by Earl Wilson
Look who used to be a “hired girl” on a farm in North Dakota…Peggy Lee!
I was once a “hired man” or “hired hand” on a farm in Ohio – so I know about such things. In the big cities, they would call a hired girl a maid…but on the farm the work is different: milking the cows, running the cream separator, churning the butter, carrying in the water, cooking the meals, and washing the dishes…always washing the dishes.
Peggy of the silver-blond hair was telling me about it in her penthouse the other day.
“I worked as a hired hand, ‘making hay,’” I said. “And I drove the water wagon for a threshing ring.”
I cooked for the threshing crews!” spoke the lovely singer and movie star. “We got up at 4 a.m. and worked all day. Except the lady I worked for would make me lie down for ten minutes.”
Peggy was a teenager then, working a hired girl in the summer, trying to sing weekends for a little orchestra during school.
“One night,” she said, “I went out and got so little sleep, I could hardly stay awake next day.
“We had a kettle of chicken and dumplings on the cellar steps. I was taking a dishpan of cucumbers down to the cellar. It was dark and I was sleepy.
“I wound up with my head in the coal bin, and chicken and cucumbers all over me, and our dinner gone.”
Peggy – sitting there in a beautiful dress, surrounded by opulence – said: “And the salary!”
“Two dollars a day!” I said.
“That’s the men!” she replied tartly. “The biggest salary I got was three dollars a week. I shucked grain. I pitched hay. People wonder how you can stand up under the strain of show business. The training gave me strength.”
Peggy’s mother died when she was 4 – she was working when she was 11. “It hurts me to go back,” she said now, as the hotel waiter brought in coffee, and Peggy directed an employee to sign the check, “because the people work so hard.
“They seem to get so little pleasure. You wish you could send them all in a cruise.”
When she has gone back, Peggy has waved at bread truck drivers who used to give her a lift to a little radio station where she might be singing for 50 cents. And she has remembered how she left.
“I sold my graduation watch to my landlady, and my father, who was on the railroad, got me a pass.
“I arrived in California with $18 to see my girl friend who had just lost her job. So we had $18 between us. Going without food in California didn’t seem bad. We used to laugh – maybe we were delirious!”
The rest of her story is rather familiar – a few steps to fame as a recording star, then in the movies where she starred in The Jazz Singer, now a big hit at La Vie En Rose…and probably set to do a Helen Morgan film for Hollywood eventually.
“That life equipped me for the world,” she said.
“You never feel helpless because you’ve had so many things you’ve had to pull out of that were so hard.”
Peggy tries to forget how long ago it was that she was out there. She got a shock the last time she went back. A young man came up and talked. She knew his name from the old days, he looked exactly the same as she remembered him; no older, even.
But he appeared puzzled about the old times she was mentioning. Finally he said: “Oh, I know! You think you’re talking to my father.”