by Muriel Fischer
Peggy Lee makes a career of careers.
The pretty, blond North Dakota lass, who spent her growing-up years acquiring a working knowledge of farms and railroads, then skipped to fame as a singer and later cut another niche as lyricist, now makes her debut as an actress.
In her first film, The Jazz Singer, which premieres here January 13, Miss Lee costars with Danny Thomas in the Technicolor musical remake of the screen’s first talkie.
This last should be just about “it” for the sweet-faced, honey-voiced star who was born Norma Egstrom, daughter of a railroader. The seventh of eight children, left motherless early in life, Norma worked on farms in the summertime – and sold tickets in the Fargo railroad office after school.
A graduation watch, pawned for $18, launched her on the first of her artistic careers: Peggy Lee, singer.
As much as Miss Lee relishes her latest entry – emoter, par eloquence – it’s just as appetizer to an elaborate seven-course career.
She is inclined to be modestly oblivious to the Hollywood laurels sailing her way via preview notices. Nor does she sit and contemplate her possibilities as a contender for the cherished Academy Award.
Nevertheless, when the curtain parts at the Paramount Theater the night of the premiere, and the title lights up on the screen – Peggy will likely jut forward, mouth slightly ajar, and wait with bated breath.
Miss Lee will be eagerly awaiting the flashing of her credits – a lightning-like operation usually met by a restless audience anxious for the “show” to get on.
For Miss Lee, however, the credits are the “show.”
There, under the heading of songs, in small but personally discernible print will be the magic letters spelling “by Peggy Lee.”
“Imagine,” she enthused during a recent interview, “there, in the credits – songs by Rodgers and Hart, by Cole Porter – and by golly (small voice) me. Oh,” she pressed her palms together with childish glee, “when I heard about it, I flipped!”
(Flipped, in songwriters lingo, is an untranslatable term used to depict real gone joy.)
The words-and-music acknowledgment accorded Peggy in the credits of the forthcoming Jazz Singer is for a tune aptly titled: “This Is a Very Special Day.”
It isn’t Peggy’s first composing contribution. She has penned lyrics for some 25 songs, many of which reached the million mark in platinum sales. Among the hits, written in collaboration with her ex-husband, guitarist Dave Barbour, was the ballad “I Don’t Know Enough About You” (which tallied 17 weeks among the top 10 in the Hit Parade), and the calypso crowner “Mañana” (which topped the two-million mark in record sales.)
Another of the hummers that/ earn do-re-mi plaudits for the Barbour-Lee combine was “It’s a Good Day” – after which Peggy’s all-by-herself “Special Day” is patterned.
Withal, however, Miss Lee takes especial pride in her place among the greats in the credit listings of The Jazz Singer.
“All those wonderful people – and me,” she repeats happily.
But Peggy’s imposing collection of careers does not end there – not nearly.
While at work in The Jazz Singer – with nothing to do but follow Michael Curtiz’ able direction during the day, double in Ciro’s spotlight at night (where Curtiz discovered her “natural acting” ability) and fill singing engagements on radio and TV – Peggy spent her rare spare moments on the set compiling a poetry book.
The poems, soon to be published, are Peggy’s own, naturally. “Some new – but mostly old ones that just stepped back into my memory. Some sonnets, mostly lyrical, with a few short humorous rhymes mixed in, “the poems come under the collective title of Softly, with Feeling.
Peggy blushed and stammered when asked if perhaps the title was indicative of the Lee singing style – or personality.
“Well now, I don’t know,” she said. “I always sing softly – but I had to, because I started singing in noisy nightclubs. And I found the only way to keep the audience quiet was to lower my own voice.”
It was a long, tough climb, she reflected about those noisy night spots and obscure radio jobs to the Buttery in Chicago’s Ambassador Hotel, where maestro Benny Goodman band discovered her.
Peggy toured the country with the Goodman band for two years. Then, in 1943, following her marriage to Dave Barbour, the Goodman guitar man, she retired to dedicate herself to a career of domesticity. She pursued the art of cooking and lent her soft voice solely to singing lullabies to baby Nicki.
Then, one day she whipped up some words to some Barbour melodies. Right out of the musical oven popped: “What More Can a Woman Do?,” basted neatly on the reverse side with “You Was Right, Baby.”
The team scored a “natural.” And Peggy’s artful waxing served to take her right out of the kitchen – and put her back on the airwaves. And launched her on a new level of stardom.
Peggy and Dave were divorced a year ago May. But they continue to collaborate on songs. “We have some scheduled for after the first of the year,” she reported.
Also, Miss Lee recently linked her lyrics to Victor Young’s melodying for the soon-to-be-released “Goodbye, My Love.”
“It’s my favorite of all favorites,” she declared.
And then there are the songs she wrote with Sammy Burke for the forthcoming Walt Disney feature Lady and the Tramp. Peggy also dubs some of the voices of the animal characters in the cat and dog love story.
You would think that the multiplicity of Lee’s talents divided into the normal 24-hour day would equal one tense, tired and/or neurotic woman.
Not so, says Peggy. “So long as I can get home and do some digging in my garden, I’m all right. Marvelous therapy, gardening.”
Home is Westwood Hills, Los Angeles, “seven-eighths of an acre of house and land – with trees and grass and flowers and beautiful rock gardens (all Peggy-planted, of course).” And home is with Nicki, a petite, shiny-haired, bright-eyed youngster who wears glasses and loves to dance on her toes.
Mama Peggy says “Nicki’s getting too old for me to be telling her age anymore,” but she’ll proudly tell of Nicki’s many talents.
“She can dance, sing and paint – but dancing’s her favorite,” her mother reported. “And she loves to chase the dogs – two collies named Banjo and Gay. Banjo’s the daughter of Lassie.”
Also at home is Peggy’s “moody music room” with the candelabra bird boy which throws a lustrous candlelight glow on the rock garden – and makes it look like another world.”
Here Peggy can relax and write music, or words, or poetry – or study a script – or contemplate any other career which she has not yet tackled.
There’s painting, for instance, which up to now has just been a Lee hobby. And there’s the novel – something Miss Lee has been “thinking about.”
“Mañana maybe,” she says of the latter with a grin.
Well, mañana maybe be good enough for you and me – but it’s better with Miss Lee. For Peggy has a way of making mañana pay – by making it today.