by Alfred G. Aronowitz
Sitting in her bedroom and looking at her painted face, still made up for the spotlight, I test myself to see if I resent the falseness of a woman ravaged by so many years and so many problems trying so hard to look as young as she used to. But there are no airs about Peggy Lee, there are no grandiose attempts at pomp and vanity, there are no hints of icy ugliness behind the mask. I test myself and find her to be as warm and real as an old sister, even if we are in one of the poshest suites in the Waldorf towers. I mean, call the Waldorf, and does the operator answer, “Waldorf-Astoria, former home of President Herbert Hoover?” No, the operator says, “Waldorf-Astoria, home of Peggy Lee.”
“Many people think that I have emphysema,” she said, “And I do not. However, they use a machine similar to that for emphysema,” and she motions towards the oxygen tank at her bedside, equipped with a device to inject steam into the oxygen. “It’s only 40 percent oxygen and 50 percent air. If you had to take it for extended periods of time, the oxygen would atrophy the lungs. That’s the reason for the steam. I’m really terrible. I think of all kinds of sick jokes, but I won’t tell you any because you’re writing it down. I would, but I think of all the sick people. For them, it’s not very funny. I can laugh at myself but I can never laugh at them.”
“The combination of oxygen, air and steam amounts to exercising the lungs. I’m supposed to do it four times a day 20 minutes at a time. I’m doing it three times a day now and getting along very well with it. If I didn’t sing about 20 songs, if I was just sitting around the house, I could skip it here and there. But I’m not supposed to skip it. I’ve had this with me since 1961, and it’s not news at all. I really do think of it as not much more than wearing glasses. However, I respect it and I’m grateful. Really, isn’t it wonderful that mankind invents things like that. Some years back a lot of people wouldn’t be walking around like they are today.”
She takes a sip of her Poland water and asks if, later on, I’d care to join her in a vodka nightcap. She apologizes for the disarray, as if she, too, is still awed by the grandeur of the Waldorf, hardly the place you’d expect to find an oxygen tank and a Walton electric bicycle exerciser in the bedroom.
“Working as hard as I do,” she says, “it’s almost like being an athlete. You need to be very healthy. That’s why I ride this little bicycle. It’s rather a humorous thing to do, but it’s also very helpful.”
Like she says, it’s no news that she almost died in 1961. Eleven years later, and she’s still a star, still an attraction, still a voice. She talks about the very beginning when she wasn’t even into her teens, singing with church glee clubs and at PTA meetings.
She puffs on her plastic cigarette and I puff on my Winston. “I feel so good about it, not smoking, I mean,” she says. “And I made up my mind that if anyone smokes around me, it was not going to bother me and I was not going to preach to anyone, and that made it easier for me to quit.”
In 1961, she came down with double pneumonia and pleurisy and she was on the critical list for several days. “I was overworking, traveling around a lot,” she says. “I’d go out and forget to put on a coat. It was just stupid little things, like forgetting to take vitamin C, all those little things they tell you to do, and they’re right. In ‘61, I was in London and I had walking pneumonia, either walking pneumonia or I’m very stubborn. It’s really very hard to talk about. I’ve always been reticent about talking about my illnesses too much, except for believing that maybe someone else who is ill might overcome it believing someone else did.
“In ‘61, I thought I had the flu. I coughed a lot, went to France, coughed a lot more, came home, and it just wouldn’t go away. The way we live, traveling, not doing the things we should do to be healthy, it’s no wonder it happened. I came back home to New York and I think I was staying in this very same hotel suite. I was performing in Basin Street East. I went to bed one evening with a severe pain around the chest. The next day I found it very difficult to breathe. I called my doctor, he put me right into the hospital. He listened to my chest and heard a rumble. I think they call it a ‘rowl,’ and unfriendly sound in the lungs.
“I went in an ambulance and the whole thing. I didn’t know I was ill, and I always remembered how nice the ambulance attendants were. But the whole thing embarrassed me. It’s embarrassing to get sick and put everyone through all that trouble. I stayed seven months in bed and then they put me on this machine and I got my strength back and went to work again.
“It was this machine that kept me going, but I tried to hide it. I didn’t want anyone to know about this machine. I didn’t think it was very glamorous at all. But it was like trying to hide a Mack truck. I was very faithful to this machine and I still am. I think the second attack would have been more serious than it was had I had not had this marvelous machine.”