“I always thought of myself as a very strange little girl,” chuckles Peggy Lee, remembering herself as Norma Deloris Egstrom, the North Dakota blond abandoned as a toddler, then abused by her wicked stepmother.
“My real mama was an adorable little thing – laughing, singing, playing piano – but she died of diabetes when I was 4,” says the 72-year-old songstress, also a diabetic, as she mused on the series of childhood events that would fortify her through years of physical adversity.
“I was so puzzled when they carried Mama’s casket out the door – I didn’t understand death – still don’t,” she continues. “So I asked Daddy: ‘Where do they take Mama?’ He said: ‘To heaven, with God,’ and that answer set me on a search that has never ended. You see, my father remarried within the year, my six brothers and sisters scattered everywhere, and I was very much alone with a stepmother who beat me. I learned that if I didn’t think about her, she didn’t exist – I learned to control my mind.”
The effect of being so alone, as a girl? “It had a wonderful result,” she smiles sweetly, “because I began to talk to the self within. I’ve found wonderful peace and strength within myself.”
It was strength solely during the last 30 years, as she faced physical ailments brought on, she believes, by workaholism.
“I did it to myself,” says Lee, who battled life-threatening viral pneumonia twice in the 1960s, then a 1978 bout with Bell’s Palsy that left the right half of her face somewhat immobile, numerous open-heart surgeries and, most recently, a devastating year-long bout with PMR: polyomelitis rheumatica, a neurological disease that left her in bed for a year.
“PMR is a distant relative of polio,” Lee explains, “and it boils down to being paralyzed due to inflammation of nerves, muscles, and joints – everything from the neck down. Horrifying pain.” She was spiritually sustained, she says, by her two bibles: Ernest Holmes’ Science of Mind and Baird T. Spaulding’s The Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East.
“I was Ernest’s adopted spiritual daughter and he taught me how to think and concentrate. I believe in mind over matter – that all my physical problems were caused by overworking, and that I will heal myself.”
Thanks to physical therapy and true grit, she’s now appearing in her glittering white gowns nightly through August 29 at Club 53 in the New York Hilton Hotel.
Performing sitting down, Lee’s voice remains crystalline, her sensuous delivery of trademarks like “Fever” and “Mañana” miracles of economy, her spirit, she says, “bubbling, perking and soaring.”
“Some people,” she muses, “might have killed themselves” given the PMR, or considered retirement, but not Lee. “I don’t believe in death, and I love life enough to say I won’t give up. I don’t know how to stop.”