by Leonard Feather
It is hard to delve deep into the ongoing saga of Miss Peggy Lee without allowing it to take on the overtones of a soap opera.
All the elements are there: the rags-to-riches background; the musical affinity that led to romance, and the death of the man she loved (Dave Barbour, her first and, as far as her memory is concerned, only husband); the triumphs over illnesses that were numerous and complex enough to set her up as a walking medical encyclopedia.
None of this is noticeable when friends are around. Peggy, blondely attractive and quietly relaxed, lies in her bed at Caesar’s Palace, surrounded by old friends who materialized the night before, to her astonishment, during a 2 a.m. taping of This Is Your Life. (The program will air this January.) Clair Egstrom, her brother, who with Peggy was a hired hand on a North Dakota farm, is here; Ken Kennedy, the man who gave Norma Deloris Egstrom her stage name, flew in from Fargo, North Dakota, where he is program director at WDAY.
If her illnesses are mentioned, it is only to serve as a hitching post for an anecdote. Mute evidence stands at her bedside: an elaborate breathing machine, which she nicknamed Charlie, is used for daily oxygen intake. Her travels with Charlie have been continuous since a chronic bronchial ailment and double pneumonia years ago made his absence hazardous to her health.
She is talking about her crushed disc. “When they told me about it, I totally blanked out on the fact that they said I had arthritis of the spine. I never accepted it, so therefore I never had much trouble with it. When they told me I was supposed to wear a steel brace, I simply said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks – it wouldn’t look good under my gowns.’
“So I’ve been exercising, and last night I felt than an incision, from an operation I had a while back to remove a benign cyst, had come open. This was just before show time. The pain – well, I was in such excruciating pain, I thought Bruce was going to faint.” (Ordinary mortals might say, “I thought I was going to faint,” but Miss Peggy Lee worries only about the danger that her hairdresser may swoon at the sight of her discomfort.) “Anyhow, after we finished This Is Your Life I was restitched, so now I’m wearing the bandages again.”
During the illnesses and the brief, flawed marriages, Peggy tried in several ways to find answers. She was heavily into Science of Mind; presently, meditation seems to bring her spiritual comfort. But above all, she is spurred on by the success drive, the pleasure of pleasing, and a constant search for new outlets of expression. When you talk to Miss Lee you are dealing not only with a singer and hit songwriter but with a painter, poetess, sculptress, Academy Award-nominated actress (Pete Kelly’s Blues) and, next on her schedule, motion-picture producer.
“A few years I had to spend a great deal of time in bed and I asked somebody to get me some biographies. One of them was Claire de Lune, the story of Claude Debussy by Pierre LaMure, who also wrote Moulin Rouge. Well, I was just fascinated, and I bought the rights to the book. I’ve been living, breathing and sleeping with it ever since.
“This is a first, because there never has been a woman producer. Woman director, yes, Ida Lupino, but no producer.”
“Mother, said Mrs. Richard Foster, daughter of Peggy and mother of three, “how about Merle Oberon?”
“Are you sure, Nicki? Well, it’s an unusual project anyway. The story is poignant and powerful. We’ve been working on it since last May – between disasters.”
Will there be an acting role for Miss Lee?
“There were two important women in Debussy’s life. One was a courtesan named Gaby, who had great success, mansions, carriages, everything, then left it all to live with Debussy in a garret. He wrote ‘Afternoon of a Faun’ for her and gave her the manuscript; she still had it when she died in a poorhouse in 1945.
“That role is not for me, though. When he was in his 20s, Debussy fell in love with Alix Vasnier, an older woman; she was married and he was her accompanist. It was a complete infatuation; he sacrificed great career opportunities for her, and she loved him but she disappeared. This is just a small role, but a very important one, and I’d like to try it.
“The story is a tear-jerker, but it can be brought to the screen very beautifully. There’s a good chance we may go to France to film it, using the Conservatoire and making all the settings as legitimate as possible. And Michel Legrand has expressed great interest in doing the music.”
Peggy sips at her coffee, falls silent for a moment. From turn-of-the-century Paris her mind races to 1972 Nevada.
“This has been the happiest engagement I’ve ever had in Las Vegas. Working with Alan King was a pure joy; he’s as thoughtful as he’s funny, and I can’t say enough good about him. We’ve had three weeks of capacity business, and before that, on my own, I had a fantastic success at the Fairmont in San Francisco. They had people lined up all over Nob Hill.
Through the maze of involvements runs the unbreakable thread of Peggy’s love for all music, her special affection for superlative instrumentalists and arrangers who are at the core of her social as well as her musical life. Pianist/conductor Lou Levy has been at her beck and call (except for tours with Ella Fitzgerald, mostly while Peggy was ill) since 1955. Her sensitivity to pure musical values automatically commands respect, eliminating the necessity to demand it.
The apocalyptic changes in popular music have left many reputations scarred, long-familiar names forgotten. Uninterruptedly salable and in demand as a recording artist (and almost alone in this respect among the girl singers in the classic-pop tradition), Peggy has ridden the waves and swum ashore unabated every time. Since winning a Grammy in 1969 for “Is That All There Is?” (Best Contemporary Female Vocal Performance) she has continued to find a workable middle ground between the traditional musical values in which she grew up and the seemingly antithetical demands of today’s market.
Unlike many of the composers who were pre-rock ASCAP heavyweights, Peggy has continued to write and to find acceptance for her compositions. “I’m working on one or two songs with Michel,” she says. “I’ve collaborated on another with Artie Butler, and I’m just now finishing up one with my guitarist, John Pisano. So the adrenalin is still flowing..
That it will continue to flow, and the reason for this, was aptly summed up in an eloquent tribute by Louis Armstrong, recalled by his widow Lucille when she flew in from New York to take part in the This Is Your Life proceedings.
Turning to Ralph Edwards, Mrs. Armstrong said, “I know how my husband felt about Peggy. That’s why I asked her to sing ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ at his funeral. Louis used to say to me: ‘Moms, I haven’t given the world all that’s in me yet,’ and I think Peggy feels the same way.
“She was born to sing and she loves it. Despite all her problems, all the physical difficulties, she’ll get along. And I know she’ll keep singing and creating, and she will be wonderful, because she’s Peggy.”