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James Gavin Explores the Strange Life of Peggy Lee

by Kevin Scott Hall
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Nov 11, 2014

To hear him tell it, the reason James Gavin sits here today as one of our pre-eminent biographers of musical icons, is because, as a student at Fordham University, he mentioned to a professor that someone should write a book about the golden days of New York cabaret. The professor countered with, "Why don't you?"

And so he did. That book was "Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret," first published in 1991. He followed with "Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker" and, in 2009, the widely acclaimed "Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne."

This week, Gavin releases his latest labor of love, "Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee" (Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster).

On Wednesday, November 12 at 7:00 p.m., Gavin will have a reading and Q&A with Rex Reed at Barnes and Noble (Broadway and 83rd Street).

I sat down with Gavin in his Upper West Side apartment to discuss the new book. The apartment was cozy, without an inch of wasted space -- the walls were neatly arranged, floor to ceiling, with shelves of books, CDs, and memorabilia, and signed posters from the stars he has met over the years.


The Past is A Comfortable Place

EDGE: Tell me a little about your background and how you came to do what you do. Was being a biographer always part of the plan?

James Gavin: I was born in Manhattan, but grew up in Yonkers. I was adopted. I stayed in Yonkers until I was twenty-two. But New York has always been in my blood. It was and is the city of my dreams. Most of my dreams have come true because of New York, and I can't imagine living anywhere else.

It was rough growing up, with a very turbulent family atmosphere and not a lot of friends. I found my refuge in the past. I fell in love with singers when I was five, but I had already learned to read when I was four. And these two things together gave me my life. For some reason, I gravitated very strongly to music of the past.

The past is a very comforting place to live. Somehow I got wind of the fact that New York used to be full of glamorous if shabby little nightspots, and that those places were magnets for the sophisticated, smart people. That idea appealed to me enormously, because I wanted to prove that I was one of them. I fastened onto that world and spent many hours at the library looking up old Q magazines and New Yorker magazines and living in the past. When I started writing that first book after my professor said those magic three words -- "Why don't you?" -- I didn't have an agent, no credits, no publishing deal. But I had a burning desire to do it, because somehow I found a reason for my life in the project. Seven years after I started, it was published.

EDGE: You used a lovely phrase, that Peggy Lee was "as uncapturable as a smoke ring." Was that the allure of doing a bio of her, to try to capture the uncapturable?

James Gavin: Did I say that? I don't remember that at all! I probably thought that while I was writing the book, but now that I've finished it, I think I really did capture her. I think I figured her out.


Great Detective Story

EDGE: But was that the allure of taking her on to begin with?

James Gavin: Oh, yes. It was a great detective story. Peggy Lee entered my head when I was about ten years old. I first heard her 78s and her hits with Benny Goodman, which were by no means the really mature Peggy Lee, and yet I heard something in her voice that was different than what I was hearing from Margaret Whiting and Jo Stafford and some of the other chirps who were around at the time. There was something strange and pained in Peggy's singing, between the lines, but perceptible enough to me to get me excited. The deeper I got into her, the more acutely I felt it. I knew there were deep, murky waters under that placid surface.

And there was also anger, which I could also relate to. But also this saucy sense of playful sexuality, and a jazz sense that was not the same that I heard from Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan. Peggy Lee barely improvised. Her notion of jazz singing was more about rhythm and swing and phrasing, but she sang the tunes very straight and still captivated jazz musicians. She did so little, and yet made so much. There are many singers who admire what she did, but nobody has that strange psychology and energy that she had, with compelling drama and mystique. The approach was truly her own.


Hearts On Their Sleeves

EDGE: Why do you think gay men are drawn to the female singer?

James Gavin: My late friend Susannah McCorkle, whom I adored and miss every day, described most of the male singers in that genre as "smarmy and in love with their own voices," and I agree with that most of the time.

Male singers in this genre may be taking their cues from Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and something that filtered down from them. There's this machismo. Frank Sinatra was as sensitive as a male singer can be... no, I take that back. Mark Murphy and Andy Bey go deeper than Frank did. Heterosexual guys still, after all these years, have this macho hang-up going on that interferes with their singing. Whereas women traditionally wear their hearts on their sleeves when they sing.

There is something about the emotional rawness, a willingness to show their wounds and scars. Most of the great female singers had a great sensitivity that touches gay men's hearts. Peggy was an autobiographical singer. So was Lena Horne. They couldn't give a performance without dragging their personal baggage on stage, and I love that. I want to know who these people are. Peggy did that enough, but still withholding enough to keep you tantalized.

EDGE: I love the chapters about her early life in North Dakota -- the stark landscape, the poverty, the forlorn train whistle. Sometimes we like to be high-minded about our idols -- how dedicated they are to their art and craft -- but in early life, it always seems to start with a focused ambition to just get the hell out. Do you agree?

James Gavin: Absolutely. The proof of that is the fact that after she left North Dakota, Peggy rarely went back there. In 1975, she did a concert at North Dakota State University and received the Rough Rider Award, which was presented by the governor. It was a place of dark memories and bitter feelings for Peggy, most of them centering around the relationship with her stepmother. She was very ambitious, though. She had big dreams that could not be filled in North Dakota.


Fantastic Musical Instincts

EDGE: New York seemed to be the place that treated Peggy Lee the best, when she packed rooms like Basin Street East, the Empire, and the Ballroom. I found it surprising that she never chose to live here. Her movie career never took off, and it was definitely more of a music town than L.A.

James Gavin: I never really thought about that. I think of Peggy as such a California blonde, and she liked the California good life. Keep in mind that having grown up in North Dakota, there were excruciating winters, hardscrabble conditions everywhere, and the plainness of the post-pioneer life. She loved Ginger Rogers, and there is no Ginger Rogers walking around in Jamestown, North Dakota. Peggy wanted that. So where else would she go to find Hollywood style glamour and Technicolor surroundings? I think she was always infatuated with California for those reasons.

EDGE: My favorite part of the book was when she just went nuts for 'Is That All There Is?,' which was such a bizarre song then -- or any time. So many takes and so many problems at that time of her life, and yet she fought so hard to get it released as a single. In the end, she really knew best, despite all the naysayers.

James Gavin: She had fantastic musical instincts, almost unimpeachable. More so than the producers she worked with, most of the arrangers she worked with. This story played itself out with 'Why Don't You Do Right' and with 'Lover,' also. She certainly took to the Mirrors songs and when she saw people not getting it, she backed off, unfortunately.

But she did it, and that was the point. That was a very daring album in 1975 for a faded singer in a faded era of classic popular music to do. She was very brave.


Her Happiest Times?

EDGE: When do you think Peggy Lee was the happiest?

James Gavin: She was happiest when she was on stage performing or when she was working on music or writing lyrics. I think 'happiest' is a relative term for someone who was also running really scared in her life. She was always feeling such turbulent feelings all the time -- not only fear, but a lot of anger and unrest.

It was a very North Dakota, Scandinavian thing to keep that mask on. When she was growing up, you didn't complain about your lot in life. There was work to do. The Scandinavian mask that Peggy adopted at a very early age has a lot to do with her becoming the Peggy Lee that we know. It was like a pot boiling over with the lid on top. The top keeps popping up on one side and steam comes out, but most of it was kept inside. You felt it and you sensed it, but you didn't necessarily see it. That was one of the big allures of Peggy Lee. Keeping secrets is very seductive.

EDGE: Peggy Lee wrote her own autobiography in 1989. Russell Baker once said, "The autobiographer's problem is that he (or she) knows too much. The biographer's problem is that he never knows enough." What advantage did you have as a biographer?

James Gavin: Distance. I had a voracious appetite for learning the truth. The more something eludes me, the more determined I am to get it, especially in the case of Peggy Lee, who was so mysterious on so many levels. I tried to answer the "Why?" of Peggy Lee. That's the biggest question a biographer can have. There are a lot of artists who behave in difficult and horrible ways, but there is always a question "Why?" behind it. Nobody is just a bitch.

My challenge in writing this book was to explain why, as best I could, Peggy behaved the way she did. Peggy is very beloved. Even among those people that she at some point burned, most of them ended up forgiving her because there was something so innately sympathetic about her that made you want to protect her and understand her. She touches the heart, and when someone does that you forgive a lot.

I proofread and revised this book so many times. Even after all I knew about Peggy Lee, when she was dying near the end, I got choked up almost every time, and that said to me that I had done what I had set out to do. I still cared, I still loved her. And hope other people have that reaction.


Any Surprises?

EDGE: Did you uncover any surprises that have never been published before?

James Gavin: I sure did. The main one was what I believe to be the true story of her much-mythologized relationship with her stepmother, whom Peggy demonized to no end, mainly after she died in the mid-70s. I don't know to what degree Peggy believed what she said was true. She had an ability to convince herself that her fantasies were real. Nobody can do that all the way. If you succeed at that 100%, you'll be a very happy person. If you succeed at that 90%, the other 10% is going to cause you a lot of problems in life. In the first half of her life, she drank a lot. In the second half of her life, she kept herself pretty numbed on prescription drugs. So what does that tell you?

EDGE: With all of her problems -- her lungs, her drinking, her smoking, her Valium addiction, her weight problems -- it's amazing she lived to 81.

James Gavin: Peggy was reared in a place that created very strong women. She was a remarkable combination of survival and self-destruction running on parallel tracks.

EDGE: A biography seems like a gargantuan task. Is there a basic process to undertaking such a task?

James Gavin: First of all, writing the book is a very comforting thing. You only have to sell the book once, and then you have a project to occupy your time for the next several years. I would have never made it as a full-time journalist, having to go through this process for small pieces again and again and again.

In the case of all my biography subjects, they were people I already knew a lot about. In the case of Peggy, in a sense I had been researching this book since I was about ten years old. I had all that material to draw on. I did a Vanity Fair profile of Peggy Lee that ran in 2002, and I had interviewed a lot of the key people who died before I started doing my book. Luckily, I had gotten to them. I start with a big lump of material and thoughts.

Then I go to the Lincoln Center Library and I start gathering more materials, and then create a timeline. I break it up into rough chapter headings, let's say by decade. I start contacting people, especially people I would not want to die on me.

I was astonished to find at least fifteen or more who had known her back in her North Dakota days, from the late '20s to the '40s. Some were in assisted living places or nursing homes, but all of them had their marbles. To have eyewitnesses to tell me about things that happened to Peggy in 1934 was extraordinary.

I love interviewing more than anything else. I love detective work and interviewing. Writing is hell, but everything that leads up to the writing is fun. At a certain point, when I have enough to put it in some kind of order, a rough draft starts to materialize. I know this process seems very scary to people, but it's all comforting. At this juncture, my book exists. Now I'm scared. I have this terror over how it's going to be received.

EDGE: Hey, at least it's being received!

James Gavin:You're right about that. I made it this far. But even with a big publisher, which I am lucky to have, I still don't assume that anyone has heard of me or that anyone knows or cares that much about Peggy Lee. I have aggressively taken on the publicity part of this myself. Nobody else is going to care like I care.

EDGE: If the biographer decided to turn to James Gavin as his subject, what might be the essence of his story?

James Gavin: I've hardly ever done any autobiographical writing at all. People who know something about my story have urged me to try. I'm afraid to do it; I'm afraid nobody would care. It's easier to hide behind Peggy Lee.

But I've asked myself that same question. A couple of things pop into my head. One of the great quotes I ever got was when I interviewed Anita O'Day in an assisted living facility, but who was getting ready to perform again. She said to me, 'You gotta have desire, man.' I repeat that to myself a lot. I was lucky. I had desire. My father had an alcohol problem until I was sixteen years old. Many children of alcoholics often have problems of their own. My desire was to never be like that. To this day, I'm kind of anti-alcohol and drugs and smoking.

But I had a lot of desire. I wanted to prove my space on Earth and find something to do and be good at it. When I discovered books and discovered music and discovered writing -- in that order -- I saw salvation for myself and I figured out a way to join all those things together, and it saved me. It gave me my life.

But I love singers more than anything else. I'm in love with the human voice and the capacity it has to move me.


For more on James Gavin and how to order his books, visit his website.

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).


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