Redbook, April, 1955
Peggy Lee: She Can’t Stop Giving
A child who got little affection and love becomes a woman who can give affection to everyone — except herself
by Kirtley Baskette
Not long ago vivacious, husky-voiced Peggy Lee stood on the stage of a Baltimore theater singing her final number, a lively favorite called “Why Don’t You Do Right?” Halfway through, the spotlight failed. In the sudden black-out she had a wild thought: “Now I’ve killed myself.”
Peggy was almost right. She had pneumonia. Stricken the first day of her engagement, she had carried on for a week with a high fever. That night she fainted in the wings and later, fortified with antibiotics, was helped abroad a train bound for her home in Hollywood. But not before she voluntarily returned part of her fee to the management. “Because,” she explained, “I wasn’t up to standard.”
Peggy Lee’s standards are high enough to have taken her to the top as a popular radio, television and recording artist, night club and theater headliner, lyricist and, lately, a screen star. From all this she has earned an average of $200,000 a year for almost a decade.
But she still lives and works each day as if it were her last. She often drives herself beyond the limits of her physical and emotional strength — she has worked throughout several grave illnesses and soon after seven major operations. And two marriages have broken under the strain.
Today she confesses, “Sometimes I feel as if I’m on a treadmill not knowing where I’m headed, who I am or what it’s all about!” Yet she finds it almost impossible to step off and find out.
Last year Peggy planned six months ahead to attend a week of lectures at a Carmel, California, religious retreat. She drove a thousand miles from a Lake Tahoe engagement, via Hollywood, to the seminar. On her second day, she was called back to work. During the rest of that week, she recorded 24 songs, prepared and opened a new nightclub act at Ciro’s, rehearsed a live television program, painted her terrace and started a bedspread for her daughter’s room.
Her talents seem as limitless as her energies.
Walt Disney recently spent an entire “Disneyland” television program extolling her contributions to “Lady and the Tramp,” for which she wrote all the lyrics, part of the music, sang the songs and recorded the voices of three characters.
She has written about 100 songs, many of them hits, and published a collection of sensitive poems called “Softly, With Feeling,” some of which she has recited to orchestral scoring in the Hollywood Bowl. Besides countless popular tunes, she has recorded albums of Chinese love poems, Irish folk songs and old time ballads from all over the world. In addition, she composes short stories, paints, gardens furiously, carries on church and charity works and conscientiously mothers a twelve-year-old daughter despite tours which keep her absent from home half of each year. Recently her agent, calling to discuss $50,000 worth of advance bookings, found her on hands and knees waxing the floor.
What makes Peggy run? Her manager, Ed Kelly, who has been with her ten years, says, “Peggy has worked so hard and so long to be somebody that she has built up a rushing river inside her. She can’t dam it now. It spills over and carries her along.” But a sister, Marianne, believes, “It’s because she had so little as a kid that she wants to give out so much.”
Both could be right. For, the outgoing, popular Peggy Lee of today was once a shy stepchild resented, made to feel inferior and often harshly treated. As a girl, she performed a farm woman’s chores and, as early as twelve, was hired out to cook for threshing crews at $2.50 a week. She grew up apart from her sisters and brothers and almost starved when she left her home at 17 to seek a better world. In her struggle, she did everything from waiting on tables in hamburger shacks to barking in carnival booths. Even after success, she suffered tragic personal disappointments and saw death come close to her and those she loved.
One close friend believes that “Peggy loses herself in her work because she can’t forget her first husband.” And this belief is echoed by many of Peggy’s intimates, who fear that her feelings for this man make it doubtful that she can ever marry happily again.
But whatever the reason, and whatever her fortunes, Peggy Lee has never stopped giving all there is to give of herself and her talents. And she has never lost her courage, optimism, or faith. Today she says with conviction, “God has been good to me.”
Norma Deloris Egstrom, as she was born on May 26, 1920, of Swedish-Norwegian parents in Jamestown, North Dakota, was the seventh of eighth children whom her father, Marvin, struggled to support on the pay of a railroad station agent. At her birth, he mother, a fragile, five-foot, 96-pound woman, was awarded a bouquet of roses for having the prettiest baby in the hospital. The omen proved ironical. Although apple-cheeked, flaxen-haired Norma was always pretty, life certainly was not to be rosy for her.
When Norma was only four, Selma Egstrom died as a result of childbirth. At the funeral, held in the Egstrom living room, the little girl was lifted up beside the casket by her father for a final farewell. As she stared, stunned by a bewildering conflict of childish emotions, she heard a neighbor behind her whisper, “I wonder when they’re going to serve the coffee?”
As young as she was and as desolate, Norma realized what was expected — life must go on and she must help serve the coffee. She didn’t forget.
A year after his wife died, Marvin Egstrom married a stolid, heavily built German woman named Minnie Weise, who had sometimes nursed members of the family during illnesses. From the start, Minnie proved to be very difficult, jealous of her predecessor and her children. One by one, through the years, the six older children left to make homes of their own. The youngest, Jean, died of leukemia. Only Norma was finally left at home and life was not easy for her.
In Nortonville and later Wimbledon, North Dakota hamlets to which Marvin was successfully transferred, Norma performed tasks fit for one twice her age. She arose at dawn to stoke a cookstove with coal gleaned from the railroad tracks. Then she milked the cows; fed chicken, pigs and sheep; washed clothes; cleaned the house and even the barns. In all seasons, she had a regular milk-and-egg route. “But when I dropped a box or spilled a can,” recalls Peggy, “I was afraid to go home.”
Twice in this time, once at Christmas, she watched her house, with all the family possessions, burn to the ground, leaving the Egstroms destitute.
Fortunately, Norma was sturdy. When she froze both hands drawing water from the cistern, she rubbed them back to life with snow and, another time, slicing off a fingertip on a feed can, taped it back on herself. An ten, jolted over 18 miles of rough dirt roads with a gangrenous appendix, she was operated on by a hastily summoned country doctor in an office above a bank. But she was up and working within a week.
Hard work at home and at school left Peggy little time for normal social life. She was painfully lacking in poise and self-confidence. At school she was so self-conscious that she couldn’t bring herself to cross the room to sharpen a pencil. But it was different when she sang.
“That was the only time I ever felt important,” Peggy remembers. “And I could get my thoughts out of my system that I didn’t dare express.”
Whenever there was a box social or a town picnic, Norma would sing. And people liked to listen.
By the time she graduated from Wimbledon High School at the top of her class, townsfolk had a name for Norma Egstrom: “our little Hollywood girl.” By then too, she had written her first song, titled, “If I Could Sing with a Band.” It expressed her own growing hope and, in February of 1937, she sold her graduation watch for $30, begged a railroad pass from her father and set out alone for Hollywood. Her only professional experience had been gained from singing occasionally over small radio stations in Jamestown and nearby Valley City, where she had also worked as a waitress for $5 a week.
During Norma’s first two weeks in Hollywood she ate on 25 cents a day, mostly peanut butter and bread. When an employment agency finally found her a job as a temporary waitress in a cafe at Balboa Beach she had to hitchhike there.
After that job ended, Norma kept alive “barking and blushing” for a dart game, a dump-the-bum baseball throw and finally a shooting gallery on the amusement pike. She earned a dollar a night and lived in a crowded beach shack with four other girls, cooking meals for her share of the rent.
But Norma did better after a guitarist, a boyfriend of one of the girls, came down from town and took them out on the pier one night for a jam session. She contributed “The Man I Love.” Halfway through, the musician stopped playing. “This is ridiculous!” he exclaimed. “What are you doing down here with a voice like that?” Norma hitchhiked back to Hollywood the next day and walked into a night club he had suggested, called “The Famous Jade.”
Larry Potter, a veteran night club proprietor, who then owned it, remembers the girl who approached him timidly as, “what we used to call ‘an Oregon apple’ — cornfed, milk-cheeked and with hay practically falling out of her hair.” But when he heard Norma sing he hired her at $2 a night, although he had to lend her one of his wife’s gowns to sing in. A few nights later he raised her to $30 a week.
Norma left the Jade because her throat closed up one night and she fainted at the microphone. She awoke in a hospital ward to see a physician shaking his head and asking her, “Why don’t girls like you go back home where they belong?” Inadequate diet, late hours and overwork had caused a serious throat condition which, he said, required surgery. Back home again, a specialist in Grand Forks performed three operations without fee, and the Deaconess Hospital tendered no bill. But she suffered hemorrhages and was told she must baby her throat.
Norma’s ways of babying it was to audition for and win a job a month later at Fargo’s station WDAY (the manager renamed her Peggy Lee), to land another job at the Powers Hotel coffee shop and to take a Dale Carnegie course to give her more confidence. By memorizing guests’ names and greeting them with their favorite tunes, she became so popular that the rival hotel imported a singer from Minneapolis to copy her act.
A bandleader called Will Osborne hired her to go on tour with his group, but at the first stop in St. Louis her throat acted up. She underwent another operation, during which she was dropped by hospital attendants on a tiled floor, losing two front teeth and suffering a broken nose. At the same time Osborne disbanded his orchestra, leaving her stranded. Bandaged and weak, Peggy found a ride to California with the band’s ex-manager, and went to work again at the Jade for her old salary. But a better opportunity came up at a noisy cafe in Palm Springs.
One night an owner at the Ambassador Hotel in Chicago dropped in as Peggy was leaving. He asked her to stay and sing for him. At the end he engaged her for his famous Buttery Room, because, he told her later, “you were so willing to work.”
During her first week at the Ambassador Peggy almost starved herself, not knowing she could charge meals. But she was on her way up. Benny Goodman heard her sing and asked her to join his band.
On her tryout night at the College Inn, Peggy inherited another singer’s arrangements. They were too high for her and she was terrified. To make matters worse, dancers chanted, “Sing! Sing! Sing!” as she started to. Actually, all they wanted was a current Goodman favorite of which that was the title, but Peggy thought she was being razzed, and her throat constricted. Next morning she read unanimous blasts by Chicago’s entertainment critics. One called her “a cold dish of tea.” Another urged Goodman to “send Peggy back to the farm” and a third captioned her country girl photograph, “Sweet sixteen and she’ll never be missed.” It was Peggy’s twenty-first birthday.
Despite her dismal start, Peggy Lee toured with Goodman’s band for two years and made her first recordings with it. One, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” became a best seller and a GI favorite. Her own brother heard it blaring out over a loudspeaker as he crossed the English channel in the Normandy invasion.
In Peggy’s second year with Goodman a guitarist named Dave Barbour joined the troupe, and she fell seriously in love for the first time. A dark, quiet and moody man of Italian extraction, Barbour was eight years older than Peggy and far better known in the music world than she. He avoided her guileless advances and soon clashed with Goodman, notorious as a nagging taskmaster. (Goodman once put his clarinet to Peggy’s ear and blasted out a melody as he wanted to sing it.) In Hollywood, where the band arrived to play in two movies, Barbour confided to Peggy one rainy afternoon that he was leaving.
“I didn’t want him to know how much that hurt me,” recalls Peggy, “so I agreed cheerfully with everything he said.” To her surprise Barbour suddenly suggested, “Why don’t we both quit and get married?” They did, on March 8, 1943. Peggy’s daughter, Nicki Lee, was born the following November by Caesarean section. The strain was too much for Peggy. She contracted pneumonia, her blood pressure rose above 200 and for a while she was not expected to live. While recuperating, she wrote the lyrics for a song called “It’s a Good Day.”
Peggy remembers the two years she stopped singing to be a wife and a mother as her happiest. The Barbours lived in a $35-a-month Hollywood apartment while Dave played in cheap cafes to earn his local union card. Peggy did all her own work. “It was strange to see Peggy changing the baby with one hand and refusing fabulous offers over a telephone held in the other,” says her sister.
The offers grew insistent after Dave put “It’s a Good Day” and six more of Peggy’s home-written lyrics to music. In 1946, she was persuaded to record two of them for Capitol’s “New American Jazz” album. They were such successes that she recorded the rest. One, “Mañana,” sold over two million impressions. That and others, notably “Golden Earrings,” made her Capitol’s best-selling singer. After that night clubs, theaters and hotels began bidding figures almost impossible to refuse. She starred on radio and television shows. Music magazine polls chose her as the nation’s most popular singer.
But as Peggy’s success swelled, her marriage deteriorated, “like a bad movie script.” Dave Barbour organized his own orchestra, with off-and-on success. Although the couple still collaborated on songs, worked together in radio for recordings and at club dates, Peggy Lee became more and more the attraction. For a while she insisted that her husband’s orchestra accompany her everywhere, but sponsors with other ideas soon balked. Barbour became morose, and his health began to break. Peggy looked around for help.
A neighbor in their first apartment building who often sat with Nicki had already routed Peggy to the inspirational sermons of Dr. Ernest Holmes, pastor of the Science of Mind religion in Los Angeles. One day Dave Barbour was rushed to the hospital for an operation to remove half his stomach. Simultaneously he was stricken with acute nephritis and internal hemorrhages. Told he might not pull through, Peggy sought out Dr. Holmes’ spiritual reassurance and then hurried back to the hospital. At the door she was informed her husband had just been pronounced dead.
“I refused to believe it,” says Peggy. “A path stretched before me down the hospital — like a great shaft of light. I walked it in faith.” When she reached the room, Barbour’s pulse had already revived.
But faith could not save her marriage. Dave Barbour insisted that she divorce him. Reluctantly, she did on May 17, 1951. In her “mental cruelty” complaint the strongest accusation she could supply was that he had told her he didn’t love her anymore. “He did say that once,” concedes Peggy now, “but he didn’t mean it.”
After her divorce, Peggy Lee admits, “I deliberately buried myself in my work.” In one year alone she earned $500,000. Since 1951 she has halted her furious pace only twice — once to have troublesome glands removed from her neck, another time for major abdominal surgery.
In 1952, while making her first movie, “The Jazz Singer,” Peggy met an actor named Boris Veljko Milanovitch Mitchell, professionally known as Brad Dexter. She married him on January 4, 1953, in a full-dress wedding at the impressive Norman-style house she had bought and furnished lavishly. Dr. Holmes officiated at the rites, attended by 500 guests. David Barbour helped rehearse his successor for the ceremony. The union lasted nine months. “It was a big mistake,” Peggy says simply. “I was all mixed up.”
Romantically, Peggy Lee apparently remains confused. Not only are her two former husbands good friends with each other, but with Peggy. Both drop in at her house constantly, “like something by Noel Coward.” When she leaves on tours, Barbour moves in to stay with Nicki. Although columnists frequently couple her name with actor Dewey Martin and businessman Robert Calhoun, her friends wonder if anything will come of these associations. Peggy herself has somewhat ruefully stated, “How can anyone get seriously interested in me with both my ex-husbands around all the time?”
But the unique situation has a compensating advantage for Peggy. Barbour, who works now steadily in Hollywood studios, spends as much time with Nicki as does her mother. “Dave’s a better father divorced than he was married,” appraises one friend. As a result, Nicki does not lack love or companionship from either side of her divided home. Today she is a chubby, apparently well-adjusted girl with ambitions to become a ballet dancer.
At 35, Peggy Lee’s own ambitions are less accurately defined: “to gain control of my life.” But by temperament, long habit and the relentless demands of her career she finds this more easily said than done.
After an evening of work, Peggy often becomes so keyed up that she cannot sleep until almost dawn. Arising in the afternoon, she finds a crowd of associates with pressing problems waiting for her to resolve. “No one makes arrangements for Peggy,” vouches her friend, Victor Young, who often scores her lyrics. “She can’t write a note of music but she knows exactly what she wants to hear.” A perfectionist who cannot delegate any detail, Peggy also dictates all other arrangements in her busy life. Her manager has quit her employ three times in frustration and returned each time, “because I can’t help myself. She’s such a great girl to be around.”
Peggy earns loyalty like that by extending herself. Once, leaving a maid in charge of her house, she returned from a tour to find among her bills an item for 400 chickens, but didn’t complain. The first time she sang at Ciro’s in Hollywood, Peggy invited so many friends that her accumulated tabs exceeded her salary. And when she sold her large house in Westwood, instead of holding the usual auction, she distributed all the expensive furnishings among her relatives and friends.
With such disregard for the money she earns, Peggy has kept little. Only recently, she was forced to sell valuable real state to pay back income taxes. Today Peggy lives in an eight-room contemporary-style house atop a mountain overlooking Beverly Hills. She was told about it one night between songs, inspected it by flashlight and purchased it that night.
Peggy did all the landscaping herself. Except for an occasional plunge into her pool, gardening is the only “sport” she has time for. “Peggy has a green thumb,” says her sister, “but her plants have legs. She moves them around restlessly, and they flourish like weeds.” What other rare leisure Peggy enjoys she devotes to charity performances, especially for “Friendly House,” a home she helped found to rehabilitate young girls just out of penal institutions. She is also very much interested in Alcoholics Anonymous, to which she does not belong, but whose ideals she sponsors. She is still an active worker in Science of Mind, contributing tracts for the church publication and writing hymns. Dr. Holmes remains her spiritual advisor as well as her closest friend.
But the interest nearest her heart, naturally, is her daughter. In fact, if anything can slow Peggy Lee down in the near future it would seem to be her growing concern for Nicki. Now entering adolescence, Peggy’s daughter requires all the personal attention her mother can give. This, Peggy frankly states, is why she has launched a screen career comparatively late in her life — to stay at home more now that Nicki’s school and budding social life prohibit taking her along on tours. At the same time Peggy feels obligated to insure her daughter’s financial future, already begun with a trust fund. This poses a dilemma. But if it becomes a choice between one or the other, no one who knows Peggy Lee doubts which road she will take. She has not forgotten what drove her from home so young. And all of the fame, glamour and success of her present life have not made up for the love and security she lost so early.
“I would far rather have been Norma Egstrom with a real mother than Peggy Lee without one,” she says.