“I’m a frustrated Latin,” Peggy says. “I like to show what I feel about something or somebody. In California I got to know a lot of Latin people. They say the darnedest things – they make you feel like a light bulb! I once wrote something called ‘For People Who Are Not Sentimental,’ proving that everybody really is. Those who don’t show it very often, particularly men, have a great deal more of it in them than others because they’ve shoved it down all the time. It started when you were a little kid and ran eagerly to show something you had: the grownups laughed at you, and if they laughed often enough you made a vow to yourself to shut the door and never let them see the inside of you anymore. But people keep needing more and more love. It doesn’t have to be confused with emotional love. It can be love for a lot of things, just for living.”
The Scandinavian Miss Lee, blonde but far from cool and reserved as those northern people traditionally are supposed to be, is a very outspoken girl. She has none of the namby-pamby, brainless amiability that often characterizes the big-time performer, whose personality is usually worn down while the facade is being built up. She lives a quiet life in California with Dave and their daughter Nicki, making records and a few personal and movie appearances, studies philosophy, writes, reads and gardens. “I never go any place except to hear Matt Dennis at the Encore. You get in a completely different mood out on the Coast. There isn’t that air of excitement; you kind of get in a rut. Everything gets to casual that pretty soon you’re falling down. It’s good to come to New York to get new life.”
For Peggy, there are two figures in the music business who have never bothered her. Louis Armstrong is one that “kills” her; the other is Billie Holiday. “I honestly feel that I understand what she sings because she understands what she’s singing. She’s highly refined. She has the broadest scope of character with all kinds of little facets. When she sings ‘God Bless the Child’ – ‘rich relations give, crust of bread and such, you can help yourself but don’t take too much’…! Sometimes I used to imitate her.”
Peggy’s great admiration for the sentimental, expansive personalities of Louis and Billie shows clearly in the kind of songs she likes to sing: “I’d like to do Willard and Alec all the time. There must be some basic merit to them because I still get requests for their songs.” The basic merit for her, of course, is the fact that Robison and Wilder write unashamedly sentimental, unrepressed torch songs about love that’s present or love that’s gone. And yet she realizes that these songs seldom become popular because it’s not the American way to weep and wail and gnash your teeth or get poetic over your sorrows and joys. There’s a certain amount of embarrassment among audiences when a singer stands up in front of them and pours out a full tale of woe with no leavening of wit in the form of self-ridicule or indifference. Furthermore, Peggy has put her finger on exactly the reason why Frank Sinatra appeals to both men and women, why he can sing a stickily sentimental song and there is no such embarrassment: “He has a sort of neuter gender feeling that’s very appealing when he sings something like ‘It Never Entered My Mind’ or ‘Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry’.”
Peggy’s latest recording has brought her criticism of the opposite sort. Backing her and Dave’s “Happy Music” is a song by Matt Dennis called “Show Me the Way to Get Out of This World,” a sardonic commentary on current musical slang in which everything is indeed “out of this world” or “gone.” It’s morbid, they tell her, thinking of atomic bombs instead of satire. But if she has her way on a future recording date, there’ll be no such criticism; she’d like to do the very romantic old “Ich Liebe Dich” in English. Watch out for that cardiac! Peggy Lee is a frustrated Latin!