Biographer James Gavin on Peggy Lee: Diva and Gay Icon
Author: Jamie Brickhouse
December 14, 2014
James Gavin is a Peggy Person—which is to say, an admirer of “Miss Peggy Lee.” The author and journalist has made a name for himself with a rich oeuvre of music biographies that include Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne (Atria Books), Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker (Knopf) and Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of Cabaret (Grove Weidenfeld). We spent a leisurely afternoon discussing Lee, one of his first music loves, the week that his robust biography of her, Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee (Atria Books), hit bookstores. His revelations about the genius behind her art, recreations of her mesmerizing performances down to the last “Fever” fingernail and eye-popping stories of her gorgon-esque diva behavior behind the cool jazz exterior are sure to cement Lee’s stature as one of the greatest interpreters of American popular music, as well as place her on the same gay-icon pedestal of Judy, Liza, Barbra, Madonna and Cher.
Gavin spoke with me in his compact studio apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. It’s clear that one is in the presence of a serious music collector. The walls are lined with framed and signed albums of cabaret singers past and stacked floor-to-tall-ceiling with albums and CDs. He can—and does—pull any desired album from the Byzantine collection within in seconds; that’s how well he knows his library. Early in the interview, Gavin placed the album that started his love affair with Lee, Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota (Lee’s given name and birthplace), on his coffee table. Lee’s sepia-toned face on the cover watched us with her bewitching, Mona Lisa eyes for the next four hours as we discussed all things Peggy.
You write that Peggy Lee often said, “Please don’t let people forget me.” Do you think she’ll be forgotten?
No. I’ve been astonished by the number of young people—even kids in their twenties—who have said, “Oh, I love Peggy Lee.” First of all, she had three claims to fame that seem to be immortal: “Fever,” “Is That All There Is?” and Lady and the Tramp have all gotten through to younger generations. More than that, she has that essential vibe that kids always seem to connect with, and that is: she withheld. There is detachment and mystery and coolness there. For all of the kitschy hairdos and all of the over-the-top dresses and drag queenie makeup at times, there’s something really cool about Peggy that connects with young people. Even though she mythologized herself to an extravagant degree and made up a lot of stuff, I don’t think she ever sang an untrue word or feeling. I don’t know a more honest singer than Peggy Lee.
How did you come to write this biography?
I’d been preparing for it all my life. There was an album that really started it al l for me. It’s this album that I acquired when I was ten years old. [Gavin points to Norma Deloris Egstrom.] It’s a very sad album. The album is songs of the day  for the most part. The sadness of it grabbed me, and it became one of my favorite albums growing up, as it remains. Peggy took me to a deep, dark, raw, open place. She’s been my great fascination ever since.
Did you ever see her perform?
Many times. I saw her at the Ballroom [a New York cabaret of the late ‘80s] all the times she was there. The Ballroom performances were not Peggy Lee at her best. The [New York] Hilton in ‘92 was much closer to the mark, and Carnegie Hall [her last New York performance] was one of the most chilling experiences—goose-pimply. It was an out-of-body experience to see her there. Time stood still. It just hung in the air. Sometimes I feel like they just know it’s the last time they’re going to see you, and they pull a performance like that out of the hat that you didn’t think they had in them anymore. That was the case with Peggy that night.
For many people, the revelations of Lee’s diva behavior—controlling, tyrannical, vindictive—will come as a shock. Were you worried about showing her in a dark light?
My favorite biography is a biography of Robert Mapplethorpe written by Patricia Morrisroe. It became the blueprint for my Chet Baker book. I think she did everything right. It’s a brilliant piece of writing about a very difficult and distasteful and not very likeable subject, as she came to know him. She told the truth; she did not have an ax to grind, but she told it the way it was. I’ve read it cover-to-cover twenty times since then. I was worried about that with Peggy Lee, because she’s so ultimately beloved by so many people that I didn’t want to destroy their love for her, I just wanted them to understand her better and how complicated she was. I love the complexity of these artists and the fact that they have their hateful side and their lovable side, and they also have everything in between, and that for me is what goes into making art that is compelling on that level. Peggy does that for me.
What has been the reaction of Lee’s only child—her daughter, Nicki Lee Foster?
I interviewed her and Holly [Nicki’s daughter and Lee’s granddaughter] for the Vanity Fair piece [the 2002 profile of Lee, which was the seed for Gavin’s bio], but I didn’t interview them anew for the book. I didn’t really have to, as I had gotten what I wanted. I will say that Nicki and Holly—they didn’t express this to me directly—were very unhappy with the Vanity Fair piece. It ran right after Peggy died, so it hit at a very raw time, and I think that they found it too candid and too dishy. Even though I talked about Peggy’s singing and her art and creative technique in that piece, that’s not what they saw. They saw the dish and the craziness. I never exchanged another word with Nicki after that, but I know she was not happy and probably not thrilled that I was doing this book. Holly didn’t directly contribute to this book, but I wrote to her fairly early on in the process, and she’s been nothing but crisp and professional and gracious, and she’s wished me well with it. But she was also quite wary of what the book would reveal about her grandmother—and that’s all I know. I haven’t heard from them, and I think I might not hear from them.
[An eerie note: Just hours after this interview was conducted on November 14, 2014, Gavin found out that Nicki had died earlier that day of a stroke at age 71.]
What I love about your book is that you vividly bring Peggy Lee to life, unlike so many biographies in which the subject is like a corpse that everyone is stepping over and talking around but that is never present. Peggy is so there in your book. She comes alive for the reader, whether she’s performing at the Waldorf’s Empire Room or murmuring under a haze of booze and Valium.
That’s the greatest compliment you can give me, because that’s what a biographer is supposed to do. She was very hard to capture, and yet, I feel that I did do it—that I figured out what made Peggy tick. Through the years, she burned a lot of people. The question for a biographer is always why. If you haven’t answered the question why, then you haven’t done your work. Peggy was running really scared. Peggy was carrying around a lot of pain. Anger was a major source of fuel for her. Peggy had hot buttons that could be pushed in a variety of ways. One of them was rejection, and another of them was a similar one: abandonment. If you pushed those, there could be a volcanic response. I worked so hard in those passages in which I described her art and her showbiz and what went into making the magic happen. She gave all of your feelings a big workout. That’s what I’m into. That’s why I listen to music and read books. I want to be touched. I want to feel something.
You write that so much of Lee’s life was spent in bed; even most of her interviews and songwriting sessions with collaborators were conducted in bed. You interviewed her by phone when you wrote the liner notes for a reissue of Mink Jazz, and you write that she spoke to you from the bed. How did you know that she was in bed?
The only time I ever interviewed her was that time. Her secretary patched me through to Peggy. I feel certain that she was in bed because it sounded as though the phone was buried under a lot of pillows and sheets and she was fishing for it, and that went on for a very long time. I heard the rubbing of sheets against the phone before she finally murmured, “Hello?” I was able to get almost nothing quotable out of her at all, but the moment when I mentioned the song “Where Can I Go Without You,” her voice turned from a murmur to steel and she said, “Will I be given credit for that?” Oooh. It was post-Walt Disney feeling-ripped-off Peggy Lee. [Lee famously sued Disney for royalties from her work in Lady and the Tramp and won $2.3 million.] And I said, “Oh, yes. Of course.” That was the one memorable moment of the interview, but it told me that I had pushed a button.
Peggy Lee is a gay icon, though she’s not quite at the level of Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Cher and Madonna, even though her drag queen look at the end certainly pushes her into that category.
[Gavin pulls a bag from a cabinet, and from the bag, a cheap, Dynel, platinum blonde Cleopatra wig.] Look familiar?
Oh, yeah! That’s one of hers?
There are many. She brought them in quantity. Here you go. [Gavin lets me fondle one of Lee’s last crowns.] Whatever possessed her?
Do you think your book—which talks about all the behind-the-scenes drama, all the crazy stories, all the weird, sad, funny, very entertaining stories and monstrous diva behavior—will boost her stature as a gay icon?
I pray that it does that. I want it to, because Peggy Lee is outrageous fun underneath it all. The sheer lunacy of Peggy’s life is very entertaining. I never had to live through it, so I could just tell those stories and have myself a grand old time. Peggy is really fun. Nobody associates Billie Holiday [Lee idolized and emulated Holiday] with fun, do they? Billie Holiday was a tragic figure. Peggy, after all is said and done, is a triumphant figure. She had that David and Goliath battle with Disney, and she won. I hope that more gay people will fall in love with her because of my book.
You have some delicious stories in here: Peggy telling Truman Capote that she had been a prostitute in Jerusalem in a past life and remembered the crucifixion very well. “I’ll never forget picking up the Jerusalem Times and seeing the headline ‘Jesus Christ Crucified.’” The night during her affair with Quincy Jones when he kept her waiting so long and she drank so much that by the time he showed up, she was passed out…in black face. The time her limo broke down on the way to an engagement, and she had to be pushed in a wheelchair down Wilshire Boulevard in full Peggy Lee drag—Cleopatra wig, dark sunglasses, white gown trimmed with mounds of fluffy white fur. They all made me laugh out loud.
I’m glad to hear you saying this, because I hope my book doesn’t come off as sort of an unending litany of tragedy, because I get such a huge kick out of this stuff. I think so much of it is hilarious.
Peggy was sexually aggressive, predatory even, which I’m sure gay men will see as yet another reason to like her, and I hope that women will celebrate rather than denigrate her for that. However, you tell of one of her spiteful acts when jazz singer Mark Murphy didn’t respond to her advances because he was gay. How did she retaliate?
Circa 1959, Mark was with Capitol Records and idolized Peggy and tried to get close to her. She invited him to the house, and she put the moves on him by the pool, and he was terrified and fled. Subsequent to that, Peggy was asked to write the liner notes for a Capitol album of Mark Murphy. She did. I have that album here. [He pulls another album in seconds and reads the liner notes:] “As the expression goes, you might say he blows…and he’s attractive single.” Mark was very upset. He sent Peggy a box of long-stem roses with the buds cut off and a note that said something like, “Dear Peggy, I think you know what to do with these.” He was stung by that. It was kind of mean.
Do you think she was homophobic?
No, I don’t think she was homophobic at all, because she had so many close male gay friends, but she wanted to feel and exercise her seductive power over all. They would do her hair. They would design her clothes. They would scream at the end of her performances. But they were not going to have sex with her, and she was annoyed. At a certain point, Peggy wasn’t finding men to sleep with anymore, and she was really living her love life on stage, singing it to strangers. I find that very touching.
How has your perspective about Peggy Lee changed after having written the book?
I feel her humanity more than I ever did before. Now, I’ve figured out the mysteries in that voice and in that glance. I can see something in those eyes that before was very Mona Lisa and inaccessible, and I know now what it is. The things I feel about Peggy’s singing that struck me as so natural and simple—the minimalist means that she used to create big effects—I can now understand and know how she did it, and I find it all the more extraordinary that she accomplished so much with so little. For what I listen to in popular singing, Peggy is the best. I don’t think anybody could do so many things or had as much emotional depth as her.
The book is filled with Peggy’s dark, monstrous diva side and tales of misbehavior, but you also have stories of her generosity, like when she stood up to the management at the Americana Hotel in Miami in the ‘50s when they weren’t going to let a black musician stay there. She threatened them and got them to relent.
Over the years, Peggy did a lot of really kind things for people that I wrote about. They’re all in there. She was so complex. People don’t just fit together in one neat package. You think you have them all figured out, and then, something you were never expecting just pops out, and that was the case with Peggy Lee. She kept people off balance. She could be so fragile to the point where you just wanted to put your arms around her, and then, suddenly, she could turn into a gorgon, and you wondered what you said to set her off. It all speaks to the extreme turbulence that was going on inside that package there.
What are your favorite three Peggy Lee songs?
“Touch Me in the Morning” is definitely in the top three. It sounds so queenie (doesn’t it?) that I would choose that. I’ve listened to that recording for thirty years. [Gavin plays it from the Norma Deloris Egstrom album and listens with closed eyes.] She’s weak. She’s breathless. And she uses it. Everything you can be feeling at a moment like that is there. People would roll their eyes at that song, because it seems like just a Diana Ross jukebox hit from the ‘70s, but they haven’t heard Peggy’s version. I have to pick another depressing one, because it’s just the way it is: “Don’t Smoke in Bed.” I can’t leave that out. And one happy one: “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” [He plays it for me from his iTunes library.] Great recording with Sy Oliver. Oh, how it swings. It’s just kittenish and sexy and so romantic at the same time. Yeah.
Who are your three favorite dead singers?
Peggy Lee. Elis Regina, a Brazilian singer who died of an accidental drug overdose in 1982 at the age of 36. To me, she is the greatest popular singer, bar none. And I’d have to say Carmen McRae. I saw her a lot, dozens and dozens of times.
Sophie’s choice: Now, you have to pick one of those, and the other two, you can never listen to again, though you get to keep the knowledge and memory of them.
Peggy. She touches more parts of me than any one singer does. She makes me feel everything that I’m capable of feeling.
Of today’s performers, who do you think comes the closest to Peggy Lee, in terms of not just singing but also the whole presentation and style of performance?
Honestly, nobody really. Nobody can capture Peggy’s magic on so many levels. Many singers talk about how influential she was in her minimalism, showing them that you don’t have to emote and belt and overact. It worked for her because she had so much going on inside that was radiating through and a very peculiar and individual psychology operating behind it, and that’s what made her minimalism work. Somebody said that the air around her always felt thick, like a dream. That’s something you can’t teach and you can’t learn.
The title of your book is the name of one of the most famous songs Peggy ever sung: “Is That All There Is?”, written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. What’s your interpretation of it?
People argue about the meaning of that song, and that’s as it should be; it’s supposed to be enigmatic. To me, it’s about an emptiness in life that nothing can ever fill, and so what the hell? What difference does anything make? Existentialist philosophy. It’s about everything ultimately feeling anticlimactic in life. The line of that song that devastates me the most is, “And then one day he went away and I thought I’d die, but I didn’t.” That’s not said with relief. That’s said with disappointment. Not even something that’s supposed to rock your world, like losing the love of your life, finally delivers. In the end, it was the perfect song for the moment. It hit at exactly the right time: at the end of the ‘60s when people were questioning the meaning of life and wondering if a lot of it had been for naught. And then along came Peggy Lee to explain it to them—or to at least magnify the question. Peggy Lee was one of the ultimate truth-tellers.