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Monday, November 10, 2014

Beaverhausen Book Nook: Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee

Author James Gavin's new biography, Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee, is a stunning tell-all that goes on sale Tuesday, November 11. Well-researched, making use of a multitude of interviews, this bio really gripped me from start to finish. The first two chapters, devoted to Ms Lee's early life before joining Benny Goodman's band as vocalist, give us essential information about the singer's formative years, gratefully without belaboring that period.

With a cool-as-a cucumber on-stage presence, it never occurred to me that this diva had so many personal demons and such a tumultuous psyche. Gavin details her traumatic childhood and how one Norma Egstrom of North Dakota transformed herself into Peggy Lee and became an international star.

But, yikes, what a scary and volatile star she could be! Despite the sexy purr of her voice, there was one sick pussycat behind what the book's press release describes as "her sphinx-like presence [that] made her seem as mysterious as the Mona Lisa." Better she should be a mystery because those who worked with her got to see the real Miss Peggy Lee. "Peggy seemed to run on anger," composer Mike Stoller (of Leiber & Stoller, who co-wrote the song "Is That All There Is?") is quoted as saying. And, in 1986, the wheelchair-bound diva took Disney Pictures to court over unpaid royalties to which she felt entitled from the video release of Lady & the Tramp.

Her stage, screen, television and recording triumphs (and flops, like her Broadway show that folded after three performances) are all discussed and detailed. But it's largely her personal life that captivates. Every prurient moment of her failed marriages, affairs, bad relationship with daughter, erratic behavior, feuds with other celebs like Liz Taylor, ballooning weight (like Liz Taylor), litany of health troubles (like Liz Taylor) and addiction to pills (Quaaludes and Black Beauties, for instance, the kind of meds doctors no longer prescribe so much these days) and alcohol (like Liz Taylor) is scrutinized. Talk about a mess in a dress! Peggy was enough to give anybody fever ~~ and not in a good way.

This true life story was more trashy fun than reading Valley of the Dolls! Ms Lee's dirty linen is spread before us by the author through such eloquent prose, it's impossible not to take it all very seriously despite its salacious juiciness. The book is also full of handsome black-and-white photos throughout.

Peggy Lee's private hell would be Oscar-material heaven for some daring young actress. Reese Witherspoon and Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, HBO's Mildred Pierce) are currently attached to a Peggy Lee biopic from a script by the late Nora Efron. Too bad they didn't option this well-investigated and sensational book instead. When it comes to telling the story of Peggy Lee, it can't be topped.

Thanks to friend Kevin Scott Hall for bringing this biography to my attention. Kevin has an interview with James Gavin coinciding with the release of Is That All There Is? at fine bookstores throughout the USA tomorrow. Look for the interview on-line at Edge New York.


  1. love it, wanna get this

  2. This review truly made a great night in my life even greater. I love what you wrote, DJ. I'll be spreading it around. Thank you so very much for the time you put into writing this, and thank you for liking my book.

    James Gavin

  3. Thank you, James, for writing this! Amazing job, a pleasure to read & to review. Who knew!