Peggy Lee


Happy Birthday, Mabel

by Ezekiel Green

It’s 5 p.m. Peggy Lee opens tomorrow in the Venetian Room. There is her ritual opening press party. But there’s more. Because Mabel Mercer happens to be 78 day after tomorrow and she happens to be in town at the Mocambo for the month of February and she happens to be Peggy Lee’s hero, one of them, and word is she will arrive here at 7 p.m. and we’ll all celebrate Mabel’s birthday.

The Savoy Suite in the Fairmont is two rooms – living room for the people, bedroom for the wraps. Early press arrives. Nobody mentions Mabel Mercer. I figure immediately: Mabel Mercer won’t show. It’s a rumor. There used to be a rumor, several years back, that Bob Dylan would appear at all these parties I was invited to. He never showed. Mercer won’t show either, I figure. 78 years old, why go to parties? Even if Peggy Lee throws them.

A guy walks in, leans something against the hallway wall and sits on the couch next to me.

“Are you a journalist?” I ask.

“I’m a fan. But I’ll tell you what I did. I went to a newspaper and asked them to let me write up a piece on Peggy Lee, and if they bought it they could pay me a dollar, that’s all, just so I’d have something to show for it.”

This man is H. Wayne Gibbons. And he has something for Peggy Lee tonight. “Would you like to see what I’m going to give her?”

He hands over a black book with Peggy Lee’s picture pasted on the cover. Inside is listed, meticulously, every song Peggy Lee recorded, on what record label, in alphabetical order. It’s the beginning of what Gibbons calls “What I live for.” He wants to do her biography.

The man on my right turns out to be a big Peggy Lee fan, too. His name is DuMont Howard. I find myself skipping over song titles while he and Gibbons carry on a Peggy Lee conversation over my legs.

“She was with Okeh from ’41 to ’43, then she married Dave Barbour…”

“Then in ’45 she signed with Capitol. She was with Decca from ’52 to ’56, then back to Capitol…”

“I found 623 song titles and 59 albums.”

Gibbons and Howard talk about obscure Peggy Lee Harmony records. They talk about how many Peggy Lee records each owns. Gibbons has his own jukebox with several hundred Peggy Lee cuts.

“Is that her real name, Peggy Lee?” I ask.

Gibbons: “Norma Deloris Egstrom, May 26, 1920, Jamestown, North Dakota.”

Peggy Lee is a grandmother three times; her daughter is named Nicki and lives in Sun Valley. The fans continue with more important talk.

“Got any Frances Faye?”

“Alice Faye, but no Frances.”

“What got you started with Peggy?”

“‘Mr. Wonderful’ sucked me in; 1956; it’s getting worse and worse.”

“I have Crazy in the Heart. I bought it for 69 cents. It’s on Vocalion.”

“What can I trade you, that’s the one album of hers I don’t have. Whatever you do, don’t tell Peggy how much you paid for it. Artists hate to hear how much their records are selling for.”

“I’ve got gobs of framed pictures of her all over the house. You’ll have to come by sometime and see the house.”

At 6:00, Peggy Lee, wearing a black-and-white slacks-and-puffy-jacket outfit, comes into the Savoy Suite holding a long white rose. Her friend and business associate John Simes is with her. Those who were sitting stand. Those standing step forward. Peggy Lee walks on see-through plastic pumps; a good-sized ring on each index finger; her face is plump, young, and heavily pancaked. “Hullllllllo,” she says. She looks Midwestern sturdy and thick.

The two fans:

“She looks good.”

“She looks wonderful.”

“In the face.”

“She takes such good care of herself otherwise…”

“Those eyes…ho ho ho…”

“Her hair is hot. It’s different every year.”

Peggy Lee goes up to Herb Caen, her old friend. “I’m Herb,” he says, “Are you Peggy Lee?”

“I used to be.”

Herb Caen makes a few jokes about Peggy Lee’s rose being a microphone. The television lights go on, people start to sweat, half the room lights up cigarettes, several men in plaid jackets eat plates of crepes.

“You know,” I tell the fan on my right, “Mabel Mercer is supposed to be here.”

“No! Too much. Two for the price of one.”

“Yeah,” I say. “She’s supposed to be here at seven and the go right to her gig at the Mocambo, because she doesn’t like to eat before she performs.” I thought I’d elaborate the rumor. I was getting bored.

Mabel Mercer arrives a little before seven. She arrives with three people who came out here from New York with her (she came by train and plans on returning to New York through the Panama Canal on the Queen Elizabeth).

She was born February 3, 1900, Staffordshire, England. She’s a small woman with a beautiful, unlined, unmade-up face. She’s wearing a black dress and a string of pearls. She sits next to Peggy Lee, in a chair near the center of the room, a long piece of blue material folded in her lap, her purse at her feet.

The two women sit there, greeting each other warmly, quite in view, accessible, right there. Yet it’s as if they were on a small canoe in the middle of the ocean. Just the two of them. Two immensely popular singers. Not just singers. Two women who have taken words and songs we’ve heard in too many elevators and on too many meaningless afternoons and given them meaning. They make you listen to the words of standards you never realized had words. So there they sit. Peggy Lee, who lives in Los Angeles, and Mabel Mercer, who lives in New York, in the middle of a hotel in the middle of a strange city, early evening, greeting each other.

The chocolate cake with candles is rolled in. We all sing “Happy Birthday” to Mabel. Peggy Lee sings. A couple of the Mills Brothers, just closing at the Venetian Room, sing from the corner of the room. It is an amazingly on key “Happy Birthday.”

For about 45 minutes the two women sit there, sipping Perrier, talking softly, left alone. Crepes come and go. Reporters come and go. Then Peggy Lee summons John Simes. He announces that the two women want to talk in private for awhile. Everyone is thanked. The two women leave.

I grab my coat. In the hall outside the room, near the elevator, a woman who cleans rooms picks up some rags from a hall closet. “What’d I miss?” she asks.

“Peggy Lee and Mabel Mercer.”

“Oooooh, Peggy Lee, she’s a wonderful person. A beautiful person. Like Tony Bennett. A wonderful person. She gave me an LP and an autograph once.”

“She just gave Mabel Mercer a birthday party.”

“I’m not surprised, not a bit surprised – she’s a wonderful person, a beautiful person.”