Peggy Lee


Singing About Romance and Disappointment

by Blake Green

The name of the door – Hapsburg Suite – might be more appropriate if Fraulein Dietrich were in residence. But the Fairmont has no Eric the Red or Leif Ericson accommodations for guests of Norwegian stock.

Anyway, once inside, there are plenty of signs of Peggy Lee: vases of rosebuds, a tray of sliced apples, white candles to combat the cigarette smoke. And, coming and going, from the room on the left to the room on the right, the hairdresser (the one clutching the hair spray), the wardrobe mistress (with the towel), the secretary (a notebook), the lighting man (empty-handed), the public relations man (with the briefcase) and two men from the hotel (with a refrigerator).

When the door on the right opens, you hear singing. Peggy Lee singing. In the shower? No, there’s musical accompaniment. A rehearsal? It’s possible, for the singer’s entourage also includes five musicians. But we have it on good authority that they are downstairs with the band waiting to rehearse. (She is listening to herself on tape – part of what people mean when they say that Lee is such a perfectionist.)

Then, finally, out she comes – Miss (even without an announcer) Peggy Lee: red crepe de chine pajamas, long silver fingernails, platinum tendrils and waves, eyelashes batting like wings above her eyes. With an apology: Things are, as always, hectic.

Another opening, another show. The glamorous Miss Peggy Lee is back at the Venetian Room, singing about love and proving that the torch singer image is alive and well.

Lee has lived through a lot: bandleaders (going back to the late ‘30s and including Benny Goodman when swing music was at its peak and Goodman was its most popular practitioner), husbands (four of them), health problems (for years she has had to travel with respirators), songs (she has written or collaborated on dozens and dozens, sung hundreds and sold millions), and dress sizes (she is slimmer this year than last).

She started off life as Norma Egstrom, became Peggy Lee and finally Miss Peggy Lee “to give it some definition,” she explains. “If you just say ‘Peggy Lee’ it comes out ‘Peggalee.’” (Her grandchildren call her “Mama Peggy.”)

Miss Peggy Lee, according to John Simes, who handles her public relations, “just evolves into things.” While she was evolving into her name, she went from waitress and carnival spieler to Star! With a very special style that has been described as everything from “so cool it hurts” to “sultry.”

When she first recorded her interpretation of “Lover,” its composer, Richard Rodgers, who had written the song as a waltz, said that it was “about as far as you can go in the way of distortion and still use the title.” It sold more copies than any other version, and Rodgers complained all the way to the bank.

There is no question that, after what she has gone through, Lee’s hide is tougher. She is reputed to be a crackerjack businesswoman. “From necessity,” she says, “I learned to keep my eyes on everything. I used to resent this taking me away from creative things, but I’ve learned to enjoy it.”

But she also still exudes some of the romantic softness of her songs. “She is really in love with love,” says Simes.

In her painting, a talent overshadowed by her singing, she favors “florals and impressionistic. I have a tendency to be too feminine. I also never know when to stop – I have to be stopped or I’ll ruin it. I have this terrible desire to want to put more life in it, make it better.”

In poetry (she writes verse as well as lyrics), the subject most often is “love and nature. As a little child I wrote poetry.”

“Remember when you were little and looked at something beautiful and got a sort of sob feeling inside of you? These feelings get rarer as you grow older, but I’ve never forgotten them – and they always inspire me.” She says that she prefers to be “whimsical instead of maudlin” in her writing.

In spite of the theme of disillusionment of “Is That All There Is?,” another of her trademark songs, Lee insists that she has a positive philosophy. “My attitude is that there is more. In the final sense,” she says, “the things that never seem to let you down are what you are within yourself.”

Sometimes when critics compliment Peggy Lee they call her one of the greatest white singers and while, just like everyone else, she enjoys being flattered, she says she doesn’t think “it matters if you are black or white. I’m pure Scandinavian, but I have the same timbre in my voice” (associated with black vocalists).

“I’ve even had people ask me how I can be from North Dakota and sing the blues. It’s very simple. I can remember during my very sad childhood” – her mother died when she was four, the family was very poor – “I would sing to keep myself happy – and I think that’s how the blues began with the slaves in the South. North Dakota might be a long way from Africa, but I think I felt some empathy with sadness.”

It has been a long time since Peggy Lee was poor. She lives on a hilltop in Beverly Hills that she describes as “surrounded by tall trees and hanging gardens” and inhabited by hummingbirds – “some of them build duplexes.”

One wing of her house is for her business offices and the rest for her creative bent. “I love to paint in bed,” she says. She is currently working on a collection of fabric designs for Mitsukoshi, the Japanese department store. (“I get so much paint on my sheets – maybe I’ll just use them,” she joked), and on a film musical with her neighbor Maurice Jarres of Dr. Zhivago fame.

An afternoon visitor calls for silver tea sets, fine china and finger sandwiches, says a friend. And while Peggy Lee says that when she is alone she doesn’t dress up, people rarely see her any other way. Keeping up the glamorous image “is part of being an entertainer,” she says. “Feel this,” she offers the hem of her silk pajamas. “When you’ve worn this, you get spoiled for anything else.”

In her “evolutionary” process, as Simes calls it, Peggy Lee has stopped drinking and smoking. And somewhere along the line, she changed her attitude about marriage.

“I really consider that I was only married once,” she says, “to my first husband,” Dave Barbour, a guitarist with Goodman, whom she divorced in 1951. I always loved him and we were very close until he died.” (They continued to collaborate on songs.)

“I guess with the others, I was just trying to be conventional… looking for a home, a normal life. After awhile I just felt I should stop living a lie. But there’s no regrets, no bitterness.

“I don’t have any time to get married,” Peggy Lee says with a smile. “And I haven’t been married for so long that I’ve forgotten all the little nuances. Besides, it isn’t so conventional anymore.”

Then she is serious. “If I ever fell in love again, I’d get married – but that would be the only reason.” Sounds like the words to one of her songs.