Peggy Lee

Life of a Canary

New York Herald Tribune, November 4, 1951

Life of a Canary

Singer Peggy Lee has a routine that could kill a coal heaver. Here’s what she did in one day.

by Louis Berg

Canaries – we refer to the human platinum blondes who chirp for a living – do not have an easy life. Take the case of Peggy Lee, one of the most successful, and certainly the most professional, of the television, nightclub and radio songbirds.

Nobody could seem more assured than Peggy when she steps before the mike. Behind the scenes it’s another story. This canary reveals herself to be as nervous as a cat. Her hands tremble, she puffs incessantly on a cigarette, holds herself under control with visible effort. It’s all the result of overwork. She has a schedule that would kill a coal miner.

This is the penalty for being on top in a profession that is always demanding. This sleek young lady, who as Norma Egstrom used to sell tickets in a railroad station and help with the harvesting in the fields of North Dakota, today earns as much as $8,000 a week.

She has composed – mostly in conjunction with her ex-husband, bandleader Dave Barbour – scores of tunes. She appears constantly on radio and TV shows and can pretty much write her own ticket in Hollywood.

The one thing she can’t do is relax. Here is a typical day in the life of a canary – noted down when Peggy made her first appearance in New York’s Copacabana.

Up at 10 a.m., after a plane ride to New York that lasted until dawn. Quick orange juice and black coffee, to be supplemented by a ham sandwich in the smoke-filled rehearsal hall.

Rehearsal – she’s a half hour late – is an incredibly noisy and apparently chaotic affair.

Then, after that, in rapid succession, a conference with business agents, press agents, phone calls, appointment with hairdresser, press interview, meeting with TV people, letters to dictate, documents to sign.

Show begins at 8; she’s there at 7 for a last-minute run-through, costume and makeup. Maybe she’ll get 15 minutes to rest before the show goes on.

At 9 p.m. show’s over and she’s due on the floor to meet sponsor and VIP’s. She makes her way downstairs, trying to preserve her expensive costume from flying trays of food, and trying above all to look fresh, charming and gracious.

This goes on without modification from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. At 5 a.m., exhausted but still too overwrought for rest or sleep, she bustles over to some all-night restaurant for scrambled eggs and coffee.

Finally, at 6, she rolls into bed completely played out and completely unable to sleep, with the full knowledge that four hours later, she’ll have to get up and start the whole tough routine over again.

Here’s a note from Peggy Lee’s press agent, whom we left with Peggy when the routine got too much for us:

“Well, you missed it. I guess you know when to stop. Peggy got a cinder in her eye, and had to wear a black patch, like a pirate, until seconds before she went on.

“One of her suitcases disappeared, containing most of her arrangements. The beads from her most expensive dress came loose and sprayed the floor.

“The producer had fits, and the bandleader had a temperature of a hundred and two.

“Well, anyway, the show looked pretty from the viewer’s side.

A murderous routine. Why does she go through with it? Well, maybe it’s that $8,000 a week. Wouldn’t you?