by Judy Klemesrud
Here is what there is: Miss Peggy Lee slinks into the living room of her Waldorf Towers suite, wearing a pair of turquoise silk movie star pajamas. Her blonde hair tumbles down past her shoulders now, and her figure is plump – but womanly. A youngish Mae West. But then you notice the skin… it is as smooth and pink as an Iowa sorority girl’s. How can it be true? This sexy, sensuous, seductive woman will be 50 years old come May 26, and she is a grandmother three times! But throughout it all she has endured, grown even better with age. And she is still, as Duke Ellington once put it, “The Queen.”
She settles into an aqua sofa, and starts complaining about how “terrible” her first show had been the night before in the Empire Room, 37 floors below. It seems she had started singing the wrong opener because the lighting man had flashed the wrong color on her. And then the flute player couldn’t get his echo chamber to work. Of course, nobody but Peggy the perfectionist really noticed. Minor boo-boos rarely register when La Lee is in action.
She lights a cigarette, then glances around the room at the dozen or so bouquets of flowers, sent to her by admirers who are glad she’s back in town. There may be even more bouquets after NBC airs its special on the Grammy winners on May 7 at 10 p.m. The biggest Grammy of all – Record of the Year – will be announced that night, and Peggy’s haunting “Is That All There Is?” is a leading contender. Last month it won her a Grammy – her first, believe it or not – for Best Performance by a Female Vocalist on a Contemporary Record.
It’s all enough to make a person happy, and it does. In fact, about the only way you can make Peggy angry these days is to mention “the White House dinner.” That, of course, was the state dinner President and Mrs. Nixon threw last February 24 for President and Mrs. Pompidou of France. The entertainment: Miss Peggy Lee in the East Room. The next day, Washington news-hens wrote that some of Peggy’s numbers had been embarrassingly sexy, and that she had broken the sacred rules of protocol by kissing President Nixon after her 45-minute act.
“I really don’t wish to discuss it,” she says, her moist pink lips drawing together tightly. “Those reports were totally inaccurate, and therefore deserve no comment. If I’m sexy, I can’t help it. President Pompidou was the first person to congratulate me. He jumped up on the stage and kissed my hand. Mrs. Nixon gave me a warm embrace and I returned it. One of the reasons I was asked to sing was because I’m a non-political, non-prejudiced person. Do you know what I was wearing? A long-sleeved black gown, with a string of pearls! I would never kiss the President. I just leaned forward as he spoke to me, and it may have looked like it, but I didn’t kiss him.”
Subject-changing time. Perhaps the most phenomenal thing about Peggy Lee is that she has been able to adapt, to roll with the trends. Music has passed through many stages since she made it big with Benny Goodman back in the early forties, singing “Why Don’t You Do Right?” Bop… progressive jazz… rock ‘n’ roll… folk… rock… country and western… acid rock. About the only other top female performer who has weathered it all with her is Ella Fitzgerald. Both can still pack ‘em in, whether it be the squares in Miami or the kids at Berkeley.
“I guess my secret is keeping up with the music,” Peggy says. “My musicians keep me up with what’s happening, and they bring new material to me. It’s fun. You know, like having new clothes. I really like the new music. Not all of it, of course; I choose what I like. I loved Blood, Sweat and Tears right from the beginning. I played their ‘Spinning Wheel’ over and over again when I first heard it. I love Neil Diamond’s songs, and Jim Webb’s songs, and I think Randy Newman is great. He wrote ‘Love Story,’ which I adore, and arranged ‘Is That All There Is?’”
Things were different a few years ago. “When rock first came in, I was very upset,” she says, emphasizing her words with left-hand jabs into the air. “I felt very insecure, and I turned it off whenever it came on the radio. When you feel left out of something, you don’t like it at all.”
She would like to see the big bands come back, but with a more modern sound than forties swing. She thinks it might do new singers some good. “Today’s singers are missing the opportunity for a kind of grueling – maybe I shouldn’t say grueling, but it really was – experience to learn how to perform for many kinds of audiences, under difficult conditions, to see if the mettle is really there. If you can make it through that, and then run into excellent conditions, well… it’s a real joy.”
Critics say that one of Peggy’s strengths through the years is that she is such a good actress while she is singing; that she thinks about every lyric. “I guess you could compare it to the way and actor or actress works,” she says. “I draw on memories or my subconscious while I am singing. To me, each song is like a little story. Sometimes, when I get into the mood of a song, I almost start to cry. I did cry once during a show, on ‘Don’t Explain.’ I had heard that a friend was ill, and I was feeling very badly.”
She has had her share of downs in life. Nine years ago, while singing at the Basin Street East, she collapsed with double pneumonia. She was left with permanent lung damage, necessitating the addition of “Charlie” to her eight-man traveling retinue (hairdresser, wardrobe mistress, lighting man, five musicians). “Charlie” is a large oxygen tank that Peggy must use to keep her lungs from filling up with fluid. “One of my lungs has grown to a muscle,” she explains. “A lot of people think I have emphysema, but I don’t.”
All has not been happy on the home front, either. She has been married four times, to the late Dave Barbour, the guitarist, who was the father of her only child, Nicki, 25; Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin, both actors; and Jack del Rio, a bandleader. All four marriages ended in divorce. A recent romance with an attractive young NET producer she met while filming The World of Peggy Lee broke up last January.
Would she like to remarry? “I wouldn’t mind… but I haven’t given it any thought. I have a lot of gentlemen friends who keep my ego happy. I think marriage is difficult for a woman with a musical career. It’s not easy for the man, and not easy for the woman.” Long pause. “I really loved Dave Barbour, but he is dead, and I don’t want to talk about it.”
She works hard to stay young-looking. There are Vitamin B-12 injections, hairpieces, mineral baths, constant diets. “Scandinavians are large people,” she rationalizes, even though she recently dropped 30 pounds. “I was very thin once, and it didn’t look well on me.”
Peggy, who was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota, changed her billing to “Miss Peggy Lee” about ten years ago. “It looks better on a marquee,” she explains, “and it sounds better phonetically when someone announces it for a show. Winchell was very critical about it at first. Actually, it’s just part of the name.”
Her biggest influence was probably Billie Holiday. “There was a very deep feeling that she had in songs, as though she understood what she was singing about.” Some of her favorites today are “Frank and Tony,” Michel Legrand, “and don’t forget Ella.” She is also charitable about Barbra Streisand, who got all the fanfare last summer when they were both performing (but in different rooms) at the opening of Las Vegas’s new International Hotel. Barbra may have drawn the crowds, but Peggy walked off with the raves. “Naturally I was thrilled,” she purrs. “Barbra has talent.”
Peggy shares her sprawling Beverly Hills home with her daughter, Nicki, who lives in one wing with her husband, a television producer, and their three children. “The children call me momma,” Peggy says, smiling at the thought of it. “And really, I don’t think of myself as their grandmother. I think of them as my babies, too.”
So, has she ever, at any point in her life, asked herself, “Is that all there is?” She bursts out laughing when she hears the question.
“I’m very satisfied,” she replies, blowing a small white cloud of smoke into the air. “I certainly can’t complain.”