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Is That All There Is?
 


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Is That All There Is?


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  For Zuza Homem de Mello and Ercília Lobo a minha família brasileira

  Thank you for giving me a new world

  Introduction

  IF THEY’RE WAITING for me to die . . . good luck!”

  So said Miss Peggy Lee, age seventy-two, to her startled audience at the New York Hilton’s Club 53 in 1992. “They” meant the Walt Disney Company, her foe in a legal war for unpaid royalties on the top-selling videocassette of Lady and the Tramp, the 1955 cartoon classic. Lee had contributed four character voices and cowritten the songs. In court, the mythic songstress had looked like no match for the mighty Disney; she entered in a wheelchair that held an oxygen tank and seemed to be at death’s door. She won the case—but Disney kept fighting. So did Lee. It was her nature. In her theme song, “Is That All There Is?,” she smilingly declared, “I’m not ready for that final disappointment!”

  Nearly all the fans inside that packed cabaret were old enough to remember the Peggy Lee of legend—the blond seductress with a mermaid’s figure and a vixen’s smile, who held out a snapping hand and sang “you give me fever!” in a tough purr. Now she sat enthroned like a bizarre fallen angel—a shapeless blur of ghostly, gleaming white, from her snowy Cleopatra wig to her feathered silk robe. Critic Rex Reed compared her to “an intergalactic Mae West”; according to Gerald Nachman of the San Francisco Chronicle, her voice had changed from “warm and sexy” to “cool and eerie.” The air in her presence felt thick, slow-moving, as though one were in a dream. Offstage, Reed found her “strange to the point of madness.”

  Even so, Lee retained an almost magical ability to touch the heart. According to pianist Mike Melvoin, her conductor in the 1960s, “there was no way you could escape her spell. There was no way you couldn’t believe every word she said.” The young pop star k.d. lang saw Lee at the Hilton. To lang, Lee had “an aura of majesty about her. It was like there was a vacuum in that room except for this one piercing ray of light, which was her voice and her presence. It doesn’t happen frequently, when people channel the universe like that.” Peggy Lee had never had to shout to make her point; in her musical language, silence spoke as loudly as sound. Hers was the sweet, husky voice in the bedroom, beckoning you to pull in closer. “When I get very quiet and very intense,” she explained, “the power goes right through.”

  She controlled the stage like a puppeteer. Characters materialized one by one: a barroom vamp on the make, an indomitable and still-sexy housewife, various faded women whose last chance at love had passed them by. Wispy as it seemed, her voice could drive a whole orchestra—even that of the “King of Swing,” Benny Goodman, who had discovered the awkward young singer in 1941 and made her a star. Other band vocalists had to belt to be heard; Peggy Lee made audiences lean forward. To Rob Hoerburger of the New York Times, Lee had formed the blueprint for the sexualized cooing of Eartha Kitt, Diana Ross, and Madonna. “I knew I could never sound like her, but I wanted to,” said Dusty Springfield.

  To many black musicians, including Count Basie, Lee sang the blues like no other white woman could. “Are you sure there’s not some spade in you?” joked the bandleader. Grady Tate, her longtime drummer, placed Lee on the same pedestal as Billie Holiday. “Peggy had that nasty, laid-back, demented, sultry, incredibly funky sound that Lady Day had,” he said. “But it was Lady with another Lady on top of it.” Lee’s influence reached beyond pop and jazz: Julius Baker, the renowned classical flutist, copied her airy, confidential tone; the operatic mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, known for her plush sound and technical bravura, grew up trying to imitate Lee.

  But no one could capture the aura that radiated from behind that placid façade and riveted audiences before she had uttered a note. “In singing, it’s all in the mind,” she noted. “I just sort of go into my own little universe.” Impressionist Jim Bailey, who channeled Lee so uncannily that it shook even her, had found the singer much harder to capture than Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, his two most famous subjects. “Barbra and Judy projected to the back of the house. But Peggy made you come and find her. She made you very curious. I would be on the edge of my seat. I wanted to get into her head.”

  Inside it lurked a misty storybook world where truth and fantasy blurred. Peggy Lee, of course, hadn’t been born Peggy Lee; she was really Norma Deloris Egstrom, a name as flat as the desolate North Dakota landscape that had created her. “She came up out of nowhere,” said Artis Conitz, her closest childhood friend in Nortonville, population one hundred. “She made a lot out of nothing.” Lee never doubted that her mind was the gateway to miracles. She carried her credo around on a sheet of paper: “Whatever you vividly imagine, ardently desire, sincerely believe, and enthusiastically act upon . . . must inevitably come to pass.”

  By the late 1940s she was Miss Peggy Lee, star. In her favorite song, “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” a couple ascend, hand-in-hand, to the oasis of their dreams—a “home on a hilltop high.” Around 1980, Lee acquired her own: a villa in Bel Air, the exclusive gated community in west Los Angeles. Along the side of the house grew a profusion of pink Peggy Lee roses, named for her by the American Rose Society. A staff was on hand to treat her like a queen. But she lived alone. The love of her life—guitarist Dave Barbour, the first of her four husbands—resided there only in her mind; he had died years earlier, and divorced her well before that.

  In January 1999, when I visited her home, Lee’s own time seemed to have run out. A whopping stroke had left the singer incapacitated and barely able to speak. I had made arrangements with Vanity Fair to write what would likely be a memorial profile. Her daughter, Nicki Lee Foster, had moved in, and had agreed to see me. Virginia Bernard, the uniformed black wardrobe mistress and cook who had worked for Lee since the 1960s, greeted me at the door. I walked through a grand foyer with a chandelier and passed a grand staircase, the kind descended by Gloria Swanson in the movie Sunset Boulevard.

  Ushered into the living room, I met Nicki, a large woman of fifty-five with a brown shag hairdo. Her weary movements and sad air suggested that life as the child of Peggy Lee had not been easy, even in better times. Her stories confirmed it. Like most stars, Lee had demanded and received constant attention; her career came before all. In the 1970s, Foster had left her mother as well as a marriage, and taken her three children far away to Idaho. Now Lee’s illness had brought her back.

  As I stood with Foster, Peggy Lee was just steps away, behind the closed door of a bedroom off the living room. “I can’t take you in there,” Foster warned.

  For the next two hours I couldn’t get my mind off that door. I imagined Peggy Lee inside, wondering: “Who is he? What are you telling him?” I remembered her Oscar-nominated performance in Pete Kelly’s Blues, the 1955 crime drama in which Lee played an alcoholic torch singer of the Roaring Twenties who goes insane. In her first appearance, she stands in the background while her mobster boyfriend and a bandleader talk business. Silent and out of focus, Lee dominated that scene; now, invisibly, she was ruling this one.

  Gone were her low, hearty laugh and the risqué jokes she loved to tell; now her pretty home had the frozen quality of a museum. Foster showed me the office. On its walls were twelve Grammy nominations—Lee had scored one award, for “Is That All There Is?,” and another for lifetime achievement—along with signed photos and letters from the likes of Albert Schweitzer, Frank Sinatra, and the Dalai Lama. The father of jaz
z, Louis Armstrong, had written this to Lee on a picture of his grinning face: “The greatest ever since I heard her chirp the 1st note.”

  Nearly the whole house was painted peach, a color Lee thought soothing. But according to friends, the queen of laid-back minimalism couldn’t find much comfort in anything. Lee had spent most of her adult life in bed, nestled in a cocoon of fluffy pillows and sheets; it was the only place she seemed to feel safe. Bottles of tranquilizers were tucked away in the bedclothes. Hints of an obsessively controlling nature—some called it perfectionism—appeared in the crowning feature of her living room: a wall of cabinets that housed her career’s worth of orchestrations by some of the greatest arrangers in jazz. All were guarded in numbered plastic envelopes, alphabetized, and notated in a binder.

  French doors looked out on a pool Lee had seldom used. A pair of Peggy Lee marionettes, with huge eyelashes and red-painted lips, lay slumped together on a chair. Her daughter’s hazy watercolor paintings hung in various places, a reminder that she, too, had creative gifts. But Nicki had long ago abandoned the call of art. “I didn’t want to ever have to try and follow in my mother’s footsteps,” she told me. “That’s too big a shoe to fill.”

  Well into our discussion, we were joined by Holly Foster-Wells, Nicki’s vivacious daughter. For all the trouble she had caused them, both women clearly adored the sleeping figure in the bedroom. So it was with most of the people who knew her, including many of the ones she had burned. Lee sang, and all was forgiven.

  In her last months of lucidity I had gotten my own moment with the star when I interviewed her by phone for the liner notes of a reissue of Mink Jazz, her 1963 album. Speaking to me from bed, Lee could offer little more than a weakly murmured “I don’t remember.” But when I mentioned a song she had cowritten, “Where Can I Go Without You?,” Lee’s voice turned to steel. “Will I be given credit for that?” she asked with an imperiousness that chilled me.

  Robert W. Richards, an illustrator who had worked with her in the 1970s, offered some insight. “Peggy operates on anger,” he said, “and the minute you can get her angry you’ve got her attention.”

  Anger. It was a product of her childhood, and it had seen her through the pressures of every show; surely it had also helped her survive a series of near-death experiences. Lee had weathered so many, she had come to feel she would never die. Her friend Phoebe Jacobs didn’t doubt that Lee had a special line to the beyond. “Peggy was a very spiritual person,” she said. “I saw what she could do to an audience. That’s not just talent. It’s gotta come from something else.”

  Others who knew her felt the turmoil within. Jazz singer Mark Murphy, her fellow artist at Capitol Records in the late 1950s, picked up on it. Murphy was infatuated with her talent, and when he met her he expected to find the Peggy Lee he had seen on TV: “like a jazzy Myrna Loy—the coolest, sweetest, most down-home.” Instead he saw the dichotomy common among artists who create a persona apart from their real selves. “She was a woman horribly not at peace with herself,” he said. “When she was Peggy Lee, not so many problems—but when she was Norma it was problem city.”

  “When she wanted me to play bluesy she’d say, ‘Trains,’ ” recalled one of Lee’s musicians. The Midland Continental depot at Jamestown, North Dakota, c. 1910.

  Chapter One

  TO DRIVE THROUGH the Dakota plains is to feel the numbing sameness of a place where nothing ever seems to change. “North Dakota was forever,” explained Peggy Lee, “and it was flat.” As the landscape flies by outside a car window, one has a strong sense of going nowhere. According to Frank Sonnek, a retired Los Angeles accountant who came from South Dakota: “The Dakota prairies just roll on and on—they can make you sick. You feel like a sailor in the middle of the ocean.”

  But Dakota life was all about reaping fruits from the soil, turning emptiness into riches. Peggy Lee did the same. She recalled herself as “a weird little child with a tremendous imagination . . . I had some very strange thoughts. I used to daydream my way through some of the more difficult things.” Fantasy became so crucial to her survival that it permanently altered her view of reality. Lee developed intense powers of visualization; she could escape into far-off points in her mind when she sang, envisioning them in such detail that listeners could see them, too.

  Her father, Marvin Egstrom, worked on the railroad, which gave her a sense of the world beyond. To see an approaching train excited her. A deafening mechanical clamor, a huge cloud of hissing steam, and there it was, chugging rhythmically toward her, car after car. The whistle blared melodiously, so loud that it seemed to sound from the heavens. For Norma Deloris Egstrom, trains meant a way out. “I knew where they came from, and where they were going to, and I made up my mind at an early age that I was going to go to all those places.”

  Getting there, though, could seem impossible at a time when life was a daily struggle. Work dominated prairie life, but the elements waged war at every step. In 2011, Artis Conitz, Norma’s best friend, looked back at her childhood in tiny Nortonville: “You will never understand what it was like if you didn’t live it—those horrible days of very, very severe winters and very, very dry summers and very, very poor people.”

  Rhiannon, a jazz singer and educator, grew up in the 1950s on a farm in South Dakota. In a recorded monologue, “Love of the Land,” she evoked the battles that all Dakotans faced.

  There is a cruelty to this life. A loneliness. A separation from the rest of humanity. You have got to fit in here. It’s cultural monotony! . . . These flat cornfields, the endless squares of crops growing, the cows . . . standing. The men in their silage-smelling bib overalls with their big heavy shoes, sucking their teeth. Big chests, red faces, rough hands. And the women in their plain cotton-print dresses with children hanging off them. Busy with their hands all the time. Big hands. Plain hair, plain features. They were built kind of low to the ground like they were crops coming up out of the earth. Miraculous people. Sturdy. You’ve gotta be: there is no mercy from the wind that blows out of that big sky.

  Cold was the ultimate hardship. Winter winds of thirty to forty below seemed to scorch the skin; each breath, wrote North Dakota’s Lois Phillips Hudson in Reapers of the Dust: A Prairie Chronicle, “was like strong hot smoke in my nostrils, so that for one confused instant I thought I was going to suffocate with the cold that was so cold it was hot.” Before leaving the house, Dakotans layered on long underwear and wool garments, then braced themselves for the opening of the front door. Some parents wrapped their children in buffalo-skin coats. Blizzards buried the town in towering snowdrifts. If school wasn’t canceled, parents took their children there on sleighs or by horse and buggy. Plows that looked like monsters roamed the streets, their toothy, gaping mouths scooping up mountains of white, but no machine could match a Dakota snowstorm.

  Sometimes a blizzard made it too dangerous for kids to walk to school. On blustery nights, while the Egstrom children sat around the pot-bellied stove, their father, Marvin, kept them riveted with accounts of a legendary Midwestern catastrophe, the Schoolhouse Blizzard of January 1888. For two days it swept the plains states—Nebraska, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and the Dakotas—with deadly results.

  The story began on an unseasonably sunny weekday morning. Children walked casually to school; grown-ups ventured out as well, rejoicing in the odd wave of warmth.

  Around noon, snow began to fall. Within an hour it had buried everything in sight. Whipped about by fierce winds, the snow blew horizontally, destroying visibility and making driving—and walking—impossible. Panic spread, for children were stranded at school. Some teachers fetched rope and strung the students into a chain, then attempted to lead them home one by one. Most of the time, children and adults froze to death. In one schoolhouse, teachers tore up the floorboards and burned them, along with chairs and desks, for heat. By the time the storm had ended, 235 people—mainly children—had died.

  Dakotans faced other attacks. Modern medicine had far to go
; disease and accidents cut short many lives, and infant mortality was high. Death records from the teens and twenties report countless premature demises, from tuberculosis, pneumonia, scarlet fever. Blue-collar labor brought its own hazards. Alfred Nash, who married Norma’s aunt Hannah, was buried alive in a mining accident. On his first railroad job, Marvin Egstrom dropped heavy freight on his foot, crushing two toes.

  Home life brought its own challenges. Indoor plumbing was rare; families drew well water through a cistern pump into a bucket. When the wells froze, they melted snow on the stove. Many pots of water had to be boiled to fill one bathtub, which bathed the whole family. Clothes were hand-laundered on scratchy metal washboards or in primitive hand-operated washing gadgets. This was also the age of the makeshift toilet known as an outhouse: a backyard shed with a hole dug in the ground. Coarse pages from the Sears or Montgomery Ward catalogs served as toilet tissue.

  Houses were not necessarily safe harbors. The wood-frame, weather-beaten structures were prey to kerosene lanterns that tipped over, primitive gas stoves that exploded, early and hazardous electrical wiring. Many towns had no fire department; houses burned to ash in minutes. But townspeople helped one another out of tough binds. When fire leveled Artis Conitz’s house, neighbors brought them replacements for almost everything. The same was done for the Egstroms, two of whose homes burned.

  But as Russell Duncan wrote in his Dakota memoir I Remember, people didn’t complain: “The work had to be done so they did it.” They and their immediate ancestors, most of them Scandinavian, had grown up amid long, dark winters and harsh conditions; stoicism was in their blood.

  Still, they had to vent somehow, and many men reached for the bottle. Alcoholism wore down Marvin; his brother Milford, who drove a cab in Jamestown, drank, too. “So did most of the males I was aware of,” said Milford’s son, Glen Egstrom. They kept their disquiet to themselves. “In that culture, you’re not allowed to show much emotion,” said Frank Sonnek. “Big boys don’t cry. Angry means, I’m a bad person. With Peggy Lee, the feeling came out in her music. When she performed you didn’t see a lot of emotion, but you could feel it.”

 
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