by Leonard Feather
Peggy Lee is an enigma to those who don’t know her well.
Outwardly she has the trappings of the typical Hollywood star: a big, handsome home high up over Beverly Hills, an ornate Japanese-style garden, a maid, a secretary, a gardener…
Regardless of these luxuries, Peggy is as warm as her singing, loyal to old friends, with a sharp sense of humor, and a unique sensitivity that has been revealed in her poetry, painting, sculpture as well as in her TV and film acting.
Peggy’s background includes years of frustrations and struggles. “I had to work on neighbors’ farms to help raise the rest of the family,” she told me as we sat beside her swimming pool. “Dad was a railroad station agent in North Dakota, a small farming community. Mother died when I was very young. I had two sisters and three brothers.”
She worked with semi-pro bands at 14, the started on a small radio station in nearby Fargo, where the station manager changed her name from Norma Deloris Egstrom to Peggy Lee.
Later, after an unsuccessful trip to Hollywood as a teenager, she joined an act called the Four of Us.
At the Ambassador Hotel in Chicago they were heard by Mrs. Benny Goodman. Soon Peggy joined Benny.
“The critics gave me a terrible time while I was with Benny,” she recalls. “It was very discouraging.” But she did make one hit record with B.G., a blues called “Why Don’t You Do Right?”
Early in 1943, after 18 months with the band, Peg married Benny’s guitarist, Dave Barbour, and retired for a couple of years while he worked as a Hollywood studio musician.
Then she gradually came back, writing and recording songs with Dave, first on records, then in clubs.
She won the Downbeat award as Number One Girl Singer in 1946; she and Dave had two hit songs, “Mañana” and “It’s a Good Day.”
By the late 1940s, Peg was a national name. During the 1950s (the Barbour marriage ended in 1952), she went into everything from TV and oil painting to writing a cookbook and children’s poems.
In 1956 she won an Oscar nomination for her second movie role, in Pete Kelly’s Blues (the first was in The Jazz Singer).
Peggy has an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Though she never went to college, she is better equipped than most to discuss philosophy, religion, education and all the arts.
She taught herself to play piano and has a subtle sense of harmony. In her soundproofed studio you may find her working on a bust of Albert Schweitzer; or taping a routine for her nightclub act, surrounded by Vic Feldman, Stan Levey, Quincy Jones and bassist Max Bennett.
At present Peg is single; she was divorced from actors Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin.
Peggy is the complete perfectionist. She has no patience with impatience. When she went to New York last year for her first date at Basin Street East, she had the whole bandstand rebuilt to provide her with a more effective entranceway; had the orchestra enlarged from five to 13 men (Neal Hefti led it); brought Sid Kuller from Hollywood to provide extra lyrics. The electrician had to follow more than 130 lighting cues in a 35-minute show.
All this effort paid off; she did the biggest business in the history of the club, every musician and singer in town raved about her, and she now has a deal to return there regularly.
Unlike 99 percent of Hollywood people, Peggy doesn’t drive a car. “I did when I was a teenager,” she says, “and you know what happened? I collided with a team of horses. By a miracle I came out without a scratch, but somehow I haven’t felt the same about driving since then.
“Aside from that,” she adds, “I was always writing songs in my head while I drove – and that’s not a good way to stay alive!”