Peggy Lee


The Woman in White

by Patricia O’Haire

She comes into the room, and she’s dressed all in white. Platinum hair, bangs straight cut across her forehead, white pantsuit – even white nail polish on her toes. The only bit of color – aside from the red and blue sparks the light makes as it bounces off the stones in the rings on her fingers – is a beige blouse.

“Do you mind if I’m not wearing shoes?” Peggy Lee asks. “My latest affliction,” she says, pointing to her toes. “I don’t know why they hurt, but they do. The pain jumps from the left to the right, kinda like ping-pong balls.”

White is her color; she wears it onstage and off. In this case, “off” is a suite overlooking Central Park, where she pours herself some tea and settles down on a couch.

She’s in town to make her annual appearance at the Ballroom (two weeks, starting tonight), and to record four albums – albums she’s been meaning to get around for quite a while now, she confesses.

Peggy Lee has been the ultimate cabaret singer-stylist for as long as she’s been singing in nightclubs and cabarets (she’s celebrating her 50th anniversary as a performer this year – she says it’s 53. She’s honest.)

And she’s always been the most sophisticated. Possessor of a most distinctive voice, she’s honed her style to an almost lazy perfection over the years. Not lazy as in sluggish, but lazy as in steamy. Hot. There’s a reason she raised temperatures with “Fever.”

Yet this ultimate in nightclub sophistication was born 67 years ago about as far from the bright lights and big city as one can be – as a lonely, unhappy child in a tiny North Dakota town.

Her only friend was her radio, and she listened to the music coming from it, learning the songs, the words and the inflections of the singers. When she was old enough, she left home and worked at anything and everything until she could sing.

She remembers the radio programs fondly. “I heard Bessie Smith, Lil Green – she wrote “Why Don’t You Do Right?” way back then. I still love those kind of blues, the kind you have to be real careful with when you sing the lyrics. Most of the words have four or five different meanings, and if you don’t do ‘em right, people don’t get all the nuances.”

She’s done all kinds of music since then, and her performance spans most of the trends over the years, from old blues to big bands to jazz. She sang with the Benny Goodman Orchestra; her “Mañana” helped Latin music cross over to mainstream; “Lover” and “Fever” established her jazz credentials. The haunting “Is That All There Is?” defies classification, as does “Let’s Love,” written for her by Paul McCartney.

If you had to describe her in a word, it would have to be indomitable. She’s had four husbands, one daughter and enough health problems to make Blue Cross shudder – but she’s a survivor who faces her troubles with humor. “There’s a beautiful rose named after me,” she says. “I have bushes of them all around my house.”

It’s painful for her to stand for long, so she designed a chair to fit under the curve of the piano for her two weeks at The Ballroom.

“The doctors told me I should stop working. I told them they’re crazy. I like my house, but what would I sit and wait for? No thank you. Not me.”