Peggy Lee's Broadway Debut Was a Bust, but the Lady Has Lived Through Hard Times Before

UPDATED 01/09/1984 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/09/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

She has always been unique, ruling a musical territory as distinct as those of Lotte Lenya and Edith Piaf. So it is no surprise that Peggy Lee did not issue one of those regulation, 500-page aggrandizing confessionals called a celebrity autobiography. Instead, she brought her life story to Broadway in the form she knows best. Peg, which opened—and closed—last month, was a melodious mystery tour through the four decades of Lee's career and the personal agonies that have shadowed it. "I tried to do it as a book," she says, "but it came out too Scandinavian, full of despair and gloom. Doing it with songs made it more positive, and that's the whole idea."

But Peg's producers, discouraged by mixed reviews, folded the show after 13 previews and five performances. Lee is already viewing the setback with practiced calm. More fond of quoting literature than lyrics, she cites Emerson: "God will not have his work made manifest by cowards." At 63, Lee doesn't know the meaning of playing it safe; she made her Broadway debut as Peg's solo star, commanding the stage for more than two hours. There have been other one-woman musicals. Lena Horne: the Lady and Her Music was a smash, but it simply brought her nightclub act to the theater. Peg tried to be more, though critics were kinder to Lee's singing than to the show that surrounded it. "Peggy did an exciting thing," says her old friend, composer Cy Coleman. "She made a hybrid between a jazz musical and an intimate glimpse of an American original."

In the high-rise Manhattan apartment she has kept since Peg went into rehearsal last fall, the original relaxes in a favorite black pants suit. Delicate watercolors by her daughter, Nicki, decorate the glowing peach walls. Occupying most of the living room is a white grand piano, sent by co-producer Zev Bufman. "The press says the piano's a gift," Lee smiles, "but maybe it's just rented. When I head back to California, I'll probably find out."

The voice is still a velvet iceberg. The hazel eyes drift lightly over the floral arrangements, and the champagne blond hair is pulled tight to the head, emphasizing the beauty mark on her right cheek. Lee retains the laconic, self-mocking sexuality evident in hits such as Fever and I'm a Woman, a quality that still has the power to turn teenage boys into Silly Putty. "But I've come to that stage when I can look back and say, 'Ah, so that's why I did that, so that's why I felt that way.' Self-knowledge is comforting," she says.

There is much to consider. Lee is one of the few middle-of-the-roaders who has remained a salable artist for over four decades. She has worked with composers from Michel Legrand to Paul McCartney. The former Beatle gave her a song at a dinner party a few years ago, and Let's Love became the title tune of her 57th album, a total exceeded by only a few, including her pal Frank Sinatra. Lee is also a jazz legend. Duke Ellington, who knew his sophisticated ladies, dubbed her "the Queen." At her husband's request, Mrs. Louis Armstrong invited her to sing The Lord's Prayer at Satchmo's funeral. Says Peg director Robert Drivas: "She's simply the greatest white blues singer ever."

She is also a prolific songwriter, having turned out 59 albums and recorded 631 numbers to date, including Mariana in 1948, which sold 2.5 million copies. She began working up new material while singing with Benny Goodman's band in the early '40s. "We did eight shows a day at the Paramount in New York," she recalls, "and back then a vocalist mostly sat in a chair, tapped her feet and got up to sing a couple of verses now and then. So I started making up lyrics even while I sang."

She also had a brief but auspicious movie career, winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role in Jack Webb's 1955 jazz saga, Pete Kelly's Blues. "I loved acting," she says, "but my agents never brought me another script. I was worth a lot more to them on the road."

Back in harness at last as an actress, Lee found her latest role especially challenging. "Peg was the toughest part I've ever done," she says. "Playing yourself you have to control your emotions rather than get them up."

Although she refuses to talk about money, Lee is wealthy. Supplementing her royalties, she has done extensive behind-the-scenes film work and wrote the lyrics for the score of Walt Disney's Lady and the Tramp. She also did four of the voices, including that of a blond, slinky-hipped, beauty-marked dog named Peg. "Walt wanted to call her Mamie, bangs and all, back during the Eisenhower Administration," she recalls. "But he had a change of heart."

Behind the achievements, there is a little purring engine and a nagging desire for perfection. "Preparation is the key to the whole thing," says Lee. Gifted with superb hearing and an unearthly sense of pitch, she once stopped a band rehearsal because of an off-key cello note. "I'm in tune with the infinite," she told the musicians. "Figure out where that leaves you." Drummer Grady Tate, who has worked with her for nearly 20 years, says, "As one of her musicians, I do not have the privilege of being wrong." Lee is never without a dog-eared notebook recording details of 20 years of performances. She keeps track not only of every evening's program, but also the weather, her costume, even her nail-polish color. "Michelangelo said, 'Trifles make perfection and perfection is no trifle,' " she says.

A member in good standing of the Hollywood social scene, Lee lives in a sprawling hilltop home in Bel Air. Invitations to her famous New Year's Eve parties are honored by luminaries as various as Robert Mitchum and Alice Cooper. Among her close friends is Hollywood neighbor Cary Grant, who asked her to accompany him to his first recording session in 1967 when the shy film star crooned the lyrics to two of her songs, Christmas Lullaby and Here's to You. "It was a great honor," she says.

It all seems a long way from Jamestown, N.Dak., where Peggy was born Norma Deloris Egstrom. She was only 4 when her mother died and her father, a railroad station-agent, began wandering. Little Norma was consigned to the care of a stepmother who would have frightened the Grimm Brothers. "She poured boiling water on my hands when I did dishes and used the metal end of the razor strap for beatings," says Lee. "I've often wondered why so many great singers had so much grief and pain in their lives. I understand now that it's because the soul needs to be pressed down, tested in some way, to promote growth." Lee memorialized her stepmother in Peg's most astonishing song, a full-blown calypso number called One Beating a Day.

After high school Lee eventually escaped to Fargo. She heard new sounds on the radio: "race music" from Chicago, a singer named Mildred Bailey and a bandleader called Count Basie. Ken Kennedy, program director at WDAY in Fargo, auditioned her, changed her name to Peggy Lee and put her on Hayloft Jamboree as Freckle-Faced Gertie. After touring with bands and working concessions at a California carnival, she landed a job singing in a noisy Palm Springs jazz club, the Doll House. There the Lee style was forged. "In a moment of intense fear, I discovered the power of softness," she says. "I was thinking people didn't want to listen to me, so I'd just sing to myself. They immediately stopped talking." Her easy, one-octave crooning later prompted one critic to write, "Never has so much been delivered from so little." Says Lee, "I've been easy on my voice, it's true. That's why I'm still around. Vocal cords wear out. Besides, if you shout, you can't converse with your audience, and that's what I do best."

Her restraint was perfect for the homogenized swing of Benny Goodman, but the blandness got boring. "I listened to this blues record by Lil Green all the time and I think it made Benny nervous," says Lee. "He finally agreed to have an arrangement of it done." The tune, Why Don't You Do Right?, launched her career. But the fame almost faded before it began. Deeply in love with Goodman's handsome guitarist, Dave Barbour, Lee married him in 1943. She turned down offers to sing in favor of happy domesticity in their L.A. apartment. But Barbour's self-destructive drinking strained tolerance, especially after their daughter, Nicki, now 40, was born. "I kept blaming myself for his alcoholism and our failed marriage," she says, "and I finally understood what Sophie Tucker used to say—you have to have your heart broken at least once to sing a love song."

Three husbands followed—two actors and a bandleader—but all the marriages were short-lived. "They weren't really weddings," says Lee, "just long costume parties." Barbour stayed sober for 13 years after their divorce and was about to get back together with Lee in 1965, but before it could happen he died of a heart attack. "I was destroyed," Peggy says.

But her career was not. In 1960 she became "Miss" Peggy Lee, the female version of "Chairman of the Board." Her sellout appearances at New York's Basin Street East were jazz events. Such intellectual heavyweights as Albert Einstein and author Aldous Huxley autographed books for her, and in 1970 she was invited to perform at the White House for Richard Nixon and his guests, President and Mme. Pompidou of France. That same year Lee won a Grammy for the haunting Is That All There Is? Although her plaintive delivery made its message ambiguous, the song, intended to be optimistic, became instead an anthem for the terminally depressed and the chemically despondent. It engendered letters to editors and Sunday sermons complaining about the lack of hope and faith in contemporary society. She is still touchy on the subject and answered her critics musically in Peg. The show's final song: There's More.

Lee's spiritual convictions grew partly out of a catalog of medical tribulations that would provide a year of fodder for General Hospital. "If I weren't so healthy, I'd be dead," she says. A diabetic, she has been plagued for years by weight and glandular problems. In the late '60s a severe thyroid condition threatened to compress her vocal cords. Fortunately, it improved without surgery. "Prayer helped a lot," she says. "I've seen a miracle or two in my time."

She had needed one earlier, in 1961, when she was stricken with double pneumonia during a New York club engagement. "I came so close I saw through the veil," she says. "It stopped my fear of death forever." Although she quit smoking and obeyed doctor's orders to take extra rest, Lee had to travel with a respirator she dubbed Charlie. "I guess I didn't want people to know I was mortal," she says. She kept one machine at the club and another in her hotel room, "so people wouldn't find out I had to use it."

In 1976 a near-fatal fall in a New York hotel left Lee temporarily blind, unable to stand and partially deaf. "I started thinking about my life then," she says. "When you can't see and can't walk, it sort of gets your attention. I realized then that since I was 5, I had been looking for something that seemed missing from my life. It was my mother."

As her sight returned, Lee began working on her autobiography, a labor that culminated with Peg's opening curtain. She is still not completely recovered, and had to sit through much of her performance.

Since Peg folded, Lee's spiritual view of life has supported her. "I've been trying to figure out," she says, her eternal lassitude intact, "what I'm supposed to learn from it." The answer seems to lie in activity. She and Cy Coleman are planning to re-stage Peg and record an album of the show. "Retiring doesn't interest me," she says. "I've got ideas for other shows and film scripts stacked up and waiting. After all, intelligence conquers age. My slogan is straight ahead. And straight up."

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