COLUMN SIXTY-NINE, MARCH 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 Al Aronowitz)
MISS PEGGY LEE
PEGGY LEE DURING HER HEYDAY
[Norma Dolores Egstrom didn't have the happiest childhood. Her mother died when she was 4. When her railway agent father remarried, Norma suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her new stepmother. A born singer, Norma started out in her school glee club and in the church choir. Still a teenager, she got a job at a radio in station in Fargo, N.D., where the station manager changed Norma Dolores Egstrom's name to Peggy Lee. When Benny Goodman heard her sing, he hired her and her career took off.
Peggy Lee was 52 when she gave me the following interview. Like Mimi in La Boh?me, she was dying. She had to travel around with an oxygen tank in her hotel suite. But she kept on gigging and it wasn't until 29 years later that she heard the Angels singing out her name.
Oh, and by the way. I postponed hearing the angels sing out for me by quitting smoking myself.]
Peggy Lee smoked her first cigarette when she was
14. Born Norma Dolores Egstrom in Jamestown, N.D., the seventh of eight
children, she was singing for 50 cents a night with Doc Haines and his
Orchestra, a band of students working
their way through college doing one-nighters in
North Dakota. It was 1934 and she thought she was terribly sophisticated.
Doc Haines and his buddies, she was a cute little
girl with precocious vocal chords and
they treated her like a baby sister. One night a member of the band told her
that if she smoked a cigarette before she went onstage, she wouldn't be so
nervous. It wasn't Doc Haines who told her that because Doc Haines was an
athlete and didn't smoke.
liked the idea of not only being allowed to such a grownup thing but
of being encouraged to do it. She still remembers her first puff, although she
isn't too clear about what it did for her stage fright.
was so busy coughing,"
she, says, 'that I guess I forgot to be nervous."
the way it is with compulsive smokers. Like junkies, they always remember the first
time. Is there any addiction worse than cigarettes?
To a smoker, it's easier to cold turkey heroin than the smoker's favorite brand. Not
that Peggy Lee ever had a really heavy habit. She says she never did more than
two packs a day---although she talks about the times she looked at all the
Raleigh coupons she collected and shuddered at the thought of what she must also
have collected in her lungs.
she says, "I used to light more cigarettes then I smoked. Like you---when
you write it's a habit. You light one up, lat it down in the ash tray and it
burns itself out while you type."
know Peggy was a writer, too, did you? For years, she's been working on songs,
on scripts, on stories. She's a
member of the Writers? Guild of America, and in the bedroom where I am talking
to her, an electric portable is on the desk with a half-typed sheet of paper in
are in her suite on the 36th floor of the Waldorf Towers amid the palace decor
that is homey enough for presidents, kings and prime ministers when they come to
New York. Herbert Hoover used to live in the Waldorf Towers. Is there a railroad
baron or an oil millionaire who hasn't stayed at the Waldorf?
are the kinds of people you find in Peggy's audiences these days. I mean that
isn't a Riker's downstairs in the Empire Room, where Peggy has just finished
her second show of the evening and has changed into a flouncy
likes large, flouncy things. Onstage, she had worn a large, flouncy chiffon
gown, all in white and with ruffles. I tell her about the Indians who had been
sitting at the table in front of me, with one of them acting like his bank
account came from a gusher he had fond beneath his tepee. He wore a business
suit and his wife wore a gown, but they were there with another Indian couple
who came dressed right from the souvenir stand outside the reservation. I mean
the only thing missing from their regalia were the feathers in their
headwaiter said one of them was a friend of Marlon Brando, but I couldn't
distinguish whether Marlon's friend was Chief Business Suit or the Indian
Brave. They were both lushed enough to get the staid Waldorf busted for selling
firewater to Redskins and while the Brave wearing the wampum beads kept nodding
out, Chief Business Suit would stand up, walk around his table, cup his hand to
his mouth and give out with war whoops for Peggy.
Oh, she's a pro, all right, gliding out in her. fancy white gown, twirling her ruffles to the fanfare of the 21-piece orchestra behind her, the beauty of the
what Billy Holiday
was all about
years still painted on her face. She
was always up there with the best of them, in it as much for the music as for
the cash, always a beat ahead of the times, but not too far ahead
to be pegged as a nut. She was one
of the pioneers among white girl jazz singers and not just satisfied to be
grouped with the Doris Days.
Commercial? You could
tell that she would endure, maybe the only standard bearer of blonde soul for
anyone to dare mention in the same breath with Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughn.
Like Frank Sinatra, Peggy understood what Billie Holiday was all about. Isn't Fever
still a classic?
At the Empire Room, she
sang James Taylor's Fire and Rain, George Harrison's My Sweet
Lord, Carole King's I Feel the Earth Move and a medley of her own
hits, Why Don't You Do Right, Is That All There Is? And Fever.
She recited poetry by
Carl Sandburg and Lois Wyse and she asked for requests.
you're beautiful, you're beautiful!" she told the crowd. She sang Sing
a Rainbow and she sang I Love Being Here With You. She sang like a
bitch! All in all, she was onstage an hour and 10 minutes. She sang 17 songs and
an encore, not bad for a lady of 52 who has to travel with an oxygen tank.
In the bedroom of her
suite afterwards, propped up on a pillow in her black kaftan with a glass of
Poland water in her hand and with the oxygen tank right next to her bed, she
know I want to talk about it.
I ask her it it's all
right for me I to smoke and she answers that the tank is shut off. I pull
out a Winston and she starts puffing on a plastic cigarette that has a menthol
"I had pneumonia
again," she explains. 'they said in no uncertain terms, "You will NOT
smoke again," and I understood it. It was a question of "do you want to live
or go?? I want to live."
Sitting in her bedroom and looking at her painted
face, still made up for the spotlight, I test myself to see if I resent the
falseness of a woman ravaged by so many years and so many problems trying so
hard to look as young as she used to.
But there are no airs about Peggy Lee. There are no
grandiose attempts at pomp and vanity. There are no hints of icy ugliness behind
I test myself and find her to be
as warm and as real as an older sister, even if we are in one of the poshiest
suites in the Waldorf Towers. I
mean, phone the Waldorf, and does the operator answer, "Waldorf Astoria,
of President Herbert Hoover?"
The operator answers and says, "Waldorf Astoria, home of Peggy Lee."
"Many people think that I have I emphysema,?
she says, "and I do not. However, they use a machine similar to that for
emphysema," and she motions toward the oxygen tank at her bedside, equipped
with a device to inject steam into the oxygen.
"It's only 40 per cent oxygen and 50 per cent
air. If you had to take it for
extended periods of time, the oxygen would atrophy the lungs. That's the reason for the steam. I'm really terrible. I
think of all kinds of sick jokes, but I won't tell you any because you're
writing it down. I would, but I
think of all the sick people. For
them, it's not very funny. I can
laugh at myself but I can never laugh at them.
"The combination of oxygen, air and steam
amounts to exercising the lung. I'm
supposed to do it four times a day for 20 minutes at a time. I'm doing it three
times a day now and getting along very well with it.
If I didn't sing about 20 songs, if I was just sitting around the
house, I could skip it here and there. But
It m not supposed to skip it.
"I've had this with me since 1961, and it's not
news at all. I really do think of
it as not much more than wearing glasses. However,
I respect it and I'm grateful. Really, isn't it wonderful that mankind invents
things like that. Some years back, a lot of people wouldn't be walking around
like they are today."
takes a sip of her Poland water and asks if, later on, I'd care to join her in a
vodka nightcap. She apologizes for the disarray, as if she, too, is still awed
by the grandeur of the Waldorf, hardly the place you'd expect to find an oxygen
tank and an exercising machine in the bedroom. The exercising machine is a Walton electric bicycle that can
also be used for rowing or swimming exercises.
"Working as hard as I do," she says, "it's almost like being an athlete. You need to be very healthy. That a why I ride this little bicycle. It's rather a humorous thing to do, but it's also very helpful. I do it 10 minutes at a time
She remembers Benny Goodman coming in to hear her sing as the biggest thing in her life
several times a day. This has more power to it than
you realize, and you can wind up with many charley horses. I once overdid it and
I found out."
Like, she says, it's no news that she almost died in
1961. Eleven years later, and she's still a star, still an attraction, still a
voice. She talks about the very
beginning when she wasn't even into her teens, singing with church glee clubs
and at PTA meetings. She remember
getting a job as a thrush in the Buttery Room at the Ambassador Hotel in Chicago
and she still talks about Benny Goodman coming into hear her there as if it was the biggest
thing that happened in her life. She
puffs on her plastic cigarette and I puff on my Winston.
"I feel so good about it, not smoking I
mean," she says. "And I
made up my mind that if anyone smoke around me, it was not going to bother me
and I was hot going to preach to anyone, and that made it easier for me to
In 1961, she came down with double pm pneumonia and
pleurisy and she was on the critical list for several days.
"I was overworking, traveling around a
lot," she says. "I'd go
out and forget to put on a coat. It
was just stupid little things, like forgetting to take Vitamin C, all those
little things they tell you to do, and they're right.
In "61, I was in London and I had walking pneumonia, either walking
pneumonia or I'm very stubborn. It's
really very hard to talk about. I've
always been reticent about talking about my illnesses too much, except for
believing that maybe someone else who is ill might overcome it believing someone
"In "61, 1 thought I had the flu.
I coughed a lot, went to France, coughed a lot more, came home and it
just wouldn't go away. The way we live, traveling, not doing the things that we
should do to be healthy, it's no wonder it happened. I came back home to New
York and I think I was staying in this very same hotel suite. I was performing in Basin St. East. I went to bed one evening with a severe pain around the
chest. The next day I found it very
difficult to breathe. I called my
doctor. He put me right into the hospital.
He listened to my chest and heard a rumble. I think they call it a "rowl," an unfriendly sound in the
"I went in an ambulance and the whole thing.
I didn't know I was that ill and I always remember how nice the ambulance
attendants were. But the whole
thing embarrassed me. It's
embarrassing to get sick and put everyone through all that trouble. I stayed
seven months in bed and then they put me an this machine and I got my strength
back and went to work again., It was this machine that kept me going, but I
tried to hide it. I didn't want
anyone I a to know about this machine. I
didn't think it was very glamorous at a11 and I still don't.
But it was like trying to hide a Mack truck.
I was very faithful to this machine and I still am.
I think the second attack Would
more serious had I not had this marvelous machine."
Peggy Lee spent Thanksgiving of 1961 in Polyclinic,
does anyone realize he or she has had enough until he or she has had more
was terrible then," she says. "After
I started getting better, I would lock myself in the bathroom and smoke.
She gets up from her king-size Waldorf Astoria bed
and invites me back into the sitting room for the vodka nightcap.
Her manager, Brian Panella, and her press agent, John Springer, are
talking there. Peggy pours us the
drinks. She worked 35 weeks on the
road last year.
"It's the way we live," she says,
"traveling, not doing the things that one should do to be healthy. We live
as normally as we can. We try to eat a good, healthy, balanced diet and once we're
settled in we get eight hours' sleep. Sometimes
that means breakfast might be at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, but that's just a
state of mind. It's still the first
meal of the day."
She talks about November. Everything bad happens to her in November. It was November when she got sick again this last time. Ten years later, and she was back in the hospital on Thanksgiving. She remembers trying to give her recipe
of a sudden,
she went to take a second breath and it wasn't there
roast turkey to the cook over the telephone.
Or barely remembers it. Her
manager, Brian Panella, jokes about how it tasted more like roast duck by
the time it got out of the oven. Brian
visited her every day in the hospital and even when she got out she didn't
remember having seen him there once.
was the same silly reasons," she says. "Overworking and traveling and
going from one climate to another. We
were in New Orleans and we had just opened and received beautiful notices and
then we closed. I went in to sing the second night and all of
a sudden I went
to take a second breath
and it wasn't
there. It was really kind of humorous, if you haye a sick sense of humor.
came off for the second bow and on the way into the wings, Brian was saying,
'Cut the show! Cut the show! Cut the show! Cut
I said,'Where?' Brian said, "Do Pete Kelly's Blues and get off," and
I said, "I can't. I've got to do "Ever? and I went back out.
Meanwhile I had a fever already.
"I got thousands of letters. They wanted me in the
hospital there in New Orleans. But my daughter was leaving for Europe that day.
I don't know what that had to do with it, because when I got to L.A., I went
straight from the airport to the hospital. I had a beautiful suite. It was down
the hall from Barbara Stanwyck. But I never heard of such a thing. I had this
big, beautiful suite but I couldn't have any visitors. For 12 days I had
to have nurses around the clock. It was pneumonia again."
Peggy kicked the cigarette habit cold turkey. Oh,
she has other restrictions on what she can do now. She doesn't go sight'seeing
any more, or partying. She sticks pretty close to her hotel suite and her oxygen
machine and doesn't move around too much, except in the line of business. Back
home in California she relaxes by painting and sculpting and sometimes takes a
drive up to Big Sur to revive her inspiration. But whatever breath she has left,
she saves it for singing.
After her stay in the hospital, she had to keep to
her house for 10 weeks. The doctors came to see her every day. She was supposed
to do the Carole Burnett Show and when the doctors wouldn't let her, Carole
rescheduled the show. Peggy finally
did it late in December. Her first road date was last February when she played
one night at the opening of the new Playboy Hotel in Great Gorge, N.J. The
doctors just wanted to see what working again would do to her.
The showroom at the hotel held 700.
Another 700 were turned away.
The rest of the year is booked solid for Peggy. She
has been playing the Empire Room at the Waldorf since 1969, and this is her
first extensive engagement since her illness.
But then New York has always been her favorite town, the place where
excitement grows instead of trees. Peggy hasn't seen too much of New York this
trip, except the excitement she creates around her. But she's working again. I
suppose she's the kind of lady who would like her dying breath to be in the
middle of a song.
She puffs on her plastic cigarette and pours another
I said." She tells me, "I wouldn't want to talk about it, except that
I realize it might be important for someone else who is ill, that it might help
for someone else to know. It's not
really very glamorous."
time to go and she gets my coat and sees me to the door.
I go down the elevator with John Springer.
The maintenance staff is vacuuming the lobby. Outside on Park Av., I hail
a cab. Driving away, I light up another
The Waldorf Astoria, home of Miss Peggy Lee. ##
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