by Carolyn Drewes
“I’ve been living a fairly reclusive life since the health problems; a lot of people don’t know whether I live on the East Coast or the West. But I had 70 for dinner Christmas Eve.”
(Once she had a costume party and asked everyone to come as a clown. “Did you ever see 150 clowns in the same room?”)
Under a crystal chandelier at a table covered with a lace cloth in the Fairmont penthouse where Ben Swig once resided, sat Miss Peggy Lee, living legend of the smoky voice and attic cheekbones, lunching with some people Wednesday before her first rehearsal in San Francisco.
Elegantly monochromatic in appearance as always, she wore cream white silk pants and loose jacket, a waist-length rope of pearls and on her finger a square-cut diamond she concedes to be – with her customary errant sly wit – as big as a breadbox.
Perched on her nose were a pair of tinted eyeglasses studded with rhinestones. She says she has to wear the glasses (once, after an accident involving an overwaxed floor at the Waldorf-Astoria and a subsequent lawsuit, she was temporarily blind), so why not have some fun with them? She says acupuncture and acupressure have helped with the paralysis that imperceptibly affects the right side of her face. “I have had to restrain myself to smile on that side.” It’s the side with the famous mole.
And it was only a year ago that she underwent a double bypass operation and then further surgery for an ensuing infection. And before that, the lung damage that necessitated the long period with the portable respirator she called Charlie.
Actually she feels it is “incredible” she’s alive. “It has a lot to do with faith, and all the help I received from so many people who wrote and sent wires. Even the President and Nancy. I was on my way to the White House, you know, when it happened.”
Picking up her fork in Ben Swig’s dining room, Peggy Lee smiled the slow sexy smile, sighed and said she was tired and when she is tired her face feels stiff. Rain had complicated the trip up from Southern California the night before, and she had a tight schedule. Always the trouper, she had awakened in San Francisco to do an 8:00 interview and thought she was in Chicago.
But at lunch she was, as always, a delight. Still with the same slumbering radiance. And she was glad to be back in The City to perform at the Marines Memorial: “I’ve been playing here since I think 1945 or ‘47.” A pause, then the smoky laugh. “Sound like an old Packard, don’t I?”
In the middle of this lunchtime conversation touching on many things – from the 49 rose bushes in the garden of her French Regency “mini” mansion in Bel Air (done in pale peach and apricot, with a white lacquer kitchen), to the difficulties and sadness of having to work while rearing her daughter Nicki, to remembrances of Walt Disney (“Can you imagine me sitting with Walt Disney while he’s telling me about this place he’s going to build?”) – in the middle of the salmon course, Peggy suddenly looked and asked, “What is the name of the thing horses do?” And she took a breath and made a noise that wasn’t a neigh or a whinny, that involves blowing through the lips, a sound that everyone recognized and no one had a word for. Finally someone said cautiously, “I think it may called nickering .”
And Peggy said she couldn’t wait to get to her thesaurus, that the question had to do with the autobiography she’s presently writing. She is a poet, as well as a painter of “landscapes and character studies.” She has always written lyrics, loves to write: “I enjoy building words, like bricks or mosaic. I’ve wound up with a word processor, an IBM. I write all night in longhand, my secretary comes in the morning and goes b-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r and that’s it.”
She had started the autobiography only to have it evolve into her one-woman so-called musical memoir, Peg, which opened on Broadway three years ago. And now she’s back at the book.
“Right now I’m fascinated with my ancestors. My grandfather was from Sweden, he married a lady from Norway. You’ve always heard Norwegians and Swedes don’t get along; this is obviously not true. He crossed the ocean and was shipwrecked on the way. He was one of six, two survived, they were on a raft three months and were finally picked up and hospitalized. My grandfather had amnesia, it was six more months before he regained his memory and found he was married and by then had a son, who was my uncle. It took him seven years to make enough money to bring them over. It wasn’t until I found a long-lost cousin that I heard this story.
Peggy Lee is a notable survivor herself. Perhaps that Swedish forebear is responsible for her valor and fire.
She has been married four times, but it’s her first husband who counts with Peggy Lee. (The other marriages she says were of very short duration.) Guitarist Dave Barbour was the one. She has always described him as very handsome with a special dry sense of humor and she likes to tell you what he said when they were going to have a child. It wasn’t what she expected. “Why Peg, I hardly know you.” He had a problem with alcohol, and they were finally divorced, but she says they were going to remarry and then David died. He was 53.
Peggy on the subject of work: “The songs I really believe in have made it, but it’s been difficult to get them recorded. I’ve always had to work at it. Philosophically it’s interesting that it happens if you do work at it.”
She had to fight for “Is That All There Is?” “They said ‘Oh, it’s too weird,’ and then everyone said it was too long. Finally I bargained: I said I’d do a show I didn’t want to do if the record was released.”
Some people have suggested that the autobiography, of which eight chapters are done, be called Is That All There Is?. Peggy Lee disagrees. With high good humor, self-deprecating as ever, she suggests it might leave her open to a critic’s three-word retort: “I hope so!”