"Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee" by James Gavin

Extensively researched (and occasionally exhaustive) warts-and-all biography of pop music icon whose moment in spotlight lasted incredible six decades. The only female counterpart to Frank Sinatra (they both started as big band singers and conquered the world as solo artists just to experience decline as tide of rock music swept them aside) in her prime Lee was one of the biggest stars in the business and as video clips of her performances still attest, hers was a complete command of the stage, bewitching the audiences with unique combination of ice and fire. Projecting simultaneously the elegant reserve, classy sophistication and passion boiling under the surface, Lee would make people swoon just by lifting her eyebrow, flaming her nostrils or snapping the fingers in the impeccable swing rhythm. 

If in her music Lee was all soft, fluffy womanliness and on the stage carefully artificial package of bejewelled, gowned and coiffured vision, it comes as no surprise that behind the scene she might have been demanding, bossy and steely. Than again, everything that author James Gavin (who apparently can't make his mind between admiring his subject or gleefully revealing her eccentricities) exposes could be said for anybody who stayed in the business so long - on her way to the top Lee was probably hurt and abused so many times until she developed protective armour and personality that could stand up to anybody. Four husbands who basically run away from her and the countless testimonies of hairdressers, servants and secretaries paint the picture of romantic dreamer who often escaped in fantasy world of poetry, painting and music until the self-delusion eclipsed the reality. Hardly the first to note a convenient similarity between real life Norma Deloris Egstrom and fictional character of Norma Desmond, Gavin is often spot-on with his conclusions (her exaggerated stories of childhood abuse by evil stepmother were not remembered by other siblings who were living in the same house but "one has to make a distinction between the literal truth and the psychological truth. The story she told was the reality of how she felt about her experiences. One of the things that children often suffer from is not being seen. They feel like they exist in a landscape where they are lost, where nobody knows them. If they translate the emotional beating into literal, physical terms, their experience can be rendered the way they felt it. It’s a cry for attention.") though he seems so preoccupied with cellophane that he completely misses chance to explain the social context in which she lived and worked - what meant to have been a woman breadwinner in 1940s and 1950s, how it affected her professional and private life, for example - this is very important and the main reason why its not possible to ever again encounter another Lee, Fitzgerald or Holiday since they were product of their times. 

"Is That All There Is?" was surprise hit of 1969. and success of that macabre little cabaret number somehow marked the rest of singer's life: from now on, book documents agonisingly long road to darkness, which was not necessarily Lee's own making: the music business have changed, plush nightclubs disappeared together with their sophisticated audiences. What struck me as completely unfair is how much author focuses on cracks in Lee's cellophane: nobody would dare to comment on Sinatra getting old, fat and wrinkled but when it comes to woman, people seems to feel entitled to be cruel. Since the years stole away her youth, looks and eventually even the voice, only thing left was the willpower - surrounded with paid help and sycophants (the only thing these people ever achieved was to have been close to Peggy Lee) she was forced out of necessity to perform in a wheelchair, overstaying her welcome by few decades and gradually losing the connection with reality. Perhaps this was not exactly the author's intention but I walked away from the book with even bigger affection for the singer - its obvious she never found somebody to take care and protect her (was she too intimidating? too successful? too famous?) and for all his poking, Gavin still can't explain where all that talent, beauty, sensitivity and creativity came from.  Don't forget that Lee actually wrote big chunk of her repertoire at the time when singers didn't do this and she had complete authority and command of her shows, backing musicians and contracts. And now the book says she was "bossy" - well, yeah, how else can you achieve all of this - was Sinatra perhaps all soft and mushy pushover? 

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