New York after dark is being blasted out of its lull. Peggy Lee is at the Ballroom, Rosemary Clooney is at the elegant new Rainbow and Stars, Margaret Whiting is back at the Algonquin, Jim Bailey is doing his Judy Garland witchcraft at Michael’s Pub and the indefatigable McGuire Sisters are starring in The Taffetas down at the Village Gate. If it all sounds like a 50s time warp, so be it. Just get out your Nat King Cole records, drag that prom dress out of the mothballs and go for it.
Queen of the Survivors is, of course, Miss Peggy Lee, whose life story is like Elsie Dinsmore rewritten by the Bronte sisters. The proof lies in between the pages of her new autobiography, just out from Donald Fine publishers. She made an ill-fated attempt to talk about her life a few years ago in a one-woman Broadway show that was a dolorous experience for all concerned. Getting it all down on paper is a better idea, harrowing though it is. She wrote every word herself, without a collaborator, and she wastes no time getting down to the nitty-gritty. On page 29, she’s already an orphan when her home burns to the ground. By page 34, her wicked stepmother pours boiling water on her hands. Three pages later, the same witch slams her over the head with an iron skillet and beats her with a heavy leather razor strap with a metal cutting edge that scarred her face for life. Up at 7, baking bread, milking cows, churning butter and scrubbing floors, she suffered nausea, retching delirium, appendicitis and peritonitis by page 43 and, after her stepmother kicked her in the stomach, ripping open her incisions after surgery on page 45, it’s little wonder she made her first suicide attempt on page 52.
Delving deeper into this morass of morbidity, you discover: She worked as a carnival barker, was almost sold into white slavery, nearly drowned, suffered from sore throats, fainting spells and malnutrition. After surgery and a lump in her throat, she was dropped on a tile floor, breaking her front teeth and slicing her tongue after hemorrhaging from blood transfusions. Pregnant after her 1943 marriage to guitarist Dave Barbour, she experienced tumors, pneumonia and a Caesarian. She bought a haunted house. She lived on a respirator for ten years. She married the actors Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin, and in 1965 was planning to remarry Barbour, but he died of alcoholism before the wedding. Plagued by raging fevers, she also developed diabetes, the inner-ear affliction called Meniere’s disease, and a heart condition. Packed in ice, she went blind. Her face was paralyzed. Two years ago, she underwent double bypass open heart surgery and developed a debilitation staph infection that left her surgery wide open for six weeks (“I was so wide open the doctor could see my vocal cords.”) Most recently, she fractured her pelvis at Caesar’s Palace.
This saga could go on, but I can’t. Miraculously, during it all, Miss Peggy Lee managed to work her way up from the Benny Goodman band to best-selling recording star, movie actress, Grammy award winner, Oscar and Emmy nominee, and a permanent niche in the Hall of Fame. And I haven’t even mentioned the love affairs, business ripoffs, emotional collapses or lawsuits.
But little Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota, survived to become a living legend. If you survive the book, head for the Ballroom on West 28th Street, where she’s singing the blues with more than 40 years of experience behind her, and you’ll learn to believe in miracles. Intrinsically musical, her voice shapes colors and moods around the lyrics that make your hair stand on end.
The first part of the show concentrates on old favorites like “Fever” and “Is That All There Is?” (Even an indestructible pro like Miss Peggy Lee must be tired of “Mañana.”) Still, it’s amazing how she still manages to squeeze so much deeply emotional flavor out of “Johnny Guitar.”
It’s all a lightly swinging buildup to the heavier, more cerebral section of the act, devoted to the blues. She explores the roots of blues taught to all singers of substance by Ma Rainer, Bessie Smith, Lizzie Miles and Lil Green, to name a few of her influences. She imitates the wail of the street vendors, the pain of the chain gangs and the passionate obsession of the gospel singers. But it’s the homesick blues like “Basin Street Blues,” “Beale Street Blues,” and “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home” that showcase the indelible, honey-dripping, nectar-sipping Peggy Lee style at its zenith. I’ve never heard her sing more securely in tune. I’ve never seen her make more direct contact with the musicians or her material.”
The woman has been through hell, but she deserves her rightful place as one of America’s national treasures.