by Gene Handsaker
Peggy Lee spun her latest recording on her turntable. Out came the familiar rich, warm voice pleading not of love or joy in living, but – soybeans!
Specifically, Peggy’s pitch – after a vocal that she had composed – was this:
“Hello, this is Peggy Lee. Do you know that for just three pennies you can serve a meal to some hungry person somewhere in the world?
“Won’t you please send whatever you can, any little change you might have around the house, to me, Peggy Lee, care of Meals for Millions…?”
“Meals for Millions” is a people-to-people philanthropy that distributes to the hungry abroad a protein “multipurpose food’ of soybean meal fortified with minerals and vitamins. Miss Lee heard about it at a tea last October. She made the little disc with full orchestra to plug the cause.
“I’ve had a long-time desire to contribute in some manner to peace in the world,” she explained.
Serious thoughts from the blond beauty more commonly identified with supper clubs and the records she sells by millions?
An afternoon interview at her home produced these reflections:
“The arts are very closely related to some spiritual sense. They must be. Where does inspiration come from?
“I get my ideas from odd little things. Birds in the garden. Trees. Trees always make me think of patience…
“If I write a song, I suppose it’s a kind of prayer…”
The onetime waitress, concession spieler and Benny Goodman band singer, the writer of song lyrics and 1956 Oscar nominee, said she had been up until 4 a.m., modeling a clay bust of Dr. Albert Schweitzer.
As a child in Jamestown, North Dakota, she carved figures from soap. Why Schweitzer?
“I have some favorite people – like Schweitzer, Lincoln, Emerson,” she said. “There’s the same thread running through their lives. They lived by the teachings of Jesus.”
Schweitzer, in gray clay incomplete but recognizable after eight hours’ work, occupied a low table against one wall.
On the wall, in a small frame, hung a Gandhi quote penned by Miss Lee. “That’s another man I like,” she said.
Said the girl who hocked her high-school graduation watch for $30 to finance her first futile assault on Hollywood 23 years ago: “I never get bored.”
Ahead are an upcoming TV spectacular, reactivating her music publishing company, oil painting (Peggy put her portrait of a rocky Palm Springs hill on the grand piano to show its varying purples and golds when viewed from different angles), recording two albums in July and August, her first trip to Europe…
Nicki, her 17-year-old daughter by her husband, musician Dave Barbour (she married and divorced him and actors Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin), accompanies her on tours to handle finances. “I thought I would give her an insight into what happens when you go out and work on your own.”
At home, Nicki, who aims at an acting career, is a paid part-time secretary. “As her employer, I can step on her when as a mother I might have a little difficulty.”
The large, single-story home, with pool, sunbathing enclosure and backyard bird feeder that surrenders five pounds of grain daily, is at the top of one of the hills in Beverly Hills.
Peggy has come a long way from Jamestown, a saga whose highlights include:
Birth as Norma Egstrom among a railroad station agent’s four daughters and three sons… Doing dishes at 5, cooking and scrubbing at 7… Singing in the church choir, high school glee club, college bands… Everybody saying she was good and should go to Hollywood… Traveling there on a railroad provided by her father.
Arriving with $18, she roomed with a girlfriend who had preceded her.
“We had 25 cents a day to eat on for a while.
“Hollywood overawed me. I was such a shy girl and wasn’t really able to sell myself. Through employment agencies, I tried to get any job.”
She hitchhiked 50 miles to Balboa for an Easter vacation job as short-order cook and waitress. She spieled two months, first for a darts-and-balloons concession, then “one where you throw baseballs at a man. I felt so sorry for him.”
Finally there came a job singing at a small Hollywood Boulevard supper club, now extinct, for $2 a night. Then illness. Home for treatment and recuperation. A job singing in a Fargo radio station. The manager renamed her. “He just sat there a while, thought of Peggy and said, ‘what goes with Peggy… hmmm… Peggy Lee?’”
Nights she worked as a bread slicer in a bakery. Singing jobs followed.
She was at Palm Springs’ Doll House when, one night, the appearance of Jack Benny and his radio troupe as customers stage-frightened Peggy into the soft singing style she found effective. The engagement let to one in Chicago, where Benny Goodman heard and signed her.
Since her Goodman days Miss Lee has recorded some 300 songs, written and sung for movie soundtracks, appeared on most of the top TV shows and won an Academy Award nomination playing a disillusioned, alcoholic singer in Pete Kelly’s Blues.
More movie acting? “I’d love to – the type of things Claire Trevor has done. But it seems I’m so busy in other fields, producers don’t think of me.”