by Bob Thomas
LOS ANGELES – One of the entertainment world’s ablest survivors, singer Peggy Lee, last winter suffered a blow that would send most stars to their psychiatrists. Her autobiographical show, Peg, was rejected by the Broadway critics and closed December 18 after 18 performances.
“Self-pity is a waste of time,” she said recently. “I decided the best thing to do was go back to work.”
In January, she made appearances in Canada. She followed with a trip to Japan, then a triumphant tour of England and Wales. London’s Sunday Times termed her Fesitval Hall concert “outrageously successful” and cited her unquestioned star quality “with sexuality to match.”
Obviously on a roll, Lee decided to make a rare appearance in her hometown. The Westwood Playhouse, an intimate theater on the fringes of the University of California at Los Angeles, was available, and she moved in for a sellout three weeks.
In her dressing room one late afternoon, Lee sipped coffee and talked about survival and other matters. She may be 64, but stylish beauty remains. She was wearing a Chinese hat that she removed to reveal her blond hair drawn tightly into a bun.
“I learned to survive as a kid in North Dakota,” said the singer, born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown. “My mother died when I was four, and then I had a stepmother who – well, I wrote a song about her in Peg.. I called it ‘One Beating a Day (Maybe More).’
“I feel sorry for the role she had to play, and I have forgiven her since then. The experienced turned out to be good for me. I learned independence, and I could make my living in many ways. I worked at farm labor, I worked for the railroad, I was a clerk and a waitress. I cooked for the threshers. I was a better waitress than I was a cook.”
Entranced by the sounds of the new swing music on the radio, Norma Egstrom tried singing on the Fargo radio station where her name was changed to Peggy Lee. She moved on to California, managed to land the spot as singer with Benny Goodman’s band. One of her first records, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” was a hit.
She reflected on those touring days. “From the standpoint of the audience’s reactions, that was a wonderful time. What a great experience to sit next to [pianist] Mel Powell on the bus and sing the orchestra parts together. Mel did the brass while I did the reeds.
“But we were all earning very little money, and we were constantly on the road,” she said. “I averaged two hours of sleep a night. Being a blonde with long hair, I spent hours washing my hair every night – and no hair dryers in those days.”
Over the years, Lee has suffered four broken marriages and a series of illnesses and ailments that would have sunk anyone with less pioneer spirit. The worst came in 1976, when she nearly died in a New York hotel fall. “My ribs were torn from my spine, and I developed a heart condition because of the injuries,” she said.
While her body was slowly healing, she reflected on her life history. That’s when she started working on Peg. A couple of years ago she same some of the songs for friends at her home. Producer Zev Bufman insisted that it could be a Broadway show – but Lee had to appear in it.
“I still don’t know what happened back there,” she said of her Broadway flop. “The audiences loved the show, even if the critics didn’t. And to close just before Christmas! It didn’t make sense.
“Oh well, I guess it’s true what they say: ‘There’s a broken heart for every light on Broadway.’”