by David Galligan
Like one of the lyrics she sings, the legend “drinks her coffee from her favorite cup” and talks about her life so far. And you listen to that extraordinary voice – the one that sounds like leaves burning on an autumn day.
Peggy Lee sits at a round table in a sun-filled living room, platinum hair parted down the middle, gold hoops in the ears. She’s tossed a white silk scarf around her neck. There’s more – the black coat over the white pants, the giant amethyst ring choking a finger, the Lucite wedgies. The daylight in the room flickers with candles, the air smells of freshly cut flowers. The legend crosses her legs and watches warily through a pair of hazel eyes that reflect the green of the room.
Peggy Lee doesn’t usually do interviews. But then, Peggy Lee hasn’t played a club in Los Angeles in years. The club is new. It’s called Scandals – and it’s gay. Lee inaugurates the showroom this month.
The autumn leaves voice says, “I haven’t appeared locally, with the exception of a concert here and there, and a special concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. “It was 13 years ago,” she remembers, “and it was at the Cocoanut Grove.”
The “Fever” woman blinks at the question: “Will this be your first time in front of a predominantly gay audience?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t look at the audience that closely. I don’t think of that at all. I have no opinion on that at all.”
None at all?
“Nope. I don’t think there should be. God must have had something in mind.” Her eyes look down at her hands folded in her lap. Beginnings?
“I’d say we were middle-class, though my mother’s family had some success and some wealth, but I don’t know how much. My mother died when I was four. My daddy was a station agent for a very small railroad that connected all the larger ones. I got to know all the crewmen very well; they were sort of my babysitters because mother was ill the year before she died.”
“I remember all that,” she says, back to her folded hands, “I think because it was traumatic. I’m not the youngest – there was one sister after me. My mother gave her to my aunt when she knew she was going to be passing. My mother was a brave little woman. She even sewed clothes for us – to last us for a year after her death.”
It comes in a rush, in a whisper from Norma Deloris Egstrom of Jamestown, North Dakota. “Isn’t that incredible? Isn’t that a beautiful thing to do? My daddy died too but, in a manner of speaking, they’re here.” She moves one hand away from the other, back come the eyes. “Obviously I didn’t have too much of a childhood. I think what I gained from that is – I hesitate to use the word boot-camp, but in a sense, it was the process of learning. I’d say I had the opportunity to learn lots of different things – that I wouldn’t have had things turned out differently. One little change changes so many things. I wouldn’t have had the same friends. We wouldn’t be sitting here, perhaps. I think of things in that way. I suddenly learned I was on my own – and I think of being on my own ever since.
“I went through a period for years – worrying what other people might think of me. I really wanted the approval of other people – and I still do – but I do not get quite as hurt as I did years ago when someone gave me a cross comment. I will always go on trusting and believing because I don’t like the idea of not doing that. I want to be vulnerable, if that’s what necessary, to experience a loving feeling, a friendly feeling towards my fellow man. To be open enough to take the hurt as it comes is important. It’s better than closing yourself off and not caring.”
Somewhere along the way, Lee was asked by Benny Goodman to replace Helen Forrest in his orchestra. She recalls: “I was crushed. People didn’t want to hear me at all, and I don’t blame them. It was very hard for me to take. I was frightened because I was singing in her key. I had no rehearsal.”
How, then, did the Lee style evolve?
“I think,” she says, my own feeling has always been an interpretation. Naturally, I missed the technical things that night. With an orchestra like Goodman’s at the time, the vocalists” – she makes a face: “I hate the word vocalist. It sounds so mechanical – the vocalist would sit there on stage for an hour or two, then when we’d hear our songs come up, we’d butt our way up to the microphone, finish the chorus and sit down. The only time I really got to express myself more than that was when the sextette would take over for a while. I would sing songs like ‘Where or When’ or ‘The Way You Look Tonight.’ which attracted some attention. You see, as a singer with an orchestra, you’re a voice in it and that’s all. I learned a lot from Goodman – most of all to be prepared, because then you can settle back and interpret without worrying.”
She made the record “Why Don’t You Do Right?” and she retired. She met a man, Dave Barbour, married, got pregnant. “The record was a big hit, number one for years. It went from one war theater to another. I was offered many things – they were astounding offers for the times. Everyone thought I was crazy to turn these things down. We were a poor couple, but very happy. My husband finally convinced me to return. We started to write and record. I was asked to do a jazz album, and I thought to myself, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to get a babysitter. The album was a success and Johnny Mercer wanted us to record for Capitol Records. We were looking for material. Johnny had heard some of the things we’d written – they turned out to be things like ‘I Don’t Know Enough About You,’ ‘It’s a Good Day’ and ‘Mañana.’ I wrote a song one day, thinking about David, called ‘What More Can a Woman Do?’”
They were off and running. Whatever they touched turned out to be successful. The marriage, however, was failing. “Actually, David wanted me to divorce him. He had a problem with alcoholism, he knew he was going through these things, and he didn’t want to involve my daughter or myself. We remained very close. He eventually conquered it. He was with Alcoholics Anonymous for 13 years ‘til his death. David was sitting here a few days before he passed on. He thought he had the flu – it was a terrible shock. My daughter, Nicki, always had a close relationship with him, and David and I never lost our feelings for each other. I loved him. I still do. It’s hard to lose people – there’s no way to cushion it.”
Lee kept recording. She tried her hand on a Richard Rodgers classic waltz-time tune, “Lover,” and she loaded it with a Latin sound and spread it throughout the world. Next were the songs for the film Lady and the Tramp that she created with Sonny Burke. While she was writing for the movies, she acted in a couple as well. She worked her glorious wonders on a character called Rose Hopkins in Pete Kelly’s Blues, for which she received an Academy Award nomination, and she appeared opposite Danny Thomas in The Jazz Singer. She never acted again. Why?
“Because no one asked me,” she shrugs. “That’s the truth. I would love to. I’ve often wondered since if it was what they consider typecasting. I have reason to believe that some people think I have a problem with drinking. I don’t even drink. It’s terrible for one’s career if you want to prove yourself in another dimension. They might have thought, like the Rose character, that I was insane.
“I had already turned down a film career when I was married to Dave because I didn’t want to leave him. It was during the era of Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. I don’t think I was ready at that point.”
Still the hit records poured out, the career soared. In 1961 Peggy made friends with something called “Charlie,” but she dumped him several years back. Charlie was a respiratory machine. It didn’t stop her. She laughs: “I had quadraphonic pneumonia and suffered lung damage for ten years. I was very happy, finally, to give the machines to the Lung Association. I pray that they might help save someone as much as they helped me. I carried two of them when I traveled. It was a difficult time in that no one understood what was happening. I didn’t want to foist that upon my audience. Sometimes it was misunderstood, but I think all that’s been cleared up now. I still feel that when you come to see someone perform that you don’t want to know those personal things. Illusions are important; otherwise there’s no magic. I like to keep human frailties away from whatever the gift is that I have to give.”
There’s more talk, no particular structure, random questions shot back with the complexities that make up the person known as Peggy Lee.
On romance in music: “That’s what I look for all the time. I want to stress that a lot. Music evokes all the sights and sounds that were going on at some particular time. There are a great many people who come back to see me to awaken some memory or another.”
On marriage: “I consider myself married only once – to David. The others were experiences. I imagine that if things were as they are today, I might not have gotten married. I think I was just being proper.”
On her daughter: “I still think of her as a child. I just spoke with her yesterday. She’s taking another course in etching – she does beautiful work – and has an art gallery in Idaho, right next to Sun Valley, called Nicki’s Hang-Up.”
On the highlights of her life: “I don’t know… There have been a lot of moments… seeing my daughter for the first time… meeting David… singing for the first time in front of a large audience. My opening at the International Hotel in Las Vegas was a thrilling night, although I was very sorry Barbra Streisand got poor reviews, but I was excited with what happened to me because it was totally unexpected. We were working under great stress – they had not finished the room, let alone the stage – so we had not rehearsed the way we wanted to. That does not lend itself to being totally relaxed. I hope something approaches that reception at the opening of Scandals.”
On Science of Mind: “I don’t go to church, but I’m still in touch. One of the things you learn is that you really go to church within yourself. I once asked Ernest Holmes [the late founder of Science of Mind], ‘Now that you’ve made me a free thinker, how do I differentiate between what’s good and bad?’ He said, ‘Well, I think that if it’s beautiful, it must be good.’ He was a great influence in my life.”
On her voice: “Sometimes people say my voice is thin. I use the thin part for a certain reason. I can belt a song, but I can’t express the proper feeling by doing that unless the song calls for it. I can make it very small because it’s an intimate experience.”
On weight: “I don’t understand it. There are people who can eat everything under the sun and not gain at all. I really eat very little, but all I have to do is smell food and I gain. What I really resent from anyone, whether I’m in a thin period or not, is to make disparaging remarks about people with a weight problem. I think anyone who criticizes any group of people for something they have no control over is just as bad as someone saying something bad about any member of a minority. I think it would be a much better world if we liked each other for what we are and were not constantly critical of everything.”
I ask if she has seen the female impersonators’ impressions of her. “I’ve only seen Jim Bailey once on television, and it was not really a fair viewing. I tuned in after he had already begun. It wasn’t made clear to the audience that it was Jim Bailey. I did get some phone calls from my friends asking if I was ill.” Lee says she didn’t mind, however. “It was just the way it was presented. It was a strange emotion to see that. I know it’s a compliment. The strangest thing is that I don’t even know what I do. It’s been said, at times, that I plan every move that I make – but that’s not so. Of course there are certain things that are a part of something – the music has dictated that it must be so – but basically it’s what happens naturally.”
She thanks me when I mention the tremendous economy she displays as a performer. “They say that ‘the eternal struggle of art is to leave out all but the essentials.’ I have a long way to go, but I’ll keep trying.”
Does she consider herself a perfectionist? “I think paying attention to detail is important, but I wouldn’t like to be known as ‘Craig’s Wife.’ Yes, I want everything to be perfect for as much as I can do.
When I mention that some people say she’s difficult, she responds: “The same people call me a perfectionist. I don’t understand hearing a sound that is incorrect to you and not stopping to fix it. I think you must. If that’s difficult, I’m difficult. I never take for granted that I’m going to get great reviews. I really work at it every time and will as long as I continue to sing.”
“There’s a thing about age,” she says wistfully. “It’s almost a scandalous thing to grow older. Well, it’s a beautiful thing to gain wisdom and more compassion. We can learn a great deal from our elders.”
There was something sad, something terribly vulnerable in the way Peggy Lee looked, sitting there, caught in the flickering light of candles and the late afternoon sun. Something like the songs she sings.