Peggy Lee


Is That All There Is, Peggy?

by Maurice Zolotow

In her file of faded clippings there is a Life magazine layout, March 29, 1948. It is a moment frozen in time, and if she could have lasted in that place forever she would have been happy. The first page of three pages shows her leaning on a stack of Capitol recordings of her first big smash hit, “Mañana.” There are columns of records. She is 28 years old, and she is wearing a red-striped corduroy bolero jacket, a turquoise sweater and three strands of pearls around her neck.

When the picture was taken, the record had sold over a million copies, and it was Peggy Lee’s first gold record. It looked like she had everything. She had an ideal marriage to jazz guitarist Dave Barbour and an ideal child – little four-year-old Nicole, nicknamed Nicki. There are pictures of Peggy planting flowers in a bed in the little ranch house they owned in the Hollywood Hills on Blair Drive. There’s Barbour posing with his big guitar (electrified guitars were in their infancy), and he’s putting notes on a sheet of paper. In the background is Banjo, the family collie.

The next shot shows us another facet of familiar harmony chez Barbour. We see daddy playing ping-pong with Nicki. Mama Barbour is coaching Nicki, A caption states: “The child inspired a song written by her father called ‘Forever Nicki’.” And the final shot shows us Peggy Lee in profile (her right profile is scandalously gorgeous), kissing her daughter goodnight. Nicki is an enchanting girl with pageboy dark hair, and she misses Mama’s lips and kisses on the nose. “She is usually sung to sleep,” Life magazine told its sighing readers, “with Miss Lee’s favorite lullaby, a tune called ‘Soliloquy,’ from Carousel.”

Yet even as her doting fans were envying her perfect life, it was already coming apart. It was a classic variation of the Star Is Born theme – with Peggy outshining a husband who had taken to drink.

Indeed, it was a shame about his drinking – and their fighting when he drank – because basically they were such a good couple and they had everything. Especially, they had a sense of humor and loved each other and were good in their music, but Dave just couldn’t stand her success, and she couldn’t make him feel he was the world to her. So finally he divorced her because he was afraid he was ruining her life and Nicki’s.

But he still loved her. She still loved him. They just could not be in the same house together.

Toward the end of his life, Dave Barbour finally was able to live without alcohol, and just a few weeks before he died, he talked to Peggy about maybe marrying her again and starting over. And she still gets a special look in her eyes when she talks about Dave and about the last years of his sobriety.

And it will all be in Peg. Yes, Peg. Her own story of her own life. On Broadway, starring its author and with 29 new songs by her and composer Paul Horner and with snatches of some of the old hits. Nothing like it in theater history; impresario Zef Bufman and his partners will invest close to $3 million on the life of Peggy Lee. As I write these words they are casting in New York, and for three weeks this month the cast, the singers and the musicians will go into a workshop production at Michael Bennett’s Chelsea production quarters at 19th and Broadway, the place where Dreamgirls and many another musical was created in rehearsals with performers participating in the making of it.

At press time the role of Dave Barbour had still not been cast, though Peggy told me she wanted Dustin Hoffman to play him, and there will be somebody to play Benny Goodman. Two young singers will play Peggy herself – one to play Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota, as a little girl, and the other to play Peggy Lee as a young woman struggling to make it in the music business. And then, in the last act, Peggy Lee herself will play Peggy Lee!

And it is not one of those happy-go-lucky, song-and-dance musicals. It begins with the death of her mother in 1924, when Peggy was four years old. It continues with a wicked stepmother. It rains all the time. The chickens die in the rain. Her stepmother beats her. It begins with death and it ends with the death of Dave Barbour in 1964. Forty years are spanned – 40 years in which a life and the music of a life are to be shaped.

And why? What has driven Peggy Lee to undertake a chore like Peg, a subject which has haunted her for many years, which she started as a book and could not finish because it was getting too long? For the answer to that we must start at the beginning, with the little girl named Norma Deloris Egstrom, daughter of a Norwegian mother and a Swedish father, the seventh of eight children.

The first song to make a deep impression on little Norma Egstrom was “My Blue Heaven,” which she heard when she was seven or eight years old. She heard it on the radio – her musical conservatory. The original lyric went, “Just Molly and me, and baby makes three, we’re happy in my blue heaven.” She heard it as “Just Mama and me, and Daddy makes three.” By then Mama had died giving birth, and her paradise had been lost. She was under the stern, cruel domination of a stepmother who hated her. Her siblings gave in obediently; she could not. She fought back. She argued. She was stubborn. She suffered hideous insults and terrible punishments. She also learned to assert herself by fighting back. It became a way in which she would feel alive – to be in a fight with another person.

She came to enjoy dueling, but the singing was her real life, her secret life. In the 1930s, bands already were playing remotes from hotel supper clubs, and they could pick up stations from Fargo, North Dakota, dance orchestras from Chicago and San Francisco, and she sang along with these bands. She memorized lyrics. She never had to take a singing lesson. She was born a singer. And because her mother had died and her stepmother beat her, she had the blues.

She also had her dreams, just like Janet Gaynor in the original A Star Is Born or Judy Garland in the George Cukor remake. It wasn’t to be a movie star. It was to be a band vocalist. She knew all the black bands and white bands before she was 15, and finally she ran away from home. She got a job singing and playing piano for 15 minutes on Fargo station KDAY, and Ken Keeler, the director, changed her name to Peggy Lee. She worked as a waitress in Fargo cafes, but she knew where she wanted to go. She took a Greyhound bus to L.A. and then she gigged around, playing joints like the Jade Room, an early jazz place on Sunset Blvd. She worked with small bands in Palms Springs and L.A. And she waited on tables.

She killed a lot of time, but she always kept good time. She already had the style and the looks. She looked fresh and believed in the music. She could get the meaning of the words. She was a writer herself and had begun writing poetry.

There was nobody she loved, though. She had not had any man in her life. She emanated vibrations of a cold Scandinavian hauteur that frightened men. She once told me that to be a real singer you have to have your heart broken at least once. The hauteur was a mask to conceal her fear, her terror. Oh yes, I forgot to tell you that, along with the raging ambition and the dreams and her fantasies, there was a self-consciousness and terror of going out in public. She fought it down, but it was there. It went away when she started singing. But it was hard for her – it was impossible for her – to ask for work.

She was playing with a small band in the now forgotten Claridge Hotel in Palm Springs when a visitor from Chicago heard her sing. He thought she was good. He gave her a job singing with a band in the Buttery, a cocktail lounge at the Ambassador Hotel in Chicago. It was 1941, and Benny Goodman and his band were playing at one of the enormous Balaban and Katz movie palaces. He had fired his girl vocalist and was looking for another canary. His wife, Alice, wandered into the Buttery for an aperitif. She thought this blond singer had possibilities. She had energy. She had rhythm. And you could understand the lyrics.

She talked to her. She didn’t say who she was. Then she got her brother, John Hammond, the eminence grise of the Count Basie band and an adviser to Goodman, to catch this Peggy Lee. He flipped. He recommended her to Benny, who auditioned her. She was hired pronto. She got $40 a week – which is what vocalists got with the name bands in those days – and she learned all the songs in the Goodman library and she did them his way. She made only one mistake. She went to a music coach and took lessons in tone production.

Benny Goodman sensed a difference. He took her aside, and when he found out she was going to a teacher he told her to stop. He said she had been given all the vocal lessions she needed by God when he created her in her mama’s womb. And if there was anything else she needed to know, he, Benny, would tell her.

“Did he ever bawl you out, Peggy? Did he ever give you the famous Benny Goodman ray?” I asked as we conversed for many hours in her French-provincial mansion high on a hill in Bel Air where Bellagio Road meets Cascada Way. Benny, you see, was known to glare at a musician with whom he was wroth. The glare was so terrible it would even turn strong men into jelly.

“No, he never gave me the ray, not once. I was with him from 1941 to 1943, and I was with him longer than any other girl singer. The experience was priceless. He taught me discipline. He taught me to listen to the sounds. Oh, it was wonderful being a part of that world at that time, living in New York, the Broadway scene and the 52nd Street clubs. After hours in Harlem you could hear Billie Holiday sing at Café Downtown – and yes, that is the singer I would say I have most wanted to emulate. But Billie is Billie, Maurice, and you know it was a privilege to be alive then and be a part of it – like I was at a wonderful circus every night. I guess I’d rather be with musicians than any other kind of people.”

“Did your father ever take you to a circus or carnival?”

“He wanted to, but my stepmother was too stingy. She hated me more than any of the other children. I had to get up at 5 a.m. and do chores and then go to school, and after school I was sent to another firm to do work and she kept the salary.”

“Who is going to play your stepmother in Peg?” I asked.

“Maureen Stapleton would be a possibility,” she said.

“But she is such a sweet and gentle woman,” I said.

“Yes, but she can act. She is such a good actress. Or Colleen Dewhurst could do it.”

“Will your stepmother get songs to sing? Will there be duets or trios with her and your father and you as a child?”

She stared into space. She still looks gloriously radiant, maybe because when I look at Peggy Lee I still see the young Benny Goodman vocalist of 40 years ago. Her skin is great. Her eyes are alive. Her figure is voluptuous. She moves with some agility. Considering all the ailments and operations and troubles she’s had, it’s extraordinary. But she wouldn’t tell me about whether her stepmother and father sing a duet.

“I can’t give the plot away,” she said. “I’ve got to keep some surprises for the audience.”

In the Benny Goodman band, the drummer was now Sid Catlett and the guitarist was a slender, sensitive, fine-boned, dark-haired young man – Dave Barbour. He was one of the best-known musicians around town in 1941. Peggy, however, was a nobody, an unknown. You’ve got to remember that in those days band vocalists were not the stars; the bandleader was the star. And there were maybe two or three instrumentalists called on to play a riff or improvise a chorus, and they were stars, a woodwind player or a brass player.

One day, the band and Peggy went down to the RCA Victor studios on 29th Street and recorded four tunes. She for $25 for the extra work – which was standard pay. Among the tunes she recorded was the hostile complaint of a woman to her man, “Why don’t you do right – get out of here and make me some money – do?” [sic]. It became one of those instant hits that everybody copied and everybody sang and everybody parodied. I remember Jan Murray doing a bit at the Paradise nightclub in which he played the woman and he cracked a whip after each line at an invisible lazy-bum husband, who let other women make a fool of him.

No, she never got a bonus for this first hit record. She got precisely $6.25. She also impressed the guitarist with her sense of humor. He was shy. She was shy. She was drawn to him. She says she was in love with him from a distance. One day, she tripped over him. He grinned at her, “Hey, are you falling for me?”

And something made her nod her head.

And they kissed.

And she left the band. He left the band. They got into a jalopy and drove to California. It was her second California hegira, but this time there was a different dream. He was going to get studio work, high-priced work in the movie studios. They would get married. They would have a child. They would have a cottage small by a waterfall.

She would never sing again. She would write poetry. She would cook and play house and she would be a wonderful Mrs. Barbour. They were married in Los Angeles City Hall on March 8, 1943.

Dave applied to Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians for a membership card, and one day at the musicians’ union hall he ran into an arranger he had known in New York. It was Billy May, who was to become one of the foremost jazz arrangers of the Big Band period. They started going out together, drinking and playing private parties.

Remembers Billy, “We played parties at the Roosevelt Hotel and the Pasadena Biltmore and all around town, and then Dave’s friend Dave Dexter, who was at the new Capitol Records, asked him to get a few guys together and make some jazz records. We were called the Capitol Jazzmen – Jack Teagarden played trombone, as I recall; Dave Matthews was tenor sax; me, trumpet; Jimmy Noone, clarinet; Dave Barbour, guitar; and so on. We cut some sides at a place called MacGregor’s Transcription Studios, down on Western near Wilshire. Next thing that happened, Dexter wanted Barbour to record some guitar solos.” One evening, Billy was having a session of drinking with Barbour and suddenly Dave said, “Hey, I got an idea. What if I got Peggy to come down and cut a few sides? She could do a couple of vocals. What do you think?”

By now, Nicki was born. And mother Barbour was perfectly content as the housewife and mother. It was all her husband’s idea. And why did he do it? I do not know for sure, and Peggy does not know, but I suspect it is because he worshipped her voice and her talent and her could not bear to see it unused.

At any rate, when she came down and started recording for Capitol Records, it was the beginning of the end of the marriage. Because now, just as Gaynor outshines Frederic March and Garland outshines James Mason, Peggy Lee’s star rose and shimmered and Dave Barbour could not accept playing second guitarist to a woman. He took refuge in the bourbon. He became a heavy daily drinker. He became an alcoholic and it turned him into a monster of rage and insanity.

First, however, came rapturous days. Peggy had an act with Dave. She was backed by four musicians, Dave and a rhythm section. She was playing small clubs in the L.A. area, and now her new personal manager, Carlos Gastel, had booked her on a theater tour. She was to play the Chicago Theater in Chicago and the Paramount in New York, and Carlos phones Fran Jackson to handle Peggy’s personal publicity. Carlos, who was a fine man with good taste and who handled the young Nat “King” Cole and the young Mel Tormé, soon had Fran doing all his clients.

Recalling those early years, for she came to be closely associated with Peggy Lee for almost 15 years, Jackson remembers Peggy’s excitement and happiness: “It was early in her career, and she was just tasting the wine of success. She was loving every moment of it – for everything was new to her. Being famous. The money pouring in. She was pixieish and kind of witty and amiable and having such a good time with her first mink coat and her first white convertible, a three-hole Buick, and she adored shopping and buying jewelry and furniture and clothes. She had a wonderful sense of color and exquisite taste, and she was getting a kick out of all the paraphernalia that comes with success.”

And success, of course, strained the marital harmony until it finally broke and collapsed.

Though Dave wanted Peggy to be his drinking companion, she at that time hated alcohol. He did his drinking at bars with his musician cronies. Then, after their divorce, he began drinking heavily with Carlos Gastel, who became an alcoholic and let his business drift out of his fingers in an alcoholic fog. And for a while Dave was married to Marian Collyer and she saw him through some difficult years. And then he tried to sober up and he would always drink again. She divorced him and is now married to Jack Neuman, a writer-producer.

In the meantime, Peggy herself went into a decline – which, believes Fran Jackson, was due to Carlos Gastel’s neglect of his business. She suddenly could not get bookings. Tommy Rockwell of General Amusement Corporation phoned Jackson and asked her to take over Peggy’s personal management. He said she had to get a new act – new costumes, new light cues, new songs, new charts, a new look, coiffure, everything. And Jackson, who had long been impressed by the work of a young arranger-pianist-composer, Joe Harnell, suggested that Peggy put her musical destiny in his hands.

And out of it, Peggy Lee entered her second cycle of success. They opened at the Copa during a terrible snowstorm in February, 1959, with Peggy looking stunning and in magnificent voice – and she was the smash hit. Out of it began to come record after record – including one of my all-time favorites, “Fever.” Just Peggy Lee singing, with fingers snapping a rhythm, and a bass and drum accompaniment.

One of their great engagements was at Basin Street East, out of which came a fine album. She was now playing the Riviera and Caesars and the Sands in Vegas and all the great supper clubs, the Fairmont in San Francisco and the Waldorf and always the Copa.

Pianist Joe Harnell recalled how she had to unwind for hours after they finished at a club, and they would all go back to her hotel suite – four or five musicians and Peggy – and sing improvised madrigals and tell stories. And Peggy held court – and now she was drinking. She loved cognac. She didn’t start drinking until she and Dave broke up.

She had a few husbands after Dave – there was an actor, Brad Dexter, and another actor, Dewey Martin, and finally a bandleader, Jack Del Rio. But she was a one-man woman. Dave Barbour was her man and would be until she died.

Harnell remembers how finally one of the husbands would come out of the suite and say, “Hey, Peg, would you let these guys go home and let’s get some sleep?” And that would infuriate her and she would start taunting the husband and he would respond and then she would throw an ashtray and he would strike her. It was a dramatic scene, and one by one the musicians would sneak away.

In her divorce hearing against Dewey Martin, Peggy Lee testified that “Dewey Martin did not like my friends. He was rude to them. He used vile language.”

I asked Joe about this vile language. “Well, let’s put it this way. I got the feeling that Dewey Martin did not like to be awakened at 3 in the morning by a lot of musicians singing and telling stories,” Harnell said.

And so finally she was tired of other husbands, and by the time she and Dave Barbour were thinking of getting married again, he died. And there were still years of living without him remaining. “Leftover life to live,” as Caitlin Thomas, the widow of the poet Dylan Thomas, put it in her autobiography.

And she has lived them as a singer, a poet, a painter, a grandmother, a friend, and above all as an artist and now – as she is putting the fragments of her life and her memories into a work of art – the autobiographer of her own play with music.

And through her musical play, Peg, Peggy Lee is finally living in aesthetic eternity, free from her childhood terrors of the rain and her mother’s death, her stepmother hitting her on the head with a frying pan and shoving her face in a barrel of garbage to humiliate and discipline her, freed at last from the pain of life with and without Dave Barbour. Freed, freed at last.