By any commercial account, Peggy Lee's life was a huge success. In a 60-year career that covered the glory days of big band swing, cabaret clubs, cool jazz and rock and roll, she sold more than 20 million albums, was nominated for an Academy Award, wrote and performed dozens of her own songs (including four in Disney's animated Lady and the Tramp), and published an autobiography and a poetry collection. Yet, as James Gavin's new comprehensive biography suggests, the woman born Norma Deloris Egstrom--the Jamestown, N.Dak., daughter of a hard-drinking railroad man and a mother who died when she was four--never quite found the satisfaction from fame, romance and riches she imagined in their prairie apartment beside the Midland Continental train tracks.
Gavin's lifelong interest in jazz led him to make hundreds of radio and other media appearances, write liner notes for more than 400 CDs, and publish biographies of Lena Horne (Stormy Weather) and Chet Baker (Deep in a Dream), all of which provides him with a deep cache of historical archives and interviews. Borrowing its title from one of her most famous songs, Is That All There Is? boasts descriptions of Lee from dozens of music heavyweights such as Count Basie ("Are you sure there's not some spade in you?"), Downbeat critic Dave Dexter, Jr. ("This chick sounds like a drunken old wh*re with the hots"), lyricist Jerry Leiber ("the funkiest white woman alive"), even Iggy Pop, of all people ("Peggy was a super-sassy super-hottie... she also had beautiful eyes and a bomb a**").
Gavin takes us behind the glamorous façade to the ambitious, often disappointed "Miss Peggy Lee," who never had enough money, lovers, or booze and pills to leave her hard-luck, small-town past behind. When Dragnet's Jack Webb cast her as the remorseful alcoholic cabaret singer Rose in his film Pete Kelly's Blues, he and the critics noticed that the part was exactly Peggy Lee. Nonetheless, four marriages, countless lovers, hypochondria and a crushing workload didn't stop her from creating a stage persona that seduced millions and won adulation and imitation from singers as diverse as Joni Mitchell, k.d. lang and Beyoncé. Lee's breathy, sultry, torch-singer voice became in time what Gavin calls a "true saloon voice, rough around the edges--the sound of cigarettes, liquor, late nights, a frequently broken heart, and a never-say-die spirit."
With neither the fawning adoration of Peter Richmond's 2007 biography Fever nor the tell-all scandal of a gossip column, Gavin's Is That All There Is? presents a balanced story of the life of a fragile star with extraordinary talent but also more than her share of insecurity, extravagance and eccentricity.
Bruce Jacobs' review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.