Peggy Lee


Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Peggy Lee

by Neal Karlen

Miss Peggy Lee glumly stares out of the smoked rear window of her limousine as it crawls through midtown at rush hour. She’s caught, she says, a nasty dose of the Second Night Blues. “You never heard of those blues?” the 68-year-old chanteuse asks, her voice one crank above a whisper.

She is also haunted today by physical pains more brutal than usual. Last evening, after she finished the first performance of her three-week stand at the Ballroom, an overexuberant fan approached her on the sidewalk outside the club. He insisted on helping the singer from her wheelchair – which she’s been confined to since fracturing her pelvis last year – and into her limo. He plopped Miss Peggy Lee hard onto the back seat, bruising her already tender hip. “I feel,” she says, shaking her white-wigged head very, very slowly, “like I’m mashed potatoes.’

Though her side aches and the show won’t begin for about five hours, she wants to get to the Ballroom early to make sure everything is “just so.” This is one second night that she simply can’t come out flat. Midway into her performance, WNEW-AM will break in live to induct Miss Peggy Lee as the first member of the “Make Believe Ballroom Hall of Fame.” She’ll sing the rest of the show for a live radio audience stretching from Maine to Miami.

“You okay, Miss Lee?” asks Colin, the young chauffeur, as he nears Chelsea and the cabaret. “You want me to stop and get something to make you feel better?”

“No, I’ll be okay,” she says as if she’s trying to convince herself. She turns from the window and relates that Colin’s grandfather was Spencer Williams, the late, great New Orleans bluesman. Miss Peggy Lee was friends with Williams and will be singing his “Basin Street Blues” tonight. She likes the continuity Colin symbolizes. “See, time doesn’t fly,” she says, sounding like a Peggy Lee song, “when it’s still a little world.”

Waiting outside the Ballroom are a couple of balding, middle-aged men bearing album covers and pens. “We both love you,” one says, while his friend vigorously nods. Miss Peggy Lee chats for a minute, then issues a wide crinkly smile to say goodbye. Entering the cabaret, she passes a pre-dinner conclave of young waiters. “Hey, there’s the pretty lady who is making us so much money,” yells one, and the assembled applaud. “Thanks, boys,” she says sotto voce, as she slowly heads for her dressing room to the side of the stage.

Actually, it would be exaggerating to call this claustrophobic space a room. It’s more an alcove with a door, barely big enough for Miss Peggy Lee, her chair, two aides, and a few vases of orchids. She takes a framed picture of Baby, her kitten, out of a handbag, and places it front and center on her tiny dressing table. Twenty minutes later, she’s preparing to put on her game face.

A towel has replaced the wig on her head, her huge spectacles are off, and this afternoon’s makeup has been wiped away. Unadorned, she has a strikingly handsome face that resembles Geraldine Page’s. Only once has she gone onstage this way. And it taught her a lesson about the value of a mask. She bared all – in Peg, the 1983 Broadway musical of her life that offered some unvarnished truths about some unhappy times. The critics hooted; the play closed in a week, taking special glee in lampooning a calypso number she wrote about her abusive stepmother entitled “One Beating a Day, Maybe More.” Soon after the play bombed, she was hospitalized, near death, in New Orleans. As they wheeled her into heart surgery, Miss Peggy Lee begged the nurse not to take off her false eyelashes or fingernail polish.

Tonight, even before she can dab on the first layer of her makeup, the cubicle has seemingly run out of air. Within minutes, everyone has the enervated look of sweat-box prisoners. So why does this proud, aching, exhausted woman still want to put up with a life of stuffy dressing rooms, grabby fans, and the strain of playing two shows a night? Wouldn’t she be more comfortable taking the steam of her home in Bel Air? “Music,” she replies to the question of ever retiring, “is a terrible, incurable disease. That’s what my late husband said, and I agree.” Miss Peggy Lee has actually had four husbands, but she speaks only of one – her first, who she says was her only true love.

While she stews in the humidity, the crowd begins filtering into the 200-seat cabaret. The mix is intriguing; the younger half of the crowd seems to be composed equally of stylishly dressed gay men and heterosexual couples costumed for downtown. Designer Mario Buatta, the prince of chintz, is not at his preferred ringside seat. Buatta usually attends each night of Peggy Lee’s engagements when she’s in town; once he brought his pet chimpanzee, Zip. The word back in the back room is that Mario called sick tonight. Picking up the celebrity slack tonight is Morley Safer.

A collective breath is drawn as the emcee introduces the singer. Miss Peggy Lee peeks out from behind the curtains, her upper body glowing a heart-shaped spotlight, her cartoony eyelashes flapping. Dressed in a diamond-studded black gown, she removes her shawl and flashes a bit of skin. The audience claps encouragingly and tries not to notice as she haltingly walks the few steps to her center-stage armchair. Nodding to the tuxedoed quintet behind her, she eases herself down. When she’s finally safe, the crowd lets out its breath. “Are you going to enjoy yourself?” she coos. “That’s the whoooole idea.”

Ten seconds into the first song, it’s obvious to everyone that Miss Peggy Lee has definitely still got it. The tired woman of an hour ago is gone; a star has somehow been reborn.

A 45-minute blues medley and a live-broadcast greatest-hits set later, a collective shiver runs through the crowd as the singer launches into a finale of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Arms go around lovers and spouses. “I’ll be looking at the moon,” she finishes, “but I’ll be seeing you.” Then she’s gone, walking offstage on her own power.

Back in her wheelchair and fetid dressing room, she is signing silver-ink autographs for the sizable hunk of audience that has refused to go home. A young man brings in a copy of her newly published autobiography, Miss Peggy Lee, and says she just saw her perform a repeat of a 30 year-old Judy Garland special. “I remember that,” she says. “I sang ‘When the World Was Young.’” A 60-ish woman brings in a 8-by-10 glossy that looks as if it was taken in the ‘40s. “I remember that blouse,” the singer says fondly. The woman’s husband steps up and stammers a thesaurus full of adjectives – “charming, exquisite, regal, fabulous,” he says. “Thank you so much,” she responds. “Really, thank you.”

Finally, her dresser pushes her toward the exit. Waiting by the limo is another phalanx of admirers, each of whom she obliges with a signature and some chatter before she allows herself to be placed in the car. Outside the smoked window, an elderly woman in a polka-dot dress does a shoulder dip and tosses a long string of fake pearls slowly around her neck. She does it again, twice, three times. “She remembers,” says the singer. “That’s a move I used to do a long, long time ago.”

Colin pulls away from the curb, and she is jolted back to her soreness and exhaustion. “There was no air tonight,” she says, barely loud enough to hear. “I was dead before I even got on stage.” So how did she put it together? “When I sing, I seem to go into another dimension,” she explains, sounding like a Peggy Lee song. “Things just don’t hurt so much there.” Enough talk; there’s not a dollop of energy left. She leans back in the seat, closes her eyes, and hums under her breath. The tune doesn’t have a name, she says, but it’s not the Second Night Blues.