Peggy Lee


The Timeless Charm of Peggy Lee

by Thomas C. Wheeler

Peggy Lee has the sturdy figure of a North Dakota farm girl, which she originally was. But when she sweeps onto the nightclub stage, her platinum blond hair shining and her hazel eyes glittering, a transformation takes place. As she bows and blows kisses, she seems both regal and exciting.

She is not only a singer, but an actress. When she delivers a Negro spiritual called “Motherless Child,” she somehow manages to look and sound like one. She does a showstopper like “You’ve Got to See Mama” with satirical bumps and grinds, and a rousing tune like “Heart” with bouncy gusto.

A songwriter herself, she is now performing on the nightclub circuit a number called “Great Big Love,” which is about nothing less than the peaceful order of the stars and the planets. Singing about the sun lighting up the world, she spins around the stage spreading her arms like a blond astronaut weightless in a capsule. The goggle-eyed audiences look as if they are watching the first lady to be orbited.

Peggy Lee has been a nightclub headliner for 20 years, making gamblers forger their losses in Las Vegas and businessmen their budgets in New York. She earns more than any other female singer for a club engagement, up to $25,000 per week for a four-week run. If she plays in clubs more than 14 weeks a year, the limit that she sets herself, she could move up into Rockefeller’s bracket.

She earns up to half a million dollars a year from her nightclub runs, ASCAP royalties and record sales. Unlike most popular singers she can claim a range of fans that runs from teenagers to the Geritol set. Since she started recording on her own in 1945 she has sold more records than any other woman singer: over 20 million. No other white woman singer has been so steadily successful for such a long time.

Significantly, the only comparable American singer is Ella Fitzgerald, who is a peer, though perhaps less electrifying on a nightclub floor. Miss Lee sings old and new show music with an unmistakable white voice, and blues as if she were black. Duke Ellington, who has been in the business almost 50 years, calls her “The Queen.” “I consider her as great a musician as Frank Sinatra, who in that world is king,” he says.

Peggy Lee, on first meeting, is deceptively bland. She looks like a librarian or a schoolteacher. Her face, with a nose a trifle too short, a chin too round, lacks any clear definition. But as she talks about her work, her eyes become alert and her face gains animation. “I like to make my music change and grow,” she says. “It is like a fruit tree becoming more fruitful.”

A woman of endless contradictions, Miss Lee drives herself relentlessly to perfect her songs, rehearsing day and night for a full month before she puts on a nightclub show or makes a record. But she then flees with relief to such tame pursuits as painting landscapes and writing poetry. She spends four months of the year making straw angels for Christmas and paper roosters for Easter.

Until recently, she lived in a rambling, ten-room house in Beverly Hills. In the backyard are birch trees that she planted because they reminded her of her native North Dakota. But she also had a kidney-shaped swimming pool, a tail-finned Cadillac and three white poodles. In her backyard there were also four statues of St. Francis of Assisi.

She is partly a temperamental siren and partly a tough farm girl. She can be a crybaby at one moment and a tomboy the next. At a closing-night party in New York recently, her eyes were brimming with tears as she berated her drummer for shifting his wallet to another pocket during the performance. An hour later she was challenging a young public-relations man to an Indian-wrestling match, which she won. She will complain bitterly over a spotlight which does not please her. Then, when all is in order, she will offer up her face to the stagehands for kisses on the cheek, remarking, “This is a love that has to do with our work.”

She has a small-town sense of respectability, but her four show-business marriages have all ended in divorce. “I’m a very nice girl who meant well,” she says. She has stayed on friendly terms with her first husband, Dave Barbour, a guitarist and composer, partly in the interests of bringing up their daughter, Miss Lee’s only child. She married Barbour in the mid-40s. Her middle two husbands were Dewey Martin and Brad Dexter, both actors. This summer she divorced a personable percussionist named Jack Del Rio, whom she had married in February and made leader of her band.

In many ways, Miss Lee is still a composite of her rural upbringing and her show-business sophistication. She has stayed faithful to her past by helping her two sisters and a brother migrate to California. One of her sisters once managed her California house. Miss Lee, however, looks for maternal affection and finds it in 70-year-old writer Adela Rogers St. Johns, whom she calls “my adopted mother.” Last Christmas, in a characteristically impulsive gesture of affection, Miss Lee gave Miss St. Johns a mink coat.

Miss Lee likes to meditate. Despite her penchant for deep thought, she sometimes makes statements that sound both offhand and baffling. Names that do not normally occur in the same breath come together in her conversation without advance warning. “I learned courage,” she said to some acquaintances recently, “from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein and Cary Grant.”

During the 1950s she was an ardent disciple of the late Dr. Ernest Holmes, a nationally known minister whose doctrine is called Science of Mind, and whose Hollywood church many stars attended.

She used to talk with Holmes on the phone almost every night. It was Holmes who got her to read all of the men who now inspire her, with the exception of Cary Grant, whose brand of Zen religious belief caught her interest later.

Today her freelance faith helps her out of many nervous moments. Recently, she became rattled during a trying nightclub performance and found herself murmuring a childhood prayer. “Father, if you let me sing this song, I’ll stew your pears, I’ll can your pears.” She then sang the song with her customary excellence.

Peggy Lee was born Norma Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota, of Scandinavian parents. Her mother died when Peggy was four and she was brought up on her faher’s farm by her stepmother. Despite her stepmother’s disapproval, she early determined to become a professional singer. She sang in a Lutheran choir and in the high school glee club. Fighting back her shyness, she went to Fargo for a radio audition, and in 1939 became a staff singer on station WDAY. Later, she took a brief trip to Hollywood, but unfortunately came back with nothing more than an infected throat.

In 1941 she was singing in Chicago when a scout for Benny Goodman heard her and made a recording of her for the maestro, who then came to hear her himself. Goodman says that he found “character in her voice,” and to her surprise, hired her.

“She was scared to death for the first six months,” Goodman says. “She dressed in sort of Minnesota style and Mrs. Goodman took her out to get some clothes.” She offered to quit because she felt inferior to Helen Forrest, then the major Goodman singer, but she was talked into staying. A year later, she recorded a number entitled “Why Don’t You Do Right?” – and suddenly she was nationally famous.

Peggy Lee wears her fame well. Her generosity is boundless. She lavishes presents on everyone connected with her shows and has helped a number of musicians out of debt and out of trouble. Her lawyers, who control her money, admonish her not to carry her own cash, considering her not only an easy prey of beggars but a sucker to her own gift-buying habits.

To aid her friends, she does not even hesitate to practice a bit of extemporaneous mysticism. One night in New York recently Cy Coleman, the composer and her good friend, was seated in her suite at the Americana Hotel, in whose nightclub Miss Lee had been singing. The time was a very tired 4 a.m., and an after-show party was just breaking up. Miss Lee slumped down exhausted on a couch next to Coleman, who confessed with his head in his hands that he was overworked and up too late. Quietly, Miss Lee asked her manager, Barney Ward, to put a Debussy sonata on the phonograph.

“Lie down on the floor, Cy,” she said.

Mr. Coleman, who is in his mid-thirties, looked up at her quizzically and then stretched out. Miss Lee then ducked under the huge lampshades and turned the room dark. She sat on the edge of a coffee table, silhouetted against a glow from the surrounding city.

“Relax, Cy. Don’t think of anything. Just listen to my voice.”

“All right,” Coleman said.

“Receiving and giving,” she said softly. “Receiving and giving.” She repeated the odd phrase over and over.

After a few minutes, she abruptly got up and began turning on the lights. “That’s what we have to do,” she said happily. “All the time. Receiving and giving.”

Mr. Coleman had a look of cheerful bewilderment on his face when he left. “I feel great,” he said. “Wonderful.”

Two nights later, when she had finished her engagement and was packing to go home, Coleman telephoned to say goodbye. “I laughed and laughed the next day,” she told him. “Giving and receiving. The picture of it. You lying on the floor and I…” Then she began to laugh again at the ludicrous episode – and at herself.