THE BLOG
09/10/2014 06:35 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

"Is That All There Is?"

"MY LIFE would be much more interesting to audiences than Lena Horne's!"

That's what Peggy Lee said and thought as she prepared to mount the disastrous Broadway musical version of her life, back in 1983. Maybe I once might have thought the two great singers were on par, in terms of personal drama. But having just finished James Gavin's Is That All There Is? -- The Strange Life of Peggy Lee, I see that Miss Lee was just being her usual delusional self.

Lena Horne had a real life with real struggles and in time put those struggles on the table, both to heal herself and make strides for civil rights.

Peggy Lee wallowed in victimization fantasies, spent much of her life in bed, coddling illness (for years thought to be psychosomatic, then all too real) married a variety of undistinguished men. (Her first had his issues but seemed the best of the lot.) And, like many busy/neurotic stars, neglected her child.

•JAMES GAVIN is the author of a book I much admired, on Lena Horne, titled Stormy Weather. It detailed Lena's suffering and humiliations at the hands of nightclub owners, studio execs (MGM simply didn't know what to do with this great, talented beauty.) Also Lena's gradual, controversial, full awakening as an African American woman and entertainer, who felt she'd made too many compromises along the away. Lena's music was electric, highly stylized, often loud, with blazing eyes and bared, perfect teeth. She taunted her audiences with her sexuality, then pushed them away. (This era -- the nightclub years -- is when I forts became friends with Lena and her husband Lennie Hayton.)

•PEGGY LEE, on the other hand, was the epitome of silky, smoky, laid back cool -- so cool, so removed, she sometimes seemed unconscious, or in her own dream world. She could belt, she could wail, she could shake everything the good Lord gave her. But she preferred, as time went on, to make her audiences lean forward and hang on her every syllable. Her minimalism of gesture, her subtle but unmistakably conveyed sex-appeal, her writing skills (often exaggerated by the lady herself) were worshipped among music enthusiasts. And she never stopped trying to incorporate new, modern music into her repertoire, even if her delivery remained fascinatingly elusive, and her physicality increasingly immobile. Those who worked with Peggy adored her musicianship and perfectionism, as grueling as the latter could be.

•HOWEVER, AS mightily and as elegantly as author James Gavin tries, he can't quite bring Peggy Lee to life. Not as a person we should really care about. This isn't the fault of his writing which is excellent -- and if you know about music, he is brilliant when reviewing Miss Lee's voice and gradual alterations to her style. But, as the old expression goes "there's no there, there."

I never grasped the point of what were her obvious, outrageous exaggerations about her abused childhood -- she was like Judy and Marilyn on steroids in that regard! (Peggy Lee also tended to over-dramatize, exaggerate and create from whole cloth everything in her life.) She had pain, no doubt. But she could never let it go, using it to fuel her art and many aspects of her life; it was a cushion and bludgeon. Garland did this too, but Judy was a legendary wit. Miss Lee was not.

Peggy, admirably ambitious and hard-working, seemed to live only to be famous, to excel in her craft and engage in a series of wildly disappointing marriages and affairs. She was eternally anxious, depressed or bitchy, drinking or over-medicated (though the effects of this abuse didn't show up for years, a testament to the good heath she continuingly denied.) She appeared to have absolutely no interest in anything that did not concern her directly. The world's problems were not hers, though she strove mightily for "inner peace" and a spiritual approach to life -- her life.

She was highly sexed. Those who were aroused by her steamy renditions of "Lover" or "Fever" were not being put on. She liked men -- to paraphrase one of her own compositions.

•IT WASN'T all bad. There were certainly plenty of people who loved her. But they generally seemed to feel she needed to be treated either like a child or an empress. (Her musicians and most of the people she worked with professionally were a different story. She was at her best, defining herself as an artist. Her great early influence was Billie Holiday. Lee, however, became more ethereal, Billie was ever earthbound.)

After a while, the litany of sad/crazy stories began to wear on me. I myself thought, Is That All There Is? The sections on her ill-fated Broadway venture, "Peg," and the lawsuit against Disney for royalties from Lady and the Tramp are interesting. (Lee's producer was Zev Buffman, who was also Elizabeth Taylor's producer/business partner/lover. Peggy was wildly insecure in Taylor's presence, and loathed Buffman for bringing Taylor to a party where the "Peg" score would be performed.)

Author Gavin digs up this column's critique on Peggy and her behavior, after the show closed, and our reference to the show as The Lady and Her Misery. (Gavin incorrectly attributes the source of this item to hairdresser Vincent Roppatte. It was actually my then-fledgling assistant Denis Ferrara, who provided a good deal of that "dish.")

The lawsuit chapters are intriguing. Peggy proved herself -- though in a wheelchair and on oxygen -- a worthy opponent to the Disney monolith. (I remember defending the merit of Peggy's legalities vs. Disney and I won a great friend and lawyer, David Blasband, as a result.) But Disney wouldn't settle quickly; no doubt hoping the frail star would die! She didn't. She won, although not to the monetary tune she'd hoped and Disney's appeals wore her out financially. But she never gave in.

•STILL, at the conclusion of Is That All There Is? I was no closer to understanding Miss Peggy Lee than I had been on the first page of the book. She remained as vaporous as many of her latter-day public appearances, and as confounding as some of her most esoteric, ambiguous songs.

James Gavin does pay monumental and expert tribute to Peggy Lee's unique talent, the impact she had on contemporaries (Marilyn Monroe!) and generations of singers after. (kd lang, Madonna.) She was a great artist.

Was that all there was? Maybe. And since most of us didn't know her, I'd say her artistry was quite enough.

The book is worth the effort. The author's understanding of her music alone is superb. But please remember the subtitle -- The Strange Life of Peggy Lee.