Wednesday, April 29, 2015


            What a Lovely Way to Burn
New Bio Reveals the Talented, Tortured Character of Peggy Lee
by Don Stradley   

Show business history is rampant with stories of talented entertainers who were unbearable offstage. In James Gavin’s engrossing new book, Is That All There is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee, we get a detailed look at one of the most talented and unbearable of them all. But despite her disastrous personal life and prickly personality, Peggy Lee comes off as an impressive figure. While dealing with crumbling marriages, health problems, addictions, and the sort of paranoia that should have landed her in an asylum, she still managed the phenomenal accomplishment of recording hit songs in four different decades.

The challenge in writing a biography of Lee is that she was turning barmy before she was 40, which means most of Gavin’s 500-plus page bio is spent describing Lee in a kind of disturbed freefall. He opens the story in 1999, just a few years before Lee’s death at 81, when he interviewed her by phone. Lee, blissed out on tranquilizers, spoke to him as she did to most visitors: from a large, fluffy bed, like a giant porcelain doll surrounded by pillows. As someone mentions in the book, only a person from a very poor background would maintain such a Hollywood fantasy of success.

Lee's Depression era upbringing in North Dakota was compounded by losing her mother at age four. There was little love to be found in the company of her alcoholic father and brutal stepmother, but Lee (born Norma Deloris Egstrom) found comfort in performing. Even at a young age, she could cast a spell over her listeners. More than one person noted that Lee seemed to have an almost supernatural hold over people. "I saw what she could do to an audience," recalled a friend, Phoebe Jacobs. "That's not just talent. It's gotta come from something else."

Lee made a career out of bucking the odds and doing the unexpected. Her voice was small, yet she scored hits during the roaring big band era. She was a white woman from America's Great Plains region, yet found some of her greatest successes while singing to Latin flavored beats. When rock and roll threatened to make her irrelevant, she stepped into a studio at 40 and recorded 'Fever”' the sauciest hit of her career. In the early 1970s, when commercial radio offered upbeat pap to help America recover from the turbulent 1960s, she won a Grammy for 'Is That All There Is?' perhaps the most cynical song to ever top the charts.

Gavin balances Lee's creative highs with chapters about her troubled private life. She ached for the kind of love she sang about, but was given to quickie marriages to insubstantial men. Alleged affairs with Frank Sinatra and Quincy Jones amounted to nothing. She grew reliant on pills and alcohol, and was abusive to those around her. She was a control freak, known for telling great big lies. Lee's daughter Nicki seemed like a sad figure, too, enlisted in her adult years to look after her increasingly unstable mother.

In all, Gavin gives us a Peggy Lee who is slightly crazed, but always capable of one more great song or concert appearance. It’s as if the Bette Davis character in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane was, deep down, a brilliant actress. "Lee sang," Gavin writes, "and all was forgiven."

In her heyday, Lee was sometimes derided for her sexed-up persona, an image that distracted from her considerable talent. Not only could the woman swing like Billie Holiday, she was also a playful lyricist who wrote several songs for Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, and a good enough actress to earn rave reviews for her role in Pete Kelly’s Blues. She had a way of interpreting a song that made it seem incredibly personal, luring listeners in with her hushed, almost secretive delivery. As Gavin wrote, "Whether or not the story had happened to her, she could make an audience feel that it had."

Gavin tells more than Lee’s story. He also frames her life within the styles and trends of the time, presenting each of her triumphs as the work of a massive underdog struggling to be heard. Gavin obviously has a strong admiration for Lee's music, and is at his best when describing the sessions for her various albums. He pays special attention to people like Nelson Riddle, whose string arrangements rippled "like lilacs in a breeze," and Richard Rogers, who was outraged that Lee had "thrown away his lilting waltz meter and sang 'Lover' like a panther in heat." Gavin's description of the exhausting session for 'Is That All There Is?' is especially vivid, as Lee marches through take after take, even losing a perfect one due to a technician's error.

The only stumble on Gavin’s part is when he wallows in the cattiness of Lee’s entourage. When he recounts the time someone described the aging Lee as “an albino gorilla”, Gavin seems to be chuckling too.

Still, Gavin’s book is a fascinating look at a gifted woman who found love nowhere but in her music. It’s no wonder she sang until she was physically unable.

 Photo by Gaby Rona/CBS       

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