by Jan Hodenfield
She brings to mind, Miss Peggy Lee, Liz Taylor’s 40-carat diamond.
On the afterthought of a stage at the Waldorf’s Empire Room, where she opened last Thursday evening to an audience in cocktail dresses and double-knit suits, in front of a 21-piece orchestra and backed by a three-girl soul chorus in discreet stance at stage rear, now slimmer but still abundant and lush in a flowing peach chiffon gown by Stavropoulous, she is perfection overblown to the grandiose.
Her songs are new and of the moment, by James Taylor and Thom Bell and Linda Creed and Paul McCartney and Melissa Manchester, and each one interpreted with immaculate grace and a total precision incorporating gesture of infinite degree, is a movie of her mind projected with spellbinding efficiency.
And so it always seems to have been with Peggy Lee, back through packages of newspaper clippings now yellowing and stiff with age, tributes that began accumulating in 1941 when she was singing in front of Benny Goodman’s band and her rendition of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” sold more than a then-phenomenal million copies.
What strikes the interest this time around, as opposed to past performances of equal splendor, is the lighthearted energy and her command of it.
That, and yet again the extraordinary professionalism she brings to polishing, shining and refining love songs to be sung in saloons, so that when she has completed her program, demands for encore are at best fatuous exercise in redundancy.
How does she do it? Even more to the point, perhaps, why?
An appointment is arranged and on Saturday the reporter goes to a Waldorf Towers suite and is brought to Miss Peggy Lee.
Although she no longer depends on the oxygen tank she once carried about in order to breathe, she insists that the state of her health not be discussed in print, allowing later, when her substantial weight loss is breached, that such matters interfere with “the mystique.”
Her ice cream sundae face untouched by expression save for the whisper of a grin, her private speaking voice that of a middle-class, Midwestern, middle-aged matron, she makes sure the tape recorder is in operating order – listening to the tape later she sounds just like the public Miss Peggy Lee – and she asks with cool interest just what sort of interview this is meant to be.
It’s to find out, she’s told, why she endures.
She’s talked of it before. And, 54-years-old, she talks of it again, impassively gearing her mind to yet another interview, summoning answers before the questions are even posed.
Ah yes, she says, she has a new album, Let’s Love, and yes, after many years at Capitol she’s gone to Atlantic – it’s a “lively” company.
Yes indeed, she says, she’s impressed with the new generation of songwriters and she herself called on Paul McCartney, after which he wrote and produced for her the song “Let’s Love.”
Oh yes, she says, she did take up Transcendental Meditation six years ago and now, if the Mahesh Maharishi Yogi agrees, she’ll be moving into the third stage, and absolutely, it’s helped her to go on.
She goes on, she says, for the work itself, because of the pleasure that work brings to others, because it allows her “to live gracefully” and because, she adds carefully, “I love it.”
She keeps her gaze on him.
“It’s something,” she says in a starlit voice that acknowledges the infinite disorder of the universe, “that’s never let me down.”