Peggy Lee


Celebrations Laced with Loss Are Songs of a Languid Lady

by Rick Soll

The whiteness of her room is excessive, hypnotic, vaguely disturbing. It is white without lightness, without wings.

The lady on the bed is quiet, a papery presence whose movements flutter in the wind of drowsy words, whose every gesture seems meticulously ordered, consciously summoned. The eyes blink. Then the mouth smiles. Then a hand ascends. Then toes forage for new resting places beneath the white bedspread, the white quilt, the white sheets. Each maneuver conducted separately, each alone, one following the other, never another until the last one has ceased.

The hush in her hotel room is weary, not restful; the lamps are brittle, not bright; the lady is languid and the music has stopped.

Peggy Lee is without her band to back her up – an uneasy arrangement, a wordless ballad in strained melodies.

She raises her hand. Then makes a fist. The hand falls to bedsheets, and that is followed by words.

“I have this cold.” She glances at a battery of pill bottles on the nightstand, rolls her hand into a fist once more, unravels her fingers and smiles. Then speaks.

“But I’ve decided that it’s time for the cold to be over.” She eases her upper lip over her lower and sighs. Her breath makes a whistling sound as it whispers through her teeth – the breeze mows a furrow in the white feathers nuzzling her neck. She smooths a ripple in her white dressing gown – her hands are remarkably large, strong. Her handshake earlier had been firm, undeniably confident.

She reaches for her cup of tea, stemming from delicate blue china, takes a sip, returns cup to saucer, then watches her hands as she deposits one palm on each thigh.

“Let’s see,” she murmurs, “you asked me about lyrics… Oh, yes. If I can’t believe them, I can’t sing them…” No more words for the moment – Peggy Lee is running out of words quickly now that the music is gone…

A great singer’s life; there are so many hiding places behind the songs. Only an hour ago, downstairs, standing with a microphone in her hand, elegant and proud on the bare stage of the Palmer House’s Empire Room, there had been no hiding places and, of course, no reason to hide.

For more than an hour, Peggy Lee, in her sensitive way, with her delicate strength and classy style, gave a startling demonstration of why some women who sing for a living are artists.

The constantly shifting tones, the ever-changing mood, the sadness the flickers in the middle of the joy, the depth and sincerity of her voice – it all should have led the way, at least a little, to the woman whose sight and sound seems a spiritual pantomime of the richness she broadcasts on stage.

Peggy Lee has been the special American princess who always understood the terrors of the night. It is in the songs she always chose, the way she chose to sing them: the dark, somber tones, the tragedy that seems to lurk in every happy moment, the needle of sadness that picks away at life.

Sometimes the songs were celebrations, but always they were laced with a tearing quality that inevitably led to some private place in the night where you had to deal with loss and loneliness.

“If that’s all there is, my friend, then let’s keep dancing” are words in her famous song – there is music even in the bad places, it is easier to dance and cry than drown in tears. If you use up all your tears in one place, there isn’t enough left for other places. It is the same with laughter, the same with words.

Peggy Lee is reaching for a tissue. She dabs at the corner of her eye – a speck of imperceptible something somewhere on the quiet, pale face – a lace starched white with makeup.

“I suppose,” she says, “that I put nearly everything into my music. Of course, I… don’t want to burn out – I know my beginnings and my ends…”

She blinks, then smiles, almost lost in the gauzy grip of white she has chosen for her room, her form, her moments away from music, and she smiles goodbye.

The room clears, but Peggy Lee calls out softly, “Thank you…” The words drift aimlessly into the hallway, and she is only a voice.