Sunday, Dec. 22, 2002

Peggy Lee

Platinum Caresses
Miss Peggy Lee, they always called her. If the honorific was meant to elevate a plain stage name (she was born Norma Deloris Egstrom), the effort was redundant; for Lee, vocally and visually, was class and sass in one platinum package. Statue-still onstage, whispering her lyrics like postcoital pillow talk, Lee gave a guilty-secret glow to the blandest ballads. By the mid-'40s she was a pop star and a rare singer-songwriter (It's a Good Day, Mañana); in 1955 she composed songs for Disney's Lady and the Tramp and 36 years later won a suit for royalties on video sales of the film. A sultry jazz minimalist, Lee prevailed in the first age of rock with tunes that exuded steam (Fever), defiance (I Am Woman) and blithe anhedonia (Is That All There Is?). It's amazing that she could caress a melody even though life kept swatting her: she endured an abusive stepmother, diabetes, angioplasty, a near-fatal fall and four busted marriages. "They weren't really weddings," she said, "just long costume parties." Now the party's over, and she's a ghost, a spectral voice, for a generation that surely will miss Peggy Lee.