by Marshall Berges
Seated at a Steinway baby grand, snapping her fingers and swaying almost imperceptibly, the champagne blonde flickers a smile and touches the piano keys.
Striking chords to accompany herself, she sings songs old and new in a seductively breathy style. Now soft and delicate, now husky and driving, the velvet voice of Peggy Lee rolls smoothly from one era to another, reaching back to the golden oldies and gliding forward to contemporary tunes.
Wide-eyed, smooth of skin, high cheekbones hinting at a gift of humor, her smile often outlines a sweet sadness. Those who know her best are touched by her vulnerability. They see in her poignant expression traces of suffering, the signs of search by a woman touched deeply by life’s mysteries and reaching out to find answers. With a glance here and a look there, she sends off signals that seem to say the questions are never-ending, but in the troubled game of life, she is making peace with herself.
Audiences often sense this. Peggy Lee’s depth, along with her easy versatility with songs of different eras, have led to enduring success. She has been a singing superstar for more than three decades, a perfectionist whose popularity keeps building. She spends more than six months a year touring concert halls around the world, playing to packed houses.
Born Norma Egstrom, daughter of a railway station agent in Jamestown, North Dakota, she lost her mother when she was four. Norma searched for her through childhood, singing songs that might lure her mother to return.
She discovered a special joy singing in the church choir and the high school glee club. At 17, encouraged by praise for her winning way with music, armed with $18 and a railroad pass borrowed from her father, she boarded a train for California.
“I was terribly shy and naïve and didn’t even know where to find a place to sing.” She chased away fear with laughter as she drifted from Balboa to Hollywood, working as a short-order cook, waitress and carnival spieler. Returning to North Dakota, she found a singing job at a Fargo radio station. There the manager christened her Peggy Lee.
She traveled as a vocalist with bands, and on tour landed in Palm Springs. At a nightclub she was unable to shout above the noise of the audience, and with impish humor she lowered her voice. The lower and softer it turned, the quieter the audience grew. The experience helped to shape her distinctive singing style.
Peggy joined Benny Goodman’s band in 1941, and the following year she recorded her first big hit, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” She followed with a parade of smash songs, including “Lover,” “Mañana,” “Golden Earrings,” “My Old Flame” and “Is That All There Is?”
Married and divorced four times, she is a grandmother who projects a youthful vitality, spends her off-hours reading widely, writing poetry, sculpting and painting. She lives in a rambling glass-walled house equipped with an elaborate soundproof recording studio. The house has a 60-foot living/dining area, light and airy and brightened with a sea of colorful pillows and an exquisite collection of Meissen acquired on her travels.
Q: What’s the quality of your life on the road?
Peggy: I’m inclined to be cautious and hermitlike, not out of a dislike for people – I have friends all over the world – but out of a need for self-preservation. I’m always glad to see friends after a performance, but I also know that I need a certain amount of rest, because the traveling experience takes its toll. So I’m careful to spend a quiet time in the morning and afternoon, saving my strength for the evening performance.
Q: Are the evenings long?
Peggy: In some concerts I’ll do as many as 40 numbers. In Las Vegas I’ll do two shows a night with perhaps 20 numbers at each performance. This takes an enormous amount of strength. Searching my life to find the source of this strength, I think it comes partly from ability to laugh at myself, not taking myself too seriously, and partly from growing up in North Dakota.
It was a very bleak and difficult existence there, from 40 below in the winter to 110 in the summer. In those extremes I had to laugh to keep my sanity. The environment also gave me extra physical endurance that I’d have missed in an easier climate. So, in a special sense, I’ve always carried part of my earliest home life around with me.
Q: And your present home?
Peggy: I try to create the illusion, wherever I happen to be, that I’ve taken my Los Angeles home with me. I can do it only on a tiny scale, but familiar surroundings are important to people who spend long stretches on the road.
Anthony Quinn once told me that when he traveled in plays, he carried along paintings from home and put them up in his hotel room. Not equipped with his muscles, I try to create the effect of home with smaller touches. For example, I take along my own pillow, with a pink and white checked gingham cover, and a bolster. I also bring along a teacup and saucer, a teapot and books from my library, particularly books of humorous poems. If I’m on a special diet, I carry my own food. Then, at each city on my tour, I’ll buy some plants to enhance the feeling of being at home.
Q: What do you do at home?
Peggy: My life has several levels. I’m intrigued by the riddles of our existence. I take a positive approach to the song “Is That All There Is?” There are always new meanings, new depths, new discoveries. I try to find my way, and even to grow a little, by reading a great deal. I’ve made friends with books. Frequently I have the urge to sculpt and paint, but I have to plan that activity around periods when I won’t be traveling.
Q: What’s the connection?
Peggy: Delivering my songs. I use lots of hand motions and snapping of fingers. The illusion would be messy if I had sculpting clay or paint under my fingernails.
I also look for time to write, partly because I like to write poetry and express myself on paper, partly because I enjoy the rhythm of typing. But there I have to be careful about broken fingernails. It seems like a silly detail, but a performer’s total effect is what it’s all about.
I try to be physically active, and I’d like to go mountain-climbing around Los Angeles, but I’d get lost. I’ve compromised by buying a pedometer and walking around my house. Usually there’s an immediate practical reason for all the walking, but sometimes if I’m looking for a spiritual lift, I’ll just stroll around and gaze at pictures that have been painted by friends. I’m always touched deeply by the creativity of others.
Q: Do you watch any other singers when they perform?
Peggy: I’d like to, but it doesn’t happen often, because generally we all work in different places at the same time. We’re like ships that pass in the night. But I do take time to think about and reflect on the creative process in myself and others. Whether it’s a doctor searching for scientific truth, a painter striking fresh images or a writer choosing words to achieve a comic effect, we’re all trying to make personal statements.
Q: How do you make yours?
Peggy: I reach inside myself to find an experience or an emotion that others can relate to. For example, “Touch Me in the Morning” was a very successful song for Diana Ross, and then it faded away. Now I’ve revived it by doing it differently. I see it as a quiet, dramatic ballad, because it crosses subtle ground, the pain of saying goodbye.
I approach singing in the same way as sculpting. I try to go around a song, to get in back of it, looking for another dimension that will add depth and experience to creativity. Putting those qualities together, with a sense of humor, I can deal effectively with my fears.
Q: What are the fears?
Peggy: Never about me, but always about people I love, especially my daughter and her children. For example, I knew no fear when I left home at 17. To me it was a time for laughter. But my father must have been deeply worried about me. To his everlasting credit, he had faith that I’d find my way.
When my daughter and her children moved to their own place, I was filled with negative thoughts. But I remembered my father’s faith in me and realized that my anxieties were groundless. Gradually I’ve learned to recognize fear as a negative experience that can be replaced with positive thoughts.
Q: In what other ways are you positive?
Peggy: I’m not bothered by the calendar. I can relate to people of any age. I remember using Franklin stoves and kerosene lamps, the Model A Ford and the Model T. That kind of experience has given me a perspective that money can’t buy.
I’m particularly sensitive to older people, perhaps because my mother died when I was very young and I was puzzled that I couldn’t see her anymore. In time I discovered that life is a series of puzzles and mysteries, and I keep looking for answers.
I’m a very busy, inquisitive reader, almost as if I were still searching for an explanation of Mother’s whereabouts. But my reading is positive, and my love for reading is a gift.
Q: What’s your gift to music?
Peggy: I see it less as a gift than an expression of love between music and me. With that love I can interpret lyrics and bring out a feeling from way down inside myself. A singer builds an emotional bridge to an audience, and understanding travels across that bridge.
Q: Just how well do you understand yourself?
Peggy: Not nearly well enough. Sometimes I lose sight of the humor in a situation and I’m abrupt or lose my temper with people who are very dear to me. If they don’t listen to what I say, or if I have to repeat myself more than twice, I blow off steam. Afterward I’m sorry.
Actually, when my voice is raised, no one need worry. It’s only when I become quiet and terribly elegant that I’m really angry. Fortunately, most of the time I’m a happy person.
Q: What makes you happy?
Peggy: Simple things. By nature I’m content with very little excitement. Because I spend so much time in the theatrical world, my idea of a lovely experience is to have a quiet evening at home, curled up with a good book. Books open new worlds to me, and I’m sort of an eager explorer, always trying to make discoveries, always looking for ways to improve myself. I find those ways not in heavy-handed lessons in a textbook, but most often in a witty writer’s perceptions.
Q: How does humor help?
Peggy: In countless ways. I’ve had some serious illnesses caused by overwork, and I’ve laughed my way back to life. I’ve told doctors many times that if I weren’t so healthy, I’d be dead already.
Once I had pneumonia and I was ordered not to leave my bed, but I wanted desperately to brush my teeth. I dragged myself to the bathroom very slowly and weakly. I took a portion of tooth-powder and, in the midst of gasping for air at the exertion, pulled the tooth-powder into my windpipe.
My chest and throat made a terrible, explosive noise, and I thought, “Now I’ve killed myself.” I lay on the bathroom floor, feeling no pain, and I decided that I’d gone to heaven.
About a minute later, when I realized that I had not done myself in but was still alive, it struck me as an hysterically funny experience. I learned long ago that life is a comedy or a tragedy, depending on how we choose to take it. I take comedy.
Q: Where’s your serious side?
Peggy: I’m serious about my work. I’ve been singing for a great many years, and something in me – pride or ego or simply a debt to the audience – keeps me on a busy search for improvement. If I don’t improve with each passing day and with each new song, I’ll be standing still. But if I stand still, I’ll actually go backward. I’d rather retire before then.
Right now I have no intention of retiring, and people tell me that I never will. But when the time arrives, I know I can do it, because I’ve saved up enough painting, sculpting, writing and reading adventures for several lives. With that, and my gift of laughter, I’ll get by.