Look at Me, I’m Peggy Lee

A new biography makes the “Fever” singer seem glamorous and pathetic all at once.

Illustration by Cece Bell.
Illustration by Cece Bell

Very late in Peggy Lee’s career, long after the Benny Goodman Band and “Fever” and Lady and the Tramp, she decided she wanted to do a one-woman musical. In his uneven new biography of the singer, Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee, James Gavin tells us that Lee certainly needed the money she’d hope to raise by it. (A similar scheme had just worked out very well for Lena Horne.) But, as much as she needed the money, Lee needed the audience. She needed the emotional high conferred by people ecstatic to be in the same room with her.

Unfortunately, Peg, the Musical, closed three days after it opened in December 1983.

The problem with the musical was that Lee was a little too naked onstage about her need to be loved. It was a one-woman show where she alternatively talked and sang, and the format did not suit her. Her tragedies, such as they were, were not compelling, or at least she did not tell them in a compelling way. “In addition to sacrificing introspection for inspirational homilies (‘God has never let me down’),” sniffed Frank Rich, who at the time was the New York Times’ lead drama critic, “the star regards her personal history from an omniscient and self-deifying perspective.” Lee was a great self-mythologizer, and one who’d given so many interviews by that point that she could perhaps be forgiven for confusing good press with good theater, in retrospect.

But then, the whole thing was cursed from the get-go by her insecurities. Gavin tells of a producer bringing Elizabeth Taylor to a backer’s audition, hoping her mere presence would “loosen [investor] purse strings.” The strategy was a sound one but it obviously implied to Lee that she needed a booster shot of glamour to make her life an appealing commercial project.

And as Lee began singing through the show, Taylor lit a cigarette. Lee “coughed lightly” to try to get Taylor to stop smoking. It didn’t work.

At that point, said Luce, “Peggy went ballistic. She slammed down the mike, with a resulting blast from the speakers. We all jumped.” Lee lurched to her feet, hissing: “I can’t sing when someone is blowing smoke in my face!” She stormed off. Bufman leapt up and chased after her. All eyes returned to an incredulous Taylor, as tense murmurs filled the room.

Lee would finish the audition, but it was an agreed-upon disaster. Her confidence in the project fatally wounded, the rest of the process would see her oscillate between extreme self-aggrandizement and explosive temper. She kept trying to introduce her own verse into the ever-changing script, but even then could not remember her lines. The production staff became frustrated with her and mocked her appearance. (Gavin has them passing notes like, “SHE LOOKS LIKE TRUMAN CAPOTE IN DRAG.”)

But on closing night, she said to a full house, “I love it here, I wanted to stay.”

Gavin’s biography positions the disaster of the entire affair as the fault of Lee’s eccentricities and difficult temper—this is a biography written by someone who is very uncomfortable with the mercury in his subject—but it feels like he misses the pathos in the middle of it, the part where someone so celebrated is in possession of almost no self-esteem at all.

Contrast that disaster, after all, with the fact that the central feature of Peggy Lee’s singing is control. And by that, I don’t simply mean the way she could hold an audience’s attention. For one thing, she sang at relatively low volume. Like a number of other singers, Lee benefitted from the use of microphones; belting was no longer a required skill to be heard over the band. “Fever,” inarguably her most famous track, is mostly purred. Even the small, exclaimed “fever!” lines are not terribly loud. All of her singing testifies in favor of “less is more.”

But the seductive qualities of her voice were often related to that control, too. It let her appear to be holding something back, to adopt that woman-of-mystery pose. She sang like someone people should want to know more about, but like someone who would not, necessarily, answer their questions. Sometimes she presented herself as someone who didn’t even like to talk about herself. She did her most haunting work on lyrics like those in “Is That All There Is?, where the speaker adopts a performative indifference to the tragedies she sees behind her:

If that’s all there is my friends
Then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

There is, of course, no doubt that Lee’s style was not quite inborn. Early in her career, she, like any budding artist, imitated the artists she admired, sometimes to the point of them no longer finding it flattering. Gavin attributes some of her early singing style to Bing Crosby. And he notes that Billie Holiday, who came to know Lee a little, allegedly had to have a line excised from her biography: “She stole every goddamn thing I sing.”

Yet Gavin has curiously little to say about how the politics of race play into that. Lee was, after all, a white woman singing in a genre that has gone down in popular musical history as being appropriated from black people. Perhaps he hesitates because Lee’s big break came when, in the early 1940s, she was picked up by the Benny Goodman band, and Benny Goodman had a reputation for wanting to better integrate his sets.

But it must have had some effect—even Gavin admits that one reason Peg, the Musical was less compelling than Lena Horne’s show was that, “whereas Horne’s show told the epic tale of a woman who had mirrored and influenced decades of social history, Lee’s story was essentially all about her.”

That seems like pretty nice, if wholly vague, way of putting it, actually.

But even setting aside the racial politics, Lee had an extraordinary streak of luck in her rise to stardom. She simply began singing professionally at the age of 16 and never stopped. First a radio station picked her up, then a Fargo dinner club, then the Benny Goodman Band, and solo records followed close upon. Though she claimed all her life to be worried about money it seemed like something always came through; she got less than the normal amount of rejection one expects to encounter in any artist’s biography.

Her fans were always numerous, and always loyal. Her ascent from nightclub singer to phenomenon had few rocks. From the beginning she was inspiring headlines like “Stranding of Youngsters Blamed on Pop Corn and Peggy Lee” in the 1950 Hartford Courant. When she decided to do a film, Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), she was immediately nominated for an Oscar for her performance.

Author James Gavin.

Photo courtesy Michael Childers

Lee’s story wasn’t without obstacles, though. The problem was that they were mostly internal. Born Norma Egstrom in South Dakota in 1920 to a mother who would die by the time Lee was 4, she clearly grew up in a chaotic household. Her father had steady work as a railroad engineer, but he married a woman named Min whom young Norma clearly considered something of a wicked stepmother. Tales of Min’s abuse pop up in Lee’s confessional interviews for the rest of her life, and form a central part of Peg and Lee’s rather self-serving autobiography.

Poor Gavin spends a lot of time trying to sort truth from fiction about these stories. But parsing that seems a waste of time for a woman whose penchant for self-mythology was so acute. The image of herself as somehow under siege is the key to empathizing with her. It poisoned four marriages. It made her the kind of friend who clung to you one minute and slammed the door in your face the next. It made her complain that she was not given proper credit for the lyrics to “Fever” while simultaneously refusing to give credit to another co-writer. It made her feel like her legal battles—which included a famous, precedent-establishing lawsuit over her songwriting in Lady and the Tramp—were biblical struggles. And it made her the sort of person who could not handle the possibility of being overshadowed by Elizabeth Taylor.

Point being: In many ways Lee got such a good run on this Earth, and her anxiety would not let her stop to see or enjoy it.

Her body itself became a reflection of that. All her life Lee suffered from both psychosomatic illnesses and real ones. Some were induced by alcohol and drug use, but also by the exhaustion of performing and the strain of singing so much.

A 1952 interview in the Los Angeles Times found her offering advice on weight loss, adopting the “right attitude,” the importance of using a cosmetic brush to unclog your pores. And then at the bottom of the article an offer was made to readers:

With the holidays ahead, it is wise to think of your figure. If you would like a copy of Peggy Lee’s favorite diet and her exercises send a STAMPED, self-addressed envelope to Lydia Lane, care of The Times, Los Angeles 53.

Gavin has an irritating way of imitating the press obsession with Lee’s appearance, carefully noting every time Lee’s curves waxed and waned. But he is not misrepresenting the way in which it threaded through her life as a celebrity. “You are thinner than when I saw you last,” a reporter actually records herself saying to Lee in the Los Angeles Times in 1959. You have to keep in mind that she was, literally, the inspiration for Miss Piggy, not quite the flattering gesture one dreams of receiving from one’s public.

So if by the end of her life, as Gavin records, Lee was caking herself in makeup and going on crash diets and staying in bed, it is not hard to understand why. What he finds “strange” is hard not to see as actually the result of a life spent depending on the good opinions of other people. And those never come either as easily or as unqualifiedly as you’d hope.

Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee by James Gavin. Atrium.

See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.
Sign up for the 
Slate Book Review monthly newsletter.