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Peggy Lee's good-hearted autobiography back in print

Peggy Lee's warm 1989 autobiography – now expanded – returns to print.

By Bruce Sylvester

Peggy Lee

Miss Peggy Lee: An Autobiography

Peggy Lee Associates

Hardcover (422 pages) and online

Born Norma Deloris Egstrom, chanteuse Peggy Lee (1920-2002) as her life progressed would occasionally consider her achievements and ask herself, “How did I ever get here from North Dakota?”

Loaded with anecdotes (usually fond) about show biz biggies, the ordinary people in her life, and even, once, Harry Truman – as well as her pranks and gaffes – her good-hearted autobiography was originally published in 1989. Now it's back in print, with an expanded epilogue and 38 pages of well-compiled “Recommended Listening” and master recording data. There's also, from 1953, “Softly – with Feeling: A Collection of Verse by Peggy Lee,” until now a privately published 43-page gathering of her succinct, quietly witty observations. Her poems, like her classic discs such as “Fever,” show she understood the impact of understatement. Her specifics on a few recording sessions reveal the breadth of her artistic brilliance.

Her childhood had ups and downs. Her grandfather drew on techniques he'd learned while living with Native Americans to invent a charcoal water filter. Explanations of her beloved mother's death when Peg was four confused her. Then came an abusive stepmother, who wouldn't get her medical help when her appendix burst until Peg's brother pointed a gun at her. Reliving an early success – $5 at a local amateur show (“just enough to pay for gasoline and beer for my brother”), “I won a special prize for interpretation. People understood that I understood the words. Because it touched my heart, it touched their hearts. Either I understood it or I wouldn't sing it.”

The big breakthrough came at 21, when Benny Goodman brought her into his band. There she met the love of her life, guitarist Dave Barbour. “I used to think he was a cross between Cary Grant, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus. (How does any man live up to that?)” A happy wife and soon-to-be mom, she got the inspiration for writing “It's a Good Day” while doing housework.

Her first trip to Mexico, where Dave healed after bleeding ulcer surgery, led her to write “Manana.” He provided final touches. Carmen Miranda lent her band, The Brazilians, for the 1947 recording session. “We used what I believe was the first 'board fade' … a gradual turning down of the volume on the studio recording equipment until the sound completely fades out. In this case, though, The Brazilians actually sambaed out of the studio and down the street, playing and singing, 'Manana, manana, manana is soon enough for me!'”

Barbour's alcoholism and financial recklessness made the marriage impossible. He wanted to trade their rights to “Manana” for two Rose Bowl tickets. She stayed on good terms with him and three subsequent exhusbands, understanding that one's being called “Mr. Lee” didn't help their brief marriage.

A few good pages go into her work with Walt Disney's studio on Lady and the Tramp, where she wrote music and provided voices, including both Siamese cats'. She discreetly speaks of how badly she was paid for her work. The book's new edition's expanded epilogue describes her court case for more remuneration.

Her eye must not have been on the dollar. She wrote new verses for her signature song, “Fever” (a Little Willie John cover), but didn't claim credit as co-author – a windfall for its original authors: Eddie Cooley and John.

She also comes across as a workaholic, setting a grueling pace for herself that could have contributed to health issues she often mentions briefly.

This edition's sole illustrations are on the dust jacket. A wealth of photos are available for free at www.peggylee.com, as is still more discographic data to supplement all the book provides. The advantage here is that we have more than a hard-copy book could provide without becoming overly large and thus more expensive. Putting it all online instead makes it accessible to all her fans, which is good for them as well as for her impressive legacy.