Peggy Lee and the American Popular Songbook
Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee by James Gavin
New York: Atria Books, 2014
by Barbara Leavy
Like all defense mechanisms, fantasizing has its positive and negative aspects. If mundane chores are made less onerous because you imagine how you will spend the money you just won from the lottery, great. But if you go to work and quit your job in expectation of collecting that money, not so good. Or perhaps you don’t quit, but rise to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company with a salary as big as that lottery payout would have been, but realize that nothing you can spend it on will fulfill your fantasy. For reality has boundaries, but yearning for what is beyond reach has to do with the infinite and what seems always beyond reach.
This is essentially the story that James Gavin tells in Is That All There Is?, as in his biography he follows the career and the fantasies of Norma Deloris Egstrom from North Dakota, who becomes one of America’s greatest singing and recording performers, Peggy Lee.
There were undoubtedly many psychological streams that fed into the metaphoric lake that made up Peggy Lee’s psyche. And that could explain her erratic, often self-destructive behavior; her mood swings; her ability to appear so vulnerable yet fly into rages; her inability to maintain relationships even though she was devastated when, for example, her lovers and husbands left her. But it was wise of Gavin to choose for emphasis Lee’s ongoing struggle between the fantasies that could ward off pain and depression—not always without the aid of alcohol and drugs—and reality. For Peggy Lee was an artist, not just a female singing performer of which there are many, and many who have their moment of fame. For centuries there has been a close association between pain and melancholy on one side and art on the other. Only an aching heart creates a timeless work of art, wrote the Irish poet W. B. Yeats. For the romantic writer Shelley, the poet (Lee wrote poetry) is a bird who sings to itself to ease its own solitude. As one reads Gavin’s description of Peggy Lee, who drew an audience to her but also tantalized them by maintaining a distance that lured them on, there must have been times when Lee was indeed singing to herself.
Feelings of isolation and solitude haunted Peggy Lee all of her life and she desperately needed people around her, perhaps especially in her bed. For she was promiscuous but also aggressive and could not hold onto the men she courted and convinced to move in with her. Those relationships were short-lived. The divorce from her first husband Dave Barbour, the father of her daughter Nikki, seems to have hurt her all her life. But it also was possible for her to turn this painful reality into another of her fantasies. She imagined that they would reconcile some day and in her late years created a myth that replaced the truth, that he had in fact proposed to her again and wanted to return, his death preventing this.
Lee’s isolation and solitude is underscored by Gavin in a very interesting way. As would be expected in any biography of a performer who had achieved fame, and particularly of a performer who needed to surround herself with others, Gavin’s book introduces many other characters, those who worked with Peggy Lee the performer, friends, members of her household staff, her audience and fans, the celebrities she knew, and more. Many of these names will not be familiar to Gavin’s readers, but this proves fortuitous. Surrounding Peggy Lee with these unfamiliar or little known persons, while she herself is very well-known, reinforces what Gavin is trying to convey, her sense of isolation. She is described among others, but she herself seems alone among them as in this book their very unfamiliarity causes them to fade into the background that surrounds her.
Peggy Lee is not only part of America’s musical history, but also history itself profoundly affected her and her performances. And Gavin is not only a consummate biographer but also an historian of American popular music. His Intimate Nights is an essential book for those who want to know about the rise and decline of cabaret and those who strive to keep this art form alive. About three-fifths of the way through Is That All There Is, Gavin’s book becomes not only a biography but a study of changes in the popular music world as well. The Great American Songbook started to lose ground before Rock ‘n’ Roll and R & B. Jazz itself became an esoteric form of entertainment where it came to young audiences. There were always generation gaps, but suddenly the gap widened and parents and children no longer agreed on many issues or life styles. Neither side was drawn to genres of music of the other. The adults, in fact, were appalled by the rhythms and lyrics as well as the body movements that came with the new music. Their preferences just bored their youngsters. A detour here may help make the point. The witty writer Joe Queenan wrote in a column published in the Wall Street Journal that if you were happy with your empty nest but your children surprised you, as many of the millennials did by moving back home, you could get rid of them by loudly playing throughout the house the music you enjoyed when you were their age.
Gavin quotes David Tipmore, a cabaret critic for the Village Voice, about the “Catch-22” that Lee was confronted with. Her attempts to accommodate new rhythms and new sounds “took her out of her old fans’ comfort zone.” The “patrons at her beloved Waldorf Astoria greeted her new repertoire with pale applause, and only perked up when she sang her hits. Rock-loving youngsters had no desire to come to the starchy Waldorf to hear Peggy Lee sing their songs.”
How does this affect the biography that James Gavin has written, about a performer whom new generations are indifferent to. For those who love the music Peggy Lee sang, this reality will evoke a melancholy that seems to have pervaded Lee’s life, even when she and her music hit the popularity charts. But history and biography are always part of our cultural life. We are grateful that the past has been recorded and for some the past is, like fantasy perhaps, a respite from painful present realities. Peggy Lee was anxious never to be forgotten and James Gavin has made this dream a reality. The only thing that would make Is That All There Is? even more appealing would be an accompanying CD or two that would make it possible to turn on a song that illustrates some of the interpretations with which Gavin’s biography is replete. To hear how Peggy Lee developed as a singer and how she changed. The biography plus the recordings would confer on her the immortality she longed for.
Reviewer’s note: A few months ago, my husband and I found ourselves in an elegant lounge with some people we did not know but with whom we exchanged pleasantries. When asked where we came from, we told them and directed the question back to the others. One of the women responded, “North Dakota.” With enthusiasm, I said I was just beginning to read a biography of Peggy Lee, to which she replied, puzzled, “Who is she?” Gavin’s biography informs us that there is a Peggy Lee museum in North Dakota. But the state could easily do more to make known someone about whom it should be proud. In live performance venues singers could be encouraged with grant money to sing her songs. Even young people would come to such shows if their own popular singers were on the bill. Many would actually enjoy music they would not ordinarily listen to. Exposure would make converts. This would be good not only for North Dakota but also for the country. And for the legacy of Peggy Lee.