Peggy Lee’s hotel bedroom looks a little like a hospital: There are two humidifiers going full blast, boxes of bandages and a wheelchair in a corner. You expect to find her in the living room, as she put it in song, “just holding on.”
Instead, she looks terrific, despite the toll of some 60-odd years: the four husbands, the abuse she suffered as a child, the accidents and illnesses that brought her near-death more than once. Her fleshy figure is chicly draped in black and white silk and a blonde-white page-boy wig sets off a round face. She says she can’t see very well and she’s barely ambulatory. But when she performs, something classic emerges from the ruins.
Her face is immobile as she speaks in that soothingly soft voice about her new autobiography, Miss Peggy Lee, her new album, Peggy Lee Sings the Blues (nominated for a Grammy) or her return engagement to the Ballroom, where she is appearing through February 18. Her lips occasionally turn up into a smile, but it is a pair of Scandinavian blue eyes that register all the emotion, flashing with wit or anger or thoughtfulness, as when she responds to the inevitable question: What gives a white singer the right to sing the blues?
“I don’t think the suffering that gives life and depth to the blues is a question of color,” adding that among the influences of her life was jazz great Maxine Sullivan. “Under the skin, we’re all the same.”
Peggy Lee’s life, like her music, has been a mixture of light and dark shadows. She has that rare, mystifying ability to take her audiences into another world altogether. It’s not surprising, then, that she says she has always created imaginary worlds for herself since she was a little girl “talking to crocuses” in her native North Dakota, latter setting these worlds to music in more than 60 albums.
Does she ever have trouble re-entering the real world from her imaginary ones? “It’s a little difficult to describe in words, but it’s not two different worlds. It’s one,” she says. “I think that I’m pretty much of a realist. I’m practical.”
An example of the practical Peg is her $25 million lawsuit with Walt Disney Productions over the 1955 classic Lady and the Tramp. Lee wrote the lyrics and some songs and was the voice of two cats (Si and Am), one dog (the sexy canine jilted by Tramp), and one human (Darling); she got about $4,000. Videocassette sales alone have topped $175 million.
“It’s going fine,” she says. “There are so many questions to dig up answers to, and a lot of time has transpired since the contract. I know what I have that exists,” she adds confidently. “I know it’s just a matter of time.”
She recently watched the film again after many years and was pleased that her lyrics had not dated and proud that one of the character is named “Peg.” “Walt asked if I’d mind,” she recalls. “I thought it was quite an honor. I think Peg will be around for a while.”