The death of Peggy Lee was a cruel nail in the coffin of good music, and a special loss to everyone who knew and loved her personally. We all had favorite songs from her 65 years in show business. I think mine was “Autumn in Rome,” a gorgeous ballad by Sammy Cahn and Paul Weston, recorded in 1954, that turned up on the flip side of the dreary “Johnny Guitar.” Peggy’s favorites were on the Capitol album The Man I Love , with her friend Frank Sinatra conducting lush arrangements by Nelson Riddle of classic standards like “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” and “My Heart Stood Still.” With eerie timing, it’s just been re-released on a double CD with If You Go , another treasured collection of ballads arranged by Quincy Jones. No Peggy Lee collection is complete without these two heart-stopping achievements that captured the height of her career.
And what a career it was. Rising from the obscurity of the North Dakota grain belt to the brightest center spots of the grandest stages in the world, she was unique enough to make imitation impossible–although a few drag queens have tried.
She never had the benefit of good health, but until the paralyzing stroke that rendered her lifeless in 1998, her sense of humor carried her through every storm like a raft. I will miss our late-night gossip in lavish New York hotel suites, the cool club dates in Vegas that lasted until she had sung them all, that honey-dripping voice that used to call me in the midnight hours from California and say, “Got one for you. Wanna hear it?” The jokes that followed were always bawdy, politically incorrect and hilarious. Most of all, I will miss the music: the fractured tempos, the flawless phrasing, the moonstruck honeysuckle in her haunted voice.
But Miss Peggy Lee, the singing icon who kept her public perking, was often a completely different person in private. Friends and musicians describe her as quirky, obsessive, demanding, stubborn, illogical, eccentric, driven by anger, tortured by a lack of love and strange to the point of madness. Of her four marriages that ended bitterly, she said the one to handsome movie star Dewey Martin was punctuated by so much abusive violence that she took to wearing a football helmet to the dinner table. Robert Richards, the noted artist and illustrator, once entered a disastrous business partnership with “Miss Peg” that required him to live in her home in Beverly Hills for a six-month period that is best described as an exotic season in purgatory. “She rarely left her bedroom, which was as cold as a meat locker. You would attend a business meeting at the foot of her bed. Your teeth would be chattering and she would be covered with feathers under a mountain of blankets. She was up all night, writing notes to herself with an assortment of pens and colored markers. Then she would wake at noon, or mid-afternoon, surrounded by piles of crushed papers on the bed–thoughts, musings, pieces of terrible song lyrics, poems, memos to ‘Send to Frank!’
“Once a boy was sent to install a water cooler in her bedroom. He was very sexy, hairy-chested with a mane of black hair, a Greek statue in a Hollywood tank top–right out of a porno flick. She said to me, ‘When he comes back, leave me alone with him.’ A few days later, he delivered more water. I retired to the kitchen. When the kitchen door opened, he stood there, looking … well, God knows what he had just been through. He said, ‘Is she the famous singer?’ I said yes. He said, ‘Boy, she sure has changed since she did “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”‘ He thought she was Brenda Lee.”
For a white chick who dug spirituals, she had an intensely developed sense of musical culture that made her the blackest of all the American singers–blacker than Ella, Sarah, Lena, everybody but Billie Holiday. The penniless girl born Norma Deloris Egstrom in 1920 in Jamestown, N.D., escaped the miseries of a depressing childhood through music, absorbed the blues and jazz influences of her youth–from Count Basie to Lil Green to Ray Charles–and took what she needed. She was talented and curious, and she knew where to shop.
The spare gestures, the curling lip, the raised eyebrow, the crooked smile–she got the style from Lady Day. Then she added the glamour. Think about it. “Unlike everyone else in show business,” says Mr. Richards, “she worked in reverse. She didn’t come out to her audience, you had to come to her . If you were sitting in the audience, you had to lean forward, inch by inch, straining your ears to catch every nuance, to get a little closer. That’s how she held you enthralled. When she took her bows, she extended her palms upward, like an outreach for acceptance. She was dynamic and hypnotic, yet always insecure, distancing herself from her audience at all times. It could be frustrating.”
She was a control freak who staged her own lighting (with a violent opposition to the color green), drew her own floor plans, supervised and choreographed her own movements–counting every click of the fingers on “Fever”–and gave club owners and hotel managers ulcers. In later years she grew litigious, threatening action against hotels and producers and record companies and spending enormous amounts of money and energy hiring and firing a squadron of lawyers. Then she would pepper her friends with Christmas cards, nonsense limericks and mash notes written on stationery adorned with her trademark logo–red lips and a black mole. She was an enigmatic sunflower of extreme contrasts, which is probably why she felt equally at home with every kind of song from “My Funny Valentine” to “Birmingham Jail.”
If she lost her temper, I never saw it. Once, at a birthday party for her daughter Nicki, she filled the urinals with pink ice and hired a trendy rock band that almost drove her into the swimming pool. “I could have had Sinatra, Crosby or the whole Kenton band,” she groused to me. “But Nicki insisted on the Undead Prunes, or the Unborn Pomegranates, or whatever they called themselves. They were so tone-deaf they couldn’t play ‘Happy Birthday.’ They didn’t know the changes.”
She corresponded with all sorts of surprising pen pals, from prison convicts to the Dalai Lama. The distinguished author Alexander Theroux recalls receiving a note hand-painted with a single nasturtium, with the message: “I like Respighi and Spaghetti and You.” It was signed “Peggy Lee and Baby.” Baby was a silver chinchilla cat she adored. She was addicted to an army of painkillers and the telephone. Every time she started to fall asleep in the middle of a long late-night call to me, and others, she would coo the words “Angels on your pillow,” then hang up. She hated the wicked stepmother who beat her with iron skillets when she was a child, and she told everybody horror stories about the legendary Benny Goodman. (“He had the I.Q. of a pencil.”)
Alexander Theroux loved those gossip sessions. “The love of her life was Robert Preston of The Music Man fame. She never got over her crush on him, ever . She wrote music for Johnny Cash, was flattered that Madonna wanted to re-record ‘Fever’…. She was a great mimic–could do Dinah Washington, Maxine Sullivan, any number of chanteuses, and of course a perfect, sweet, high-tweetie imitation of Billie Holiday, almost satirical, then kill you with her own rendition of the wistful ‘Strange Fruit.’ She disliked the Disney Corporation with a passion–it had refused her residuals on her work–and she could make fun of Michael Eisner’s porcine nose job without a hint of compunction.”
When she finally won a $2.3 million settlement over the unauthorized use of her songs for Lady and the Tramp , the movie industry applauded her guts and tenacity, although it took a great toll on her life.
She had worked the fields, shucked grain, milked cows and worked on the Midland Continental Railroad, too, before Benny Goodman discovered her singing on the radio at age 14. She made more than 700 recordings and then turned to acting, winning an Oscar nomination for Pete Kelly’s Blues . She made and lost a ton of money and became a lot of things to a lot of people. She wrote fables, songs, ballads, poems and even a ballet. She loved ice cream, jazz, Eastern religion, philosophy, animals and life.
When she died, at 81, she left a collage of memories. Of all the words assembled to describe the loss, a letter to me from Alexander Theroux sums it up eloquently: “I’ll never forget her smoky stare, that beauty spot just to the right of her full lips, her platinum (never ‘blonde’) hair. Pretty Norma Egstrom. Miss Peggy Lee. The Elegant One. She could flex a lyric like nobody else. She could drop a note blue as lapis. Finger-snap pokes at a given line. She was warm. She purred with a lazy, easy sound with the dra-a-a-gged-out moment. The sensuous way she slurred her words when she sang, that always reminds me of blowing wheat.”
Follow Rex Reed via RSS. email@example.com