by Alfred G. Aronowitz
Peggy Lee spent Thanksgiving of 1961 in Polyclinic Hospital. Max, from over at the Stage, sent her a turkey, sliced, deboned and put back together again, but the doctors and the nurses ate it. Peggy was too close to her beyond to even know it was there, but does anyone realize he’s had enough until he’s had more than enough? “I was terrible then,” she says. “After I started getting better, I would lock myself in the bathroom and smoke. With pneumonia, I would lock myself in the bathroom and smoke. That’s what an idiot I was about cigarettes.”
She gets up from her king-sized Waldorf-Astoria bed and invites me back into the sitting room for the vodka nightcap. Her manager, Brian Panella, and her press agent, John Springer, are talking there. Peggy pours us the drinks. She worked 35 weeks on the road last year. “It’s the way we live,” she says, “traveling, not doing the things one should do to be healthy. We live as normally as we can. We try to eat a good, healthy, balanced diet and once we’re settled in we get eight hours sleep. Sometimes that means breakfast at two o’clock in the afternoon, but that’s just a state of mind. It’s still the first meal of the day.
She talks about November. Everything bad happens to her in November. It was November when she got sick again this last time. Ten years later, and she was back in the hospital on Thanksgiving. She remembers trying to give her recipe for roast turkey to the cook over the telephone. Or barely remembers it. Her manager Brian Panella, jokes about how it tasted more like roast duck by the time it got out of the oven. Brian visited her every day in the hospital and even when she got out she didn’t remember having seen him there once.
“It was the same silly reason,” she says. “Overworking and traveling and going from one climate to another. We were in New Orleans and we had just opened and received beautiful notices and then we closed. I went in to sing the second night and all of a sudden I went to take a second breath and it wasn’t there. It was really kind of humorous, if you have a sick sense of humor. I came off for the second bow and on the way into the wings, Brian was saying, ‘Cut the show! Cut the show! Cut the show!’ And I said, ‘Where?’ Do “Pete Kelly’s Blues” and get off,’ and I said, ‘I can’t, I’ve got to do “Fever” and went back out. Meanwhile I had a fever already.
“They wanted me in the hospital there in New Orleans. But my daughter was leaving for Europe that day. I don’t know what that had to do with it, because when I got to L. A., I went straight from the airport to the hospital. I had a beautiful suite, It was down the hall from Barbara Stanwyck. But I never heard of such of a thing. I had this big, beautiful suite, but I couldn’t have any visitors. For 12 days, I had to have nurses around the clock. It was pneumonia again. “
Peggy kicked the cigarette habit cold turkey. Oh, she has other restrictions on what she can do now. She doesn’t go sightseeing anymore, or partying. She sticks pretty close to her hotel suite and her oxygen machine and doesn’t move around too much, except in the line of business. Back home in California, she relaxes by painting and sculpting and sometimes takes a drive up to Big Sur to revive her inspiration. But whatever breath she has left, she saves it for singing.
After her stay in the hospital, she had to keep her house for ten weeks. The doctors came to see her every day. She was supposed to do the Carol Burnett Show, and when the doctors wouldn’t let her, Carol rescheduled the show. Peggy finally did it in late December. Her first road date was last February, when she played one night at the opening of the new Playboy hotel in Great Gorge, New Jersey. The doctors just wanted to see what working again would do to her. The showroom at the hotel held 700. Another 700 were turned away.
She puffs on her plastic cigarette and pours another vodka. Four weeks at the Waldorf isn’t exactly a vacation when you’re working there. It’s nearly 4 a.m. “As I said,” she tells me, “I wouldn’t want to talk about it except that I realize it might be important for someone else who is ill, that it might help for someone else to know. It’s not really very glamorous.” It’s time to go and she gets my coat and sees me to the door. Outside on Park Avenue, I hail a cab. Driving away, I light up another Winston and look back at the building. The Waldorf-Astoria, home of Peggy Lee.