress, and when an audience heard “Ladies and Gentlemen – Miss Peggy Lee” they were guaranteed a multi-carat production meticulously polished down to the last detail – selection of music, the slightest musical note, a light cue, her gowns. No Woodstock about it!

“I took a look and decided I had to stand my ground. People who came to hear me deserved the very best I could give – and that was it. Besides,” she chuckles, “I don’t look good in blue jeans.”

So she continued to be Miss Peggy Lee and not only survived but triumphed. In the era of fast changing musical fashions that followed, one New York jazz critic awarded her the title “Miss Standing Ovation,” and her popularity remained steady as a rock.

She took another strong stand. She has consistently refused to sing a lyric devoid of hope “because I can’t sing what I don’t believe.” When she considered recording the haunting lament “Is That All There Is?” by Leiber and Stoller, she knew it was based on Thomas Mann’s essay “Disillusionment,” but it didn’t say that to Peggy.

“To me,” she explains, “it was just the opposite. It said we go through one experience after another, some of them negative into a positive we learn, grow stronger, can go on to new experiences because there is always more. But I waited a whole year before introducing the song until I felt sure I could get this interpretation across. Finally, by changing the emphasis from ‘Is That All There Is?’ to ‘Is That All There Is?” I was satisfied my listeners would understand the hopeful affirmation – There is more!”

From their response 95% of them did, some even writing to her to say it had turned their lives around. It not only became a classic but was the subject for editorials and sermons, including one in St. Patrick’s Cathedral on an Easter Sunday.

“You can see,” she sums up, “that when I asked Ernest for help, I got it right down the line.”

When Ernest died in 1960 Peggy recalls, “I called Adela and we helped each other. He had told me that he missed Hazel, that when the new church was finished, and it had been finished almost three months to the day, he wanted to go. But it was not yet in a high enough state of consciousness to release him without sadness.

“Adela and I were both in New York at the time and planned to attend the Memorial Service at Dr. Raymond Charles Barker’s church together. Then Adela called and announced most persuasively that I was to sing the Lord’s Prayer at the service as my tribute to Ernest. ‘But it is not in my range,’ I protested. ‘No matter,’ said Adela firmly. ‘I – I don’t think I can handle it emotionally,’ I pleaded. ‘Of course you can,’ she said. ‘He taught you, didn’t he?’ And then the clincher. ‘I’ll be right there working for you.’

“So for the first time in public I sang the Lord’s Prayer. I didn’t falter, and when I actually reached the high note at the end, I truly felt that I was being held up there.

“It has been comforting since then,” Peggy is pensive, “to feel that he still reaches into the present. Whenever I travel on this trail we all seem to follow, wherever I find the truth, I realize that Ernest has been there before. That he either spoke about it, or wrote about it. In this way he remains a very active spiritual presence in my life.”