James Gavin's 'Is That All There Is?' reveals a talented but tormented Peggy Lee

Washington Post, November 14, 2014

"Art is limitation," G.K. Chesterton said, and if he had stuck around to hear Peggy Lee, he might have said it twice. Those of us who regard Lee as one of the premier vocalists of the 20th century—and I will defend that claim for as many beers as it takes—must come around to the notion that her strengths are a product of her limits, that her unsettling intimacy derives in part from the smallness of her instrument, that the delicious smoke that cures the upper and lower ends of her voice is as much damage as strategy, and that the gorgeous toggle in her singing between light and shade is the struggle of a woman who, like her idol Billie Holiday, could never master her own chaos.

Should you need a primer in that chaos, you may consult James Gavin's astute, unblinking and ultimately dispiriting biography, "Is That All There Is?" But only if you are prepared to see just how limited a great artist can be and only if you're ready to ask yourself: If someone as delusional and (on occasion) just as plainly awful as Peggy Lee can make supernal music, what finally does any life signify?

This life began and could well have ended in the North Dakota prairies. Norma Deloris Egstrom, Lee's birth name, had a dead mother, a drunken father and a stepmother out of a Grimm tale. By any reasonable standard, she should have dropped into obscurity but, like her near-contemporary Norma Jean Baker, she had a hard-to-shake idea that she belonged elsewhere.

She fled first to Fargo, N.D.—where, in her first paying engagements, she was billed as "A Revelation in Relaxation"—then to Chicago, where she secured a gig at Chicago's Buttery. One August night, Benny Goodman wandered in, looking for a new singer. Credit the bandleader for glimpsing the "character" in this gawky, untrained vocalist, but credit Lee for enduring her apprenticeship by fire, for scoring a breakout hit with "Why Don't You Do Right?"—the first sign of her affinity for black music—and for ultimately leaving her mentor and blazing her own path, independent of any man.

Earlier than anyone else, she understood that her voice resonated most when it was quietest and that she was most alluring when she was utterly still, drawing the audience to her. Her ability to harness a small dynamic range in the service of any emotional errand yielded a string of post-war hits, from the chamber-echo noir of "Don't Smoke in Bed" to the concupiscence of "Lover" (a bongo-drum deconstruction that infuriated the composer, Richard Rodgers) to the proto-feminist strut of "I'm a Woman."

What really defined her, of course, was the 1958 release "Fever." It was Lee's inspiration to strip down Little Willie John's R&B original to a bare-bones ensemble of vocal, bass, drums and (crucially) snapping fingers. "In the hour or so that it took to produce a finished take," Gavin writes, "the chart took on a life of its own: sparse, shadowy and dominated by the calm but lashing voice of a woman in heat." Many heated-up women have covered it since; none has approached Lee's tensile fire or impeccable rhythm.

Her purr cast a spell over both sexes. Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and Iggy Pop adored her; so did Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield and k.d. lang. Unusually for vocalists of her day, she was also a songwriter, penning the lyrics for Disney's warmly remembered, if ersatz, film "Lady and the Tramp" and for tunes such as "It's a Good Day" and "I Don't Know Enough About You."

Yet this same genre- and generation-bridging artist could be—depending on where you were standing—"eccentric," "cuckoo," "totally wacko," "brusque and bullying," "intimidatingly costly and demanding," "maudlin, self-obsessed, devoid of irony," "horribly not at peace with herself," "seemingly held together by laminate and scarabs."

She ran through four husbands before she died in 2002. She drank and smoked and ate to excess, swallowed tranquilizers, lived beyond her means. She spent most of her days in bed, entertained by friends and staff, many of whom she discarded. She insisted she had been a Jerusalem prostitute during the time of Jesus and claimed that her own rosebushes bowed to her. She raged at subordinates and became, in later years, something closer to Norma Desmond than Norma Egstrom. "I am a star," she bellowed at a passing bellboy, "and don't you forget it!" To which the bellboy muttered, in an aside for the ages: "If you gotta tell 'em, you ain't!"

Lee's endgame consumes 200 pages of Gavin's book, about 150 too many. All you really need to know is that she successfully sued Disney (for stiffing her on "Lady and the Tramp" royalties) and that she was the inspiration for Miss Piggy, another "blowsy, self-obsessed, zaftig blond singer with a supreme confidence in her own allure." Lee threatened to sue, but I can't help but wish the two divas had set aside their differences and come together in song: a thresh of coos and hair extensions.

The good news is that, once you have granted Peggy Lee her madness, the artist is still waiting—as near to you as YouTube: the easy, erotic swing of "Hallelujah, I Love Him So," the Coplandesque cadences of "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," the Thomas Mann-inspired existentialism of "Is That All There Is?" A world of feeling in a voice that rarely spoke above a hush. Find her.