The Royal Albert Hall, January 1990: A sultry, sexy voice that fills the vast space, singing of love anticipated, fulfilled and unrequited. It comes from a lady in her seventies, too frail to stand, dressed in cardinal red, her alabaster face framed by an electric white wig. This is Judy and Dusty’s favourite chanteuse, the woman Duke Ellington called “the Queen,” the one who made Nat “King” Cole cry when she sang.
When I was a child, my parents’ record collection covered the A-Z of classical music, but between all the Bartok and Strauss, one oddity stood out. A pretty ash-blonde, her chin resting on fingertips clasped as in prayer, smiled out from the cover. While the other singers on the shelf pumped sex into their arias, this singer’s unforced voice gently seduced me.
Gay men are supposed to be attracted to camp torch divas because we empathise with all their suffering. But – despite being eminently qualified – Peggy doesn’t trade on her divorces, her medical history, or lifetime of litigation. Besides being “the most consistently intelligent singer in America,” according to jazz critic Gene Lees, she’s an actress, lyricist, writer, painter and businesswoman.
As with all icons, “Peggy Lee” is the product of years of cyclical debacle and painstaking reinvention. At the heart of the legend lies Norma Deloris Egstrom, a small-town, midwest country girl who was born on 26 May, 1920 in Jamestown, North Dakota. Her father, of Scandinavian stock, was a railroad agent, and little Norma – the fifth of six children – spent her early years wandering along the tracks singing to herself, with only the distant whistles from steam engines across the prairies for company.
This rural idyll was shattered by the death of her mother, and the arrival of Min, the wicked stepmother in a Cinderella scenerio. Years later, Peggy revealed the horrors of the new regime – beatings, whippings and mental abuse. Her father, who had become an alcoholic, was incapable of intervening. One by one, Norma helped her brothers and sisters to run away. She stayed, however, using her music as an escape. She’d sing anywhere they let her: glee club, church choir, restaurants, and then local radio in Fargo, where an announcer re-christened her “Peggy Lee.”
The yellow brick road led to Chicago, where Peggy was heard by top bandleader, Benny Goodman, who was then looking for a singer to replace Helen Forrest. Peggy stepped into her shoes, almost literally – singing Forrest’s songs in her key and even in her gowns. At first, the critics were unkind and Peggy tried to quit. But Goodman dissuaded her, and through two grueling years of tours and one-night stands Peggy learned her craft. But then, just as national fame beckoned with the hit record “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” Peggy did what most band singers tended to do: she fell in love with the guitarist, Dave Barbour, got married and retired.
Home-baking and housework, though, don’t make a gay icon and, while minding their baby daughter, Peggy began writing lyrics. Barbour provided the tunes and, in 1945, they were signed up to the fledgling Capitol label. Old film clips from the late Forties paint a rosy picture of the domestic scene: Barbour strums away and Peggy positively blooms as she sings “It’s A Good Day.” Hit followed hit, and in 1946 she was voted Down Beat Female Vocalist of the Year.
In another Lee-Barbour collaboration, Peggy shyly confides “I Don’t Know Enough About You.” What a twist of irony that was, for Barbour turned out to be an alcoholic. Peggy took him down to Mexico for a rest-cure, and the trip inspired “Manaña.” A not-so-subtle take on laid-back Mexican life, it sold a million copies, before landing the couple in court with a million-dollar plagiarism suit (which, in fact, they won). Despite this huge success, her trials were far from over. Barbour and his drinking buddy, who happened to be Lee’s manager, sold the rights to “Mañana” for two tickets to the Rose Bowl, while they sent Peggy to sing in a Washington strip joint.
To keep her career on the rails, and provide a home for her young daughter, Peggy took charge. She divorced Barbour in 1951, and the following year signed with American Decca. By 1956, Peggy had produced some of her most innovative work: seminal albums like the jazz-tinged Black Coffee, a concept collection of love ballads and poems called Sea Shells (so avant-garde Decca delayed its release for three years), and several hit singles including “Lover” and “Mr. Wonderful.”
Then Hollywood beckoned. After minor roles in Mr Music and a remake of The Jazz Singer, Peggy hit the big time in 1955 in Pete Kelly’s Blues. The accolades for her portrayal of a drunken Twenties club singer included the Film Critics’ Award and an Oscar nomination. Still with Decca, Peggy co-wrote and recorded the soundtrack to Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp (“Whaaat a dog!”), as well as doing several of the voices.+
The Fifties saw Peggy’s transition into a ‘classy’ singer – one who might be mentioned in the same breath as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. With the help of actor/producer Mel Ferrer, Peggy re-worked her stage show. An intricate new lighting plot was introduced, while Peggy concentrated on projecting her musical personality through the lyrics. A Peggy Lee show became a production par excellence
In an appearance on the Nat “King” Cole show in 1957, singing “My Heart Stood Still,” Peggy wore an enormous ball gown and tight cropped hair. She was developing into a true entertainer, but there were no gimmicks; apart from a few hand gestures, it was all in the eyes and in her perfect phrasing.
The dream of movie stardom, however, evaporated when Warner Bros. ended her film contract, saying there weren’t enough Doris Day roles to go round. So she went back on the road and produced music prolifically. Reunited with Capitol, there were dozens more albums (Things Are Swinging, Beauty and The Beat, The Man I Love, Basin Street East and so on) and hit singles, like the classic “Fever” and her 1969 hit (and Grammy Award winner) “Is That All There Is?” Songwriting partners included Quincy Jones, Victor Young, Cy Coleman and Johnny Mandel. She dabbled in art and poetry and set up Peggy Lee Enterprises to market her prodigious output.
For many years, access to the private world of Peggy Lee was limited to press releases. A 1961 EMI handout tells us the singer’s hobbies include “entertaining at home by her mountaintop pool,” where favourite topics of conversation are “philosophy (on which she is blessed with an exceptionally open and intelligent mind), writing and authors, interior design, art and music.” And how about this for a pearl of Peggy’s wisdom:
“I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein and Cary Grant”.
So what about the other men in your life Peggy? “I love men, but that’s a very private issue with me. On a grand scale.”
After Barbour, there were three more, very brief marriages. Peggy herself called these weddings “costume parties,” and admitted the last union was never consummated. The official line is that Barbour was the only true love; they were due to remarry in 1965 but Barbour (now on the wagon) suddenly died.
Reading between the carefully scripted lines, it’s fair to say there were plenty of eligibles in Peggy’s life, and one friend warned “You don’t have to marry them all.” One man, though, did get away. After a 27-year platonic friendship with Cary Grant, Peggy said wistfully, “I regret never having made a lunge at him… I wish I’d dragged him off to the bedroom!”
Besides men, Peggy was plagued by persistent ill health. In London, in 1961, she contracted pneumonia, which left her dependent on an oxygen cylinder (nicknamed Charlie) for almost twenty years. There was also a thyroid problem, which put a strain on her heart. It got worse: a near-fatal fall caused temporary blindness and paralysis, then diabetes was diagnosed; then, in 1985, she had tp undergo quadruple bypass surgery. Still Peggy came back for more, only to fall on stage in Las Vegas and break her hip. Rather than bring the curtain down (“Miss Lee never cancels”), they brought out a chair and she finished the show.
More entrepreneur than mere survivor, Peggy decided her autobiography would make a good stage show. The result was Peg, which opened on Broadway in 1983. Her life story set to music (with both old and new songs), Peg featured both the high points and – her big mistake – the low points of her career. For the first time, the loyal fans heard about the childhood suffering (sent up in a calypso number, “One Beating a Day”), the alcoholic husband, her constant battle with illness.
Though musically flawless, as Variety noted, Peg was “clouded by awkwardly written, mawkish material that veers close to self-glorification.” The New York Times critic Frank Rich was characteristically savage: “The show will most likely excite those who are evangelistically devoted to both Peggy Lee and God – ideally in that order.” Despite standing ovations from the faithful, Peg ran for just eighteen performances.
Peggy can’t be faulted, though, for lacking a sense of irony: her whole image is built on a self-mocking glamour. The painted nails get longer, the blond wigs more daring, the gowns more camp. As Boy George said when he bumped into her once, “You look outrageous. If I’d known you were going to be here, I’d have done myself up.”
Apart from the occasional concert, though, Peggy’s main public appearances these days are in the courtroom, where she is pursuing Disney for a share in the video royalties from Lady and the Tramp, which netted $80 million world wide, against Peggy’s derisory fee of $3,500. When one judge awarded her $3.8 million, Peggy commented: “They say ‘Don’t mess with the Mouse, but my rights have been vindicated.”
Three appeals later (all in Peggy’s favour), the case looks set to go to the Supreme Court. “Disney have been dragging this on for years,” says Peggy, “hoping I’ll either give up or die.” Perhaps her epitaph should be “Don’t mess with Miss Lee.”
While other old survivors like Bennett and Sinatra are reaching out to newer audiences, Peggy seems content to bask in the praise of her peers. Madonna went visiting with flowers, seeking Peggy’s blessing for her disco version of “Fever.”
And last May, k. d. lang, a fan since childhood, led a star-studded tribute at which Peggy was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Singers. Actually, the lady herself almost missed the party; her limo broke down, and Peggy (along with her pet pussy) had to be wheelchaired down Wilshire Boulevard. There’s a sweet picture of k.d. kneeling at the diva’s feet, one arm embracing Peggy and the wheelchair, while Peggy – swathed in mink and diamonds – clasps k.d.’s hand to her heart.
In one of her own compositions, “I Give It All to You,” Peggy parodies her star status. “How does it feel to be a legend?” she sings. “One moment while I feel.” Another song, “Ready to Begin Again” (by Leiber and Stoller), laughs at the aging process: “When my teeth are at rest in the glass by my bed / And my hair lies somewhere in a drawer.”
Donning her rings, pearls and pins, the singer is gradually rejuvenated: “I’m ready to begin again / Looking fresh and bright, I trust.”
How would Garland and Holiday have coped with their advancing years? “Retire? And wait for what?” has always been Peggy’s response. And when asked what keeps her going, the reply is swift and simple: “Vitamin pills… and prayer.”