In 1957, singer Peggy Lee recorded the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II tune “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.” Though others had performed the song too, Lee’s soulful interpretation of the dreamy lyrics connected with audiences.
“Someday we’ll build a home on a hilltop high
You and I, shiny and new
A cottage that two can fill
And we’ll be pleased to be called
‘The folks who live on the hill.’”
In real life, though, that happiness she sang about so beautifully eluded her.
“Peggy had the four husbands and many lovers along the way,” said James Gavin, author of the new biography “Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee.”
But she was lonely. “‘The Folks Who Live on the Hill’ was not going to come true for her. She got the house on the hill, but she was living there by herself,” Gavin added.
Though her life was troubled, Lee became one of the most significant singers and songwriters of her time; 12 years after her death at age 81, her influence is still felt.
Lee, who developed her minimalist style as a singer with Benny Goodman in the early 1940s, seduced listeners with her jazzy, sexually provocative interpretations of such hits as “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me),” “I’m a Woman” and “Is That All There Is?” — the latter two written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
She began composing tunes in the 1940s with her first husband, guitarist Dave Barbour, who also worked for Goodman, including “I Don’t Know Enough About You” and “It’s a Good Day.” Lee also co-wrote the songs and performed four roles in the 1955 Disney hit “Lady and the Tramp.” (Three decades later, she sued Disney over royalties for home video sales and won).
Though her acting projects were few and far between, Lee was nominated for an Oscar for her stunning performance in 1955’s “Pete Kelly’s Blues” as an alcoholic singer who ends up in a mental institution.
Born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, N.D., Lee was the seventh of eight children of an alcoholic station agent for the Midland Continental railroad and his wife
When she was 4, her beloved mother died. “Peggy had in her mind an image of her mother as this perfect, loving, all-embracing angel,” said Gavin, who also wrote “Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne.” Gavin spoke about Lee in a recent joint interview with songwriter Stoller, who is featured prominently in the biography.
“The mother died, and her father married this big German battle-ax named Min,” Gavin added. “Naturally, all the kids hated her. Peggy, for the rest of her life, told stories about Min’s physical abusiveness.”
Gavin believes Lee lived in a dream world she created as a small child to deal with her grief. “She had a stunning ability to shut off reality and step into her own fantasy,” said Gavin. “It got harder and harder and harder for her to pull that off. The first half of Peggy’s life, she drank a lot, and in the second half, she was addicted to Valium and other downers.”
Stoller, who first met Lee in 1962 after he and Leiber sent her a demo of “I’m a Woman,” recalled just how difficult the singer could be in recording sessions.
“Our relationship ended a few times,” he said. “Among other things, Peggy worked off anger. If she wasn’t angry, nothing was happening. During the process of doing the ‘Mirrors’ album, she early on forbid Jerry to be in the studio. She just hated him. Later on, it became me she needed to focus anger on.”
But Lee also had impeccable instincts, especially when it came to her Grammy-winning recording of “Is That All There Is?,” which was released in 1969.
Capitol thought the song, which contained several dialogue sequences, would tank. “But Peggy’s beliefs in the song were just ironclad,” said Gavin.
When the recording company asked if she would be interested in appearing on ABC’s late-night “The Joey Bishop Show,” she told Capitol, “I have one record left in the can, but you don’t seem to want to release it,” recalled Stoller. “If you put it out, I will do the show.”
Capitol pressed a meager 1,500 copies. “She was on the show and then, as they used to say, telephones were ringing off the line,” recalled Stoller. “They were back-ordered for weeks.”
Despite her personal demons, said Gavin, “I still think of Peggy as triumphant in so many ways. People forgave Peggy Lee almost anything because she touched their hearts so much.”