The first major biography of the legendary singer--an enthralling account of a charismatic artist moving through the greatest, most glamorous
era of American music
"I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, and Mr. Cary Grant." So said Peggy Lee, the North Dakota girl who sang like she'd just stepped out of Harlem. Einstein adored her; Duke Ellington dubbed her "the Queen." With her platinum cool and inimitable whisper she sold twenty million records, made more money than Mickey Mantle, and along with pals Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby presided over music's greatest generation. Yet beneath the diamonds she was still Norma Delores Egstrom, insecure and always looking for acceptance.
Drawing on exclusive interviews and new information, Peter Richmond delivers a complex, compelling portrait of an artist and an era that begins with a girl plagued by loss, her father's alcoholism, and her stepmother's abuse. One day she gets on a train hoping her music will lead her someplace better. It does--to a new town and a new name; to cities and clubs where a gallery of brilliant innovators are ushering in a brand-new beat; to four marriages, a daughter, Broadway, Vegas, and finally Hollywood. Richmond traces how Peggy rose, right along with jazz itself, becoming an unstoppable hit-maker ("Fever," "Ma�ana," "Is That All There Is?"). We see not only how this unforgettable star changed the rhythms of music, but also how--with her drive to create, compose, and perform--she became an artist whose style influenced k.d. lang, Nora Jones, and Diana Krall.
Fever brings the lady alive again--and makes her swing.
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Henry Holt and Co.
March 06, 2006
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Excerpt from Fever by Peter Richmond
Dreamland on the Train
ON THE BARE stage of a small town hall in the middle of an isolated farm village in a large, empty state, a blond girl sat at a piano with her back to the audience, playing the music she loved more than anything else in life. She was ten years old. The year was 1930. The town was Nortonville, North Dakota.
Friends and neighbors had gathered on folding chairs on the floor below. Like most of the people in those times, they had little to spare. The Depression was as unrelenting as the summer winds that scoured their parched topsoil and buffeted the town hall's six narrow windows that day. But the people of Nortonville were happy enough to listen to the girl play, and not only out of a sense of obligation--everyone knew she had troubles at home--but because the fifth-grader with the remarkably upbeat disposition was an obviously talented child.
Norma Egstrom had never performed in a venue as grand as the Nortonville town hall. The biggest room she'd ever played before was the practice space behind the sanctuary over at the modest Methodist church, where she sat at the Washburn upright piano. The town hall was the big time, the social anchor of a community boasting one bank, one hotel, threegrocers, a restaurant, a bowling alley, a blacksmith, a livery, a hardware store, and a railroad depot. A long, thin clapboard structure, free of architectural adornment, the hall had been raised from the dirt a dozen years before, in all of three weeks, by townspeople eager to see their crossroads claim some sort of recognition in the beleaguered grassy outback of the southeastern part of their state.
It was here that Nortonville gathered to watch the motion pictures, as kids chewed the sunflower seeds that grew in the endless ocean of fields surrounding their homes. It was here that citizens came to hear the lectures that brought news about the world beyond the plains horizon. It was in the hall that they skated, played basketball, and danced. And it was in the town hall that Norma Deloris Egstrom made her public debut in a recital on that summer afternoon in 1930.
Finishing her song, she rose from the piano stool and heard the applause: the unequivocal and tangible affection that only an audience can provide, a feeling that can be especially gratifying when acceptance is hard to come by in the usual places. She had always been a shy girl; she would later say that she'd sung before she talked. Now she'd spoken, and she'd been heard.
People in Nortonville who recall that day won't go so far as to say that the girl was the best child pianist they'd ever heard, but they still marvel at her dedication. They speak of her with pride, though some concede that even before she played a note, the members of the audience were already disposed to like her. Norma Egstrom's dad, a father of seven, the station manager for the humble Midland Continental Railroad depot just down the street, was a gentle, kind, whimsical man. But he was also a drinker. He wasn't morose, or somber, or violent, but neither was he responsible or accomplished. Marvin Egstrom was a "rail"--an itinerant depot manager and agent--at a time when depots and railroads dotted the landscape of America.
Before his sixth child's birth, Marvin's curriculum vitae had been a checkered one. He'd been a superintendent with the South Central Dakota line down in Sioux Falls until his drinking prompted the railroad to demote him to station agent. After that, he'd hooked up with the Midland Continental, up north in Jamestown, North Dakota, where, according to documents from the archives of the railroad's owner at the time, Egstrom had been associated with a scandal involving fraud and larceny.The railroad had exiled him to Nortonville, with a significant cut in salary, when Norma was eight.
Most people who knew him would say that Marvin Egstrom and the everyday did not, in general, make a good fit, especially in a part of the nation where a man was defined by the acreage he owned. The railroad people had no real place there. They worked for a machine that signified transience in a state that was still enough of a frontier to pride itself on roots, literal and figurative. The Midland, not one of the more impressive lines, comprised only seventy-seven miles of track running north and south from Wimbledon to Edgeley with just a dozen stops in between.
Marvin Egstrom was a pleasant, ineffectual man who, like nearly all of his family's members, had music in his soul. It manifested itself in unconventional ways, like the performance of an impromptu jig in the post office in the middle of the day, or a solo sung to the rails at two in the morning. "A couple of drinks," recalled one of Norma's classmates, "and her father could do the best soft-shoe dance you ever saw."
Marvin's wife, Min--Norma's stepmother--cut a very different figure. She was stout, dour, congenitally cross, and surrounded by rumors. One concerned the freak accident in South Dakota--involving a torch and a frozen valve on a drum of gasoline--that had blown her first husband's head off. Speculation would persist that the man had killed himself. His widow's stern and humorless demeanor did little to lessen the credence of the tale.
Other stories came closer to home, and were far more credible: Min Egstrom, it was whispered, beat her stepdaughter.
The people of Nortonville (population 125) knew little about Norma's early childhood up the road in Jamestown, the county seat. Jamestown could boast the college and the mighty Northern Pacific's terminal, as well as the headquarters station of the humble Midland. It was also the home of the "bughouse"--the state mental institution, south of town.
Norma's real mother, Selma Anderson Egstrom, had died in Jamestown at the age of thirty-nine, when Norma was four. In April 1924, she had given birth to her last child, a daughter named Jean, and was confined to her bed after that. On August 6, Selma passed away, leaving seven children: Norma, her five older brothers and sisters, and her infant sister. Marvin and Selma Egstrom had been married for twenty-one years.
With the Reverend Joseph Johnson of the Scandinavian Lutheran church presiding, the memorial service was held in the Egstrom home. Toosmall to peek over the coffin's side, Norma was lifted up to peer into her mother's casket. She would recall seeing a frail woman at rest. Selma Egstrom's remains were sent to her family's hometown of Volga, South Dakota, where she was buried. Norma's infant sister, Jean, went to live with Selma Egstrom's sister until the girl's death, at age fourteen, of "a heart ailment of long standing."
Norma was now the youngest in the household: a four-year-old with no mother, an alcoholic father, and her music. It was upon the occasion of her mother's death that Norma wrote her first song. "I remember writing a lyric to the song 'Melody of Love' when my mother died, when I was four," Peggy Lee would recall, many years later when her imagination and sense of her own myth had been heightened. "It wasn't a brilliant lyric, but I think it was interesting that a child would write one. I would walk around the house singing, 'Mama's gone to dreamland on the train.'"
Norma's memories of her mother's home were vivid. In later years she would recall Selma's crystal and fresh linen, the scents of her baking, and the melodies her mother sang and played on the keys of her prize possession: a Circassian walnut piano. As in so many households of the time, entertainment in the Egstrom house was left to the creativity of the family, and music had always been part of the Egstroms' lives. Years later, a classmate would remember that both Della and Marianne Egstrom, Norma's two older sisters, had exceptional voices. "But they did not," recalled the classmate, "have the oomph to do anything about it."
Six months after Selma's death, the Egstrom home burned to the ground. Until the family relocated to another place in Jamestown, Norma lived with the former in-laws, and then the parents, of Min Schaumberg, who had been working as the nurse for Norma's married sister Della's first child.
Norma enjoyed her time with the elder Schaumbergs as best she could. The old man's meerschaum pipe, his German-language newspaper, his old-world ways--these intrigued and comforted her. Best of all, they had a player piano. During the afternoons, the Schaumbergs would try to coax the girl into taking a nap in the parlor, but she spent more time on her knees pumping the pedals with her hands than she did sleeping.
More often, Norma would be in the yard outside, peering out through the black iron picket fence as she waited for her father to visit and take her away, if only for a meal. One day Marvin Egstrom arrived with news: MinSchaumberg would be Norma's new mother. Min's son, Edwin, would be her stepbrother. One year to the week after her mother's death, Marvin Egstrom officially took a new wife. The unusual figure they cut--the thin, pleasant Marvin and the fat, frowning Min--would prompt many remarks.
"I didn't want to imagine him loving her after mama," Norma would later write in her memoir, Miss Peggy Lee. "I often wondered why Daddy and Min got married. Was it because of what Marianne and I heard ... about Daddy being asked by [his supervisor] to 'fix the books a little for the good of the railroad'? It was something about the per diem reports. Was it because Daddy was drinking and Min knew and might tell on him?"
Far likelier was that Marvin Egstrom, a widower with several children, wanted a woman who could run his household while he tried to hold down his own job and his children did their share around the home and in the community. Like all the kids in Jamestown, Norma and her siblings who still lived at home--Marianne and brother Clair--would be sent out to help on local farms. It was Clair she was always closest to, though he did torment his little sister in the universal fashion of older siblings. When they had to harvest pails of gooseberries in a local park, Clair would stuff the bottom of his own bucket with grass and leaves and talk Norma into exchanging pails. When they'd help out on a local farm, Clair would get Norma to milk the cows that he was supposed to milk. As for Min's own son, Edwin, neither Norma nor Clair was particularly fond of him. The feeling was said to be mutual.
It is not hard to imagine bashful, quiet Norma acceding to her older brother's schemes. Self-conscious about her weight and no doubt baffled by the inexplicable (to a young child) disappearance of her mother, Norma had trouble meeting someone's glance. Her reticence even extended to the legendary local barnstormer whose aerial antics above the fields outside Jamestown provided prairie entertainment. Still, despite her shyness, Norma was fascinated with Ole Olson's Curtiss; it was said he could pick up a handkerchief with the wingtip of his plane. Norma wanted to go up into the sky so badly that one day, when Olson told her he'd take her if she'd dance the Charleston for him, dance she did, and up she went.
The escape was fleeting. Within days of her father's wedding, Norma's stepmother had wielded the willow switch she'd commanded the girl to pluck for punishment. Whatever the woman's motivation, discipline was frequent and formidable: "Florid face, bulging thyroid eyes, long blackhair to her waist pulled back in a bun, heavy breathing," was Norma's later recollection of Min. "Obese and strong as a horse, she beat everyone into a fright. Even the men were afraid of her."
Added to the physical beatings were psychological ones. Her stepmother would criticize Norma's physical attributes: She weighed too much; her hands were too big. "I grew up terribly self-conscious of [my hands]," Peggy Lee once said, many years later. "I would hold them behind me ... fold them up, never present them flat to view but edge-wise only. I was one of the quickest handshakers you ever saw."
When the Midland relocated Marvin and his family down to Nortonville, the Egstroms didn't have much to move. Norma took her love of music, and a subtle sound that had imprinted itself in her head during the years she'd lived just a few blocks from the busy Northern Pacific tracks: the downbeat of iron boxcar wheels clacking one after another, hundreds of them, forever on end. She would carry the rhythm wherever she went--just as she carried the songs she had learned to love--for the rest of her life.