Peggy Lee versus the world: the incredible life of the most feared lady in show business

Peggy Lee in 1970 - Getty
Peggy Lee in 1970 - Getty

Peggy Lee was one of Truman Capote’s favourite singers, but the celebrated novelist got more than he bargained for when he dined with her in Los Angeles in 1979. The singer told him about all the times she had been reincarnated, claiming she’d had previous lives as a princess, an Abyssinian queen and, most startlingly, the revelation that, “I remember being a prostitute in Jerusalem when Jesus was alive.”

“Oh really,” Capote replied. “How do you remember?”

“I’ll never forget picking up The Jerusalem Times and seeing the headline ‘Jesus Christ Crucified’,” Lee answered, with a straight face. When the singer stepped out to use the lavatory, Capote turned to fellow diner Dotson Rader and said, “She’s totally bonkers”.

Nearly two decades after her death, Lee still has a legion of high-profile fans. Debbie Harry had signed up to sing at a special ‘Miss Peggy Lee at 100’ concert at the Hollywood Bowl in August celebrating the centenary of Lee’s birth on 26 May, a show now cancelled because of coronavirus. Although there is no doubting Lee’s songwriting talent and vocal brilliance, as well as her indefatigable courage in taking on huge corporations such as Disney in the courts, it’s clear her life resembles a lunatic circus at times.

Lee’s life began in a strange, sad way. She was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in small-town North Dakota in 1920, and was just four when her 39-year-old mother Selma died. Her alcoholic father Marvin married a cruel, fairytale-like stepmother called Min. Lee told Capote that Min stabbed her in the stomach with a kitchen knife. In later television interviews, Lee said her childhood was “like a boot camp”, where “brutal beatings became a way of life”.

There are accounts of Min telling the youngster that she was fat, and that her hands were too big, but Lee’s biographer James Gavin casts doubt on the stories of violence. “Peggy had her head in the clouds. She whipped up a Cinderella-like fantasy world in which she hid from reality,” Gavin told Jazz Times in 2014. “Peggy painted Min as a Dickensian ogre who had beaten and tortured her. I found strong reason to doubt the charges of physical abuse.”

Whatever the truth, there is no doubt that her miserable upbringing ignited a fierce determination to escape North Dakota, fuelling a lifelong pursuit of success and wealth. As a teenager, Lee was devoted to the jazz concerts Count Basie broadcast live from Kansas City. She began singing for WDAY Radio in Fargo at 14, earning one dollar for each programme. Ken Kennedy, who worked for the station, persuaded her to change her name to Peggy Lee.

In 1937, she left for Los Angeles and her first job was bizarre: she worked as a carnival ‘barker’ on a “hit the wino with the baseball” stall. Eventually, she landed some singing jobs in nightclubs around north America, which led to her big break. In 1941, legendary bandleader Benny Goodman discovered Lee singing in the cocktail lounge of the Ambassador West Hotel in Chicago and asked her to join his band.

Peggy Lee performing in 1952 - AP
Peggy Lee performing in 1952 - AP

In the next two years, Lee and Goodman had a No1 hit with Somebody Else Is Taking My Place which was followed by the million-selling Why Don’t You Do Right? Lee also had hits with It’s a Good Day, I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good, Blues in The Night and Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me), one of more than 200 songs she wrote during her career.

Although Goodman was notoriously stingy – he paid Lee only $10 for singing Why Don't You Do Right? – she always credited him for his decisive role in her success, often showing visitors her home and telling them “in a way, Benny gave me all this”. The girl who had grown up in a home with no electricity and no inside toilet was able to upgrade to a mansion with chandeliers and marble floors.

Even as a multimillionaire, however, she fretted about money every day – and stewed over lost revenue she believed to be rightfully hers. In 1989, for example, she was still angry over missing out on royalties for her 1958 hit Fever. “I wrote special lyrics for Fever and I wasn’t copyrighted. I advise all young songwriters, copyright your song,” she said.

Peggy Lee in the 1950s - getty
Peggy Lee in the 1950s - getty

Lee had a point. She made so much money for Capitol Records in the 1950s, that their lavish circular headquarter building in LA was jokingly known as “the house that Peggy built”. Lee was also a talented actress. Dragnet's Jack Webb cast Lee as the remorseful alcoholic cabaret singer Rose in the 1955 movie Pete Kelly's Blues, a role for which she earned an Oscar nomination.

As a lyricist, Lee gained global fame for her contributions to Disney’s 1955 film Lady and the Tramp, with songs such as It’s a Good Day, I Love Being Here with You and I’m Gonna Go Fishin’, the latter co-composed with Duke Ellington. She was asked by Walt Disney to voice several characters, including Darling, the Siamese cats Si and Am and a stray Pekingese called Peg. Lee also co-wrote the hit song He’s a Tramp with Sonny Burke. In April 2020, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers initiated the Peggy Lee Songwriter Award in her honour.

Disney paid Lee $3,500 for her work but she decided to take legal action when no money was forthcoming when the film became a bestselling video release three decades later. In 1991, she sued the corporation for unpaid royalties, citing a clause in her original contract about transcription royalties for radio productions. The LA Times, reporting on her David and Goliath battle, said Lee sat quietly near the jury box in a wheelchair, a consequence of a fall in which she had broken her pelvis. “I’ve almost got a law degree out of reading all the legal papers,” she joked. Lee won the case and was awarded $2.3million.

Peggy Lee in 1941 - Bettmann
Peggy Lee in 1941 - Bettmann

Lee’s reputation as fearsome litigator had previously played a part in the history of The Muppets. Throughout her career, Lee insisted on the full title Miss Peggy Lee at concerts – she once upbraided a British jazz musician for introducing her as plain Peggy Lee – and her reputation for bossiness was well known within the entertainment industry.

When Bonnie Erickson designed and built Miss Piggy in 1974 for an early Muppets TV special produced by Jim Henson, she had Lee in mind. “My mother lived in North Dakota where Peggy Lee sang on the local radio station before she became a famous jazz singer,” Erickson told The Smithsonian magazine in 2008.

The puppet was referred to as Miss Piggy Lee at first – a name used in the 1977 Muppet Annual released in the UK – and the pig diva sang with jazz musician Herb Alpert on a rendition of I Can’t Give You Anything but Love in an early episode. “When I first created the puppet, I called her Miss Piggy Lee – as both a joke and an homage. As Piggy's fame began to grow, nobody wanted to upset Peggy Lee, so the Muppet's name was shortened to Miss Piggy,” added Erickson.

There are numerous reports that Lee threatened to sue unless the name Miss Piggy Lee was altered. In 2018, at a Women of the Muppets conference at the Centre for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Erickson confirmed that lawyers had been involved in changing the name. “The legal department decided her name might not be considered a compliment. And it was shortened to Miss Piggy,” Erickson revealed.

Miss Piggy is a controlling prima-donna and Lee’s detractors believed the singer shared those traits. Jerry Leiber, who co-wrote the sublimely fatalistic Is That All There Is? – which won Lee a Grammy award for Best Female Vocal Performance in 1970 and sparked a comeback – loved Lee’s voice but described her as "a pain in the ass”. Lee’s biographer Gavin said his subject was “an utter narcissist”.

Problems with excessive drinking and pill-popping – especially Valium – began to take their toll in the 1970s, a period when her personal beliefs evolved in unusual ways. She became a devotee of a quasi-New Age organisation called the Divine Science church, telling pals “this is what I have been looking for”. She gave copies of the spiritual instruction book Letters of the Scattered Brotherhood to numerous friends and went on television to extol the theory that “we are a collective one… I think there is only one intelligence and we are part of it and we use that mind”. She told Johnny Carson about her out-of-body experiences.

Charitable viewers could sense that Lee was a damaged, vulnerable human being, something that Goodman may have discerned back in the 1940s. According to Lee, “Benny gave orders that none of the musicians were to come near me”. That didn’t stop the amorous attentions of guitarist Dave Barbour, who was 30 when he began an affair with 22-year-old Lee. They married in 1943 and she described him as “the greatest love of my life”. Barbour was an alcoholic, who would sit in their home feeding bourbon to her goldfish, and their marriage foundered soon after the birth of daughter Nicki Lee Foster in 1943.

Peggy Lee in 1970 - Getty
Peggy Lee in 1970 - Getty

The singer was divorced four times in all, with three other very brief marriages to actors Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin, and a bongo-player from Las Vegas called Jack Del Rio. "They weren't really weddings, just long costume parties," Lee said.

Holly Foster-Wells admitted that her famous grandmother “had a very spicy life” and told a podcast interviewer that Lee had an affair with Frank Sinatra (“they were personally involved… every now and then things would come together,” Lee’s granddaughter added). Lee also had flings with the actor Robert Preston and her musical director Quincy Jones.

Gavin includes a story in his biography Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee about the time the singer got so drunk waiting for Jones that she made herself up in black face, before passing out. It must have been a disturbing sight when Jones found her in this peculiar state.

Lee also had a three-month affair in the 1960s with an English journalist called Patrick Skene Catling, who was writing a weekly jazz column for Punch at the time. She met him in London and took him to Monte Carlo as her interpreter. He lived with her for a time in Beverly Hills, but finally bailed out when she suggested they flee to Mexico and get married that day. “She had told all her hangers-on about this, but she had neglected to tell my wife,” Skene Catling recalled. “I resisted Peggy Lee's advancements and ran away.”

Peggy Lee with her former lover Frank Sinatra
Peggy Lee with her former lover Frank Sinatra

Her backing musicians remember a woman who was demanding but also a fine anecdotist and joke-teller. Her closest friends remember a woman who loved cooking and spending time in her Japanese-style garden. But she did dwell on past failures. In 1983, she invested heavily in a solo autobiographical Broadway show called Peg, a stage musical that she thought would tell her side of the story about her life. Audiences and critics were put off by the self-pitying content, though, and Frank Rich, the New York Times reviewer, dismissed the production as “most likely to excite those who are evangelistically devoted to both Peggy Lee and God – ideally in that order”. Peg closed after four days.

Lee was a battler by nature, though, and kept going despite numerous health problems, including diabetes. In her final years, she was still troubled by the damage to her lungs from double pneumonia in the 1960s – she was sometimes reliant on a breathing apparatus she nicknamed ‘Charlie’ – and two years after the Peg disaster, she underwent four angioplasties and double-bypass heart surgery. In 1987, she suffered that broken pelvis from a serious fall in Las Vegas. “I haven’t been able to walk for a couple of years. It’s almost embarrassing. I have had so many surgeries and rare things wrong with me,” she told TV interviewer Steve Dunleavy in 1989.

By the time Gavin interviewed her in 1991, she was spending most of her time on her king-sized bed in California, spaced out on tranquilisers. She ventured out only for lucrative lounge bar gigs in New York and Las Vegas, where she put on large sunglasses and her trademark platinum blonde Cleopatra wig, becoming an icon for the gay community.

Her decline was a far cry from the popularity created by that wonderful soft, nuanced rhythmic voice, singing that attracted praise from Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Iggy Pop and Paul McCartney. André Previn described Lee’s timing as “the best of any singer – nothing short of perfect”. Only Billie Holiday seemed unimpressed. “She stole every god-damned thing I sang,” said the jazz genius.

In November 1998, Lee suffered a massive stroke, and was never able to speak again. She died after a heart attack on 21 January 2002, at the age of 81. Peggy Lee left behind more than 50 albums, containing some of the most bewitching music of the 20th century, with albums such as Black Coffee showcasing a performer of huge style and artistry.

Wonderful music often comes from personal unhappiness, something amply substantiated by Lee’s troubled, strange life. “The speed bumps in your life add character to your voice,” said Lee.