Peggy was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota.
After her mother died when Peggy was four, her father married Minnie Schaumberg Wiese but later left home, leaving Peggy’s care entrusted to a stepmother who physically abused her.
Norma headed for Hollywood after she graduated from high school in 1938.
With her she took $18 in cash and a railroad pass she had borrowed from her father.
Although she got a brief singing engagement at the Jade Room, a supper club on Hollywood Boulevard, she made little impression on the film capital, and she was reduced to working as a waitress and as a carnival spieler at a Balboa midway.
Deciding to try her luck nearer home, she found work as a singer over radio station WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota.
The manager, Ken Kennedy, christened her Peggy Lee.
Her prospects for a career brightened when she moved to Minneapolis, where she sang in the dining room of the Radisson Hotel, appeared on a Standard Oil radio show, and sang with Sev Olsen’s band.
Peggy broke into the big time when she became a vocalist with Will Osborne’s band, but three months after she joined the group it broke up in St. Louis, and she got a ride to California with the manager.
It was at the Doll House in Palm Springs, California that Peggy Lee first developed the soft and “cool” style that has become her trademark.
Unable to shout above the clamor of the Doll House audience, Miss Lee tried to snare its attention by lowering her voice.
Quote from Discovering Great Singers of Classic Pop
Chatting and laughing, clanging cocktail glasses, the audience was louder than the band, as Peggy Lee tells the story. It was 1941, at a swanky club in Palm Springs called the Doll House. Lee was booming out her songs, but nobody seemed to care much about hearing her. Then she got a thought. For the next tune, whose title she doesn’t recall, she lowered her voice to a hush, quieter than the crowd, and the audience started settling down and listening. Apocryphal or not, the story nicely dramatizes the inverted emotional physics at work in Peggy Lee’s singing. By reducing how much she gives her listeners, she increases how much they get.
There, she was noticed by bandleader Benny Goodman.
According to Peggy, “Benny’s then-fiancée, Lady Alice Duckworth, came into The Buttery, and she was very impressed. So the next evening she brought Benny in, because they were looking for a replacement for Helen Forrest. And although I didn’t know, I was it. He was looking at me strangely, I thought, but it was just his preoccupied way of looking. I thought that he didn’t like me at first, but it just was that he was preoccupied with what he was hearing.”
She joined his band in 1941 when the band was at the height of its popularity, and for over two years she toured the United States with the most famous swing outfit of the day, playing hotel engagements, college proms, theater dates, and radio programs.
Much of her present success Miss Lee credits to her apprenticeship with the big bands. “I learned more about music from the men I worked with in bands than I’ve learned anywhere else,” she has said. “They taught me discipline and the value of rehearsing and even how to train…. Band singing taught us the importance of interplay with musicians. And we had to work close to the arrangement.”
In 1942 Lee had her first No. 1 hit, “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place”, followed by “Why Don’t You Do Right?” which sold over 1 million copies and made her famous. She sang with Goodman’s orchestra in two 1943 films, Stage Door Canteen and The Powers Girl.
In March 1943 Lee married Dave Barbour, a guitarist in Goodman’s band. Peggy said, “David joined Benny’s band and there was a ruling that no one should fraternize with the girl singer. But I fell in love with David the first time I heard him play, and so I married him. Benny then fired David, so I quit, too. Benny and I made up, although David didn’t play with him anymore. Benny stuck to his rule. I think that’s not too bad a rule, but you can’t help falling in love with somebody.”
When she left the band that spring, her intention was to quit the footlights altogether and become Mrs. Barbour, fulltime housewife. In March, 1943, Peggy Lee married Dave Barbour, the guitarist in Goodman’s band; shortly thereafter she left the band. After her daughter, Nicki, was born in 1944, Peggy Lee and her husband worked successfully on the West Coast.
It’s to Mr. Barbour’s credit that he refused to let his wife’s singing and composing talent lay dormant for too long. “I fell in love with David Barbour,” she recalled. “But ‘Why Don’t You Do Right’ was such a giant hit that I kept getting offers and kept turning them down. And at that time it was a lot of money. But it really didn’t matter to me at all. I was very happy. All I wanted was to have a family and cling to the children. Well, they kept talking to me and finally David joined them and said ‘You really have too much talent to stay at home and someday you might regret it.'”
She drifted back to songwriting and occasional recording sessions for the Capitol Records in 1947, for whom she recorded a long string of hits, many of them with lyrics and music by Lee and Barbour, including “I Don’t Know Enough About You” (1946) and “It’s a Good Day” (1947).
With the release of the US No. 1-selling record of 1948, “Mañana”, her “retirement” was over. In 1948, Lee’s work was part of Capitol’s library of electrical transcriptions for radio stations. An ad for Capitol Transcriptions in a trade magazine noted that the transcriptions included “special voice introductions by Peggy.”
Following the completion of her contract run with Capitol, Miss Lee was signed by Decca Records where she remained for six years, returning to Capitol in 1958. At Decca, Lee produced the quintessential recording of “Fever,” perhaps her greatest recording and certainly one of the top songs to emerge from the early Rock N’ Roll period.
In 1948 Lee joined vocalists Perry Como and Jo Stafford as a host of the NBC Radio musical program The Chesterfield Supper Club. She was a regular on The Jimmy Durante Show and appeared frequently on Bing Crosby’s radio shows during the late 1940s and early 1950s.
In 1950 Peggy Lee made a first, brief screen appearance in Paramount’s “Mr. Music,” starring Bing Crosby.
In 1953 she played a featured role opposite Danny Thomas in Warner Brothers’ remake of the early Al Jolson talking picture, “The Jazz Singer,” and won praise from a critic of the “New York Wolrd-Telegram and Sun” for “a very promising start on a movie career” as “a poised and ingratiating ingenue.”
Her performance as a despondent and alcoholic blues singer in “Pete Kelly’s Blues” (Warner Brothers, 1955) won her a nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In the 1955 balloting conducted by the Council of Motion Picture Organizations, moviegoers voted her the “Audie” statuette.
She provided speaking and singing voices for several characters in the Disney movie Lady and the Tramp (1955), playing the human “Darling” (in the first part of the movie), the dog “Peg”, and the two Siamese cats, “Si and Am”.
In 1957, she guest starred on the short-lived variety program The Guy Mitchell Show.
Critic George Hoefer of “Downbeat” magazine has called her “the greatest white female jazz singer since Mildred Bailey,” and Leonard Feather in “The Encyclopedia of Jazz” (Horizon, 1960) has described her as “one of the most sensitive and jazz-oriented singers in the pop field.”
Miss Lee won the 1946 polls as best female vocalist of both “Metronome” and “Downbeat” magazines, wisely read by jazz buffs, and the 1950 citation as “the nation’s most popular female vocalist” from “Billboard,” a trade magazine of show business.
A frequent performer on television, she sang on the Thursday night “Revlon Revues” over CBS-TV in 1960, and has appeared on televised musical variety shows starring Perry Como, George Gobel, Steve Allen and Bing Crosby. In March, 1960 she undertook a straight dramatic role in “So Deadly, So Evil” on the “General Electric Theater” over CBS-TV.
In September, 1962 Miss Lee reached what she has called the “high spot” in her career when she was selected to appear in Philharmonic Hall of New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, an auditorium usually available to those whom the management considers as serious artists. Miss Lee conducted research for, and wrote a program called “The Jazz Tree,” tracing the origins and development of jazz as a native American art form. Originally scheduled for December, 1962, the booking was postponed until March, 1963 to give Miss Lee enough time to perfect her presentation.
This perfectionist approach to her programs is typical of Miss Lee. She polishes and perfects every aspect of her performances – her special coiffures, her costly wardrobe, her lighting, her entrances and exits, and her musical arrangements.
Her perfectionism may derive from her association with Benny Goodman, who always demanded the best from his performers. Rejecting the improvisatory approach of most jazz singers, Peggy Lee plans every detail of her delivery in advance, including even the movement of her hands.
This perfectionism has taken its toll of her health on several occasions; she was hospitalized with virus pneumonia in July, 1958 and in November, 1961. As a result, Miss Lee has reduced her schedule, confining her public appearances to six weeks each year in New York and Las Vegas, a few television shows, and one or two charity benefits.
Lee continued to perform into the 1990s, sometimes confined to a wheelchair.After years of poor health, she died of complications from diabetes and a heart attack on January 21, 2002, at the age of 81.
She was cremated and her ashes were buried in a bench-style monument in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Born: 371 BC Died: January 21, 2002
What she did: Courtesan
by José Frappa. Phryne is depicted baring her breasts before the jury.
Phryne at the Poseidonia in Eleusis by Henryk Siemiradzki, c. 1889. Phryne is shown naked, preparing to step into the sea.
PHRYNE by Jean Alexandre Joseph Falguière
Phryne, was born as Mnesarete in around 371 BC in Ancient Greece.
Though her birth name was Mnesarete, she was given the nickname Phryne which meant “toad.” This was partly because she had a yellowish complexion and because this was a common nickname given to sex workers.
Phryne was a sex worker living in Athens. She was known for her exceptional
beauty, so she was very successful.
Her beauty inspired a variety of artworks. During a festivals, Phryne would let down her hair and walk naked into the ocean. It is said that this inspired the artist Apelles to create his painting Aphrodite Anadyomene which depicts the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite’s birth from the sea.
Sculptor Praxilteles used her as the model for his sculpture Aphrodite of Knidos
ONE THE FIRST NUDE STATUES OF A WOMAN FROM ANCIENT GREECE. This was a big deal because the art world was dominated by heroic male nudity at the time. The nudity was so controversial at the time that the city of Cos that originally commissioned it refused to take it. However, the city of Knidos bought it and it
became such a popular tourist attraction, the entire city managed to pay off its debt.
Phryne was the model for more of Praxilteles’ sculptures, including one that depicted Eros, the Greek version of cupid, and one of Phryne herself that was made of SOLID FUCKING GOLD and placed in the temple of Delphi.
When philosopher Crates of Thebes saw the gold statue, he called it “a votive offering of the profligacy of Greece.”
Phryne made bank as a sex worker and model. She was apparently so rich that after the walls of Thebes were destroyed by Alexander the Great in 336 BC, she offered to pay to rebuild them on one condition; that the walls be inscribed with the message “Destroyed by Alexander, Restored by Phryne the Courtesan.”
However, the city rejected her offer because the idea that a woman, let alone a sex worker, could rebuild the walls that a powerful man destroyed, was emasculating to the male leaders of the city.
Most of what we know of Phryne is from writer Athenaeus (Athen-aus). He wrote of her once: “Phryne was a really beautiful woman, even in those parts of her person which were not generally seen: on which account it was not easy to see her naked; for she used to wear a tunic which covered her whole person, and she never used the public baths. But on the solemn assembly of the Eleusinian festival, and on the feast of the Poseidonia, then she laid aside her garments in the sight of all the assembled Greeks, and having undone her hair, she went to bathe in the sea.”
Sometime during her life Phryne faced a capital criminal charge. We don’t know what she was charged with, but some records suggest it was impiety, or a lack of reverence for the gods.
Her defender was the great orator Hypereides who was also one of her clients.
Now, in ancient Greece, beauty was likened to favor from the gods. If you were born beautiful, you must be blessed.
So, when things weren’t looking good for her, Hypereides removed Phryne’s robe and basically told everyone to look at her breasts.
Not wanting to be smited by the gods, the judges acquitted Phryne.
Gladys Bentley’s powerful voice, fiery energy on the piano and bold lyrics made her a star of New York City nightclubs. (NMAAHC)
2. Gladys Bentley by unidentified photographer, ca. 1940 (NMAAHC)
Courtesy of Wikimedia
Bentley looking over a scrapbook of her career, circa 1952
Born: August 12, 1907 Died: January 18, 1960
What she did: Harlem Renaissance Entertainer
Gladys was born in Pennsylvania. Her father George was American and her mother, Mary, was Trinidadian. Unfortunately, hers was not a happy childhood.
The eldest of 4 children in a low-income family, Gladys struggled. It didn’t help that Gladys’ mother wished she had been a boy.
Gladys wrote later in her life, “When they told my mother she had given birth to a girl, she refused to touch me. She wouldn’t even nurse me and my grandmother had to raise me for 6 months on a bottle before they could persuade my mother to take care of her own baby.”
This rejection made Gladys resentful towards her brothers and she hated the idea of a man touching her.
From a young age, Gladys didn’t conform to gender norms of the day. She wore boys’ clothes, had a crush on a female elementary teacher, and didn’t behave in a ‘lady-like’ manner.
She wrote, “It seems I was born different. At least, I always thought I was.”
Disturbed by their daughter’s lack of dress-wearing, Gladys’ parents took her to doctors because y’know, this was clearly a medical issue. Gladys was later diagnosed with “extreme social maladjustment.”
This toxic home life drove Gladys to run away to Harlem when she was 16 years old in 1923.
Gladys had a natural talent as a pianist and blues singer. She quickly found work as a performer, especially in speakeasies which were popular during prohibition.
She started out recording 8 tracks of music for $400.
Then she heard that a local gay bar, Harry Hansberry’s Clam House, was looking for a male pianist. Already perfectly comfortable wearing suites, Gladys began playing there dressed as a man under the stage name Barbara “Bobbie” Minton. She started out at $35 a week and went up to $125 due to her success.
Her act became so popular that the bar was renamed “Barbara’s Exclusive Club” after her stage name.
Gladys then began performing at the Ubangi Club on Park Avenue where she created her own musical revue with a chorus of 8 male dancers all in drag. She started making enough money she was able to afford a $300/month apartment on Park Ave along with servants and a nice car.
Gladys’ signature look was a white tuxedo and white top hat. Her acts included overt sexuality and her deep voice appealed to audiences across the sexual and racial spectrum.
In her songs, she would call out misogyny and sing about sexual relationships, including her own with women.
By 1933, Gladys was headlining at prominent nightclubs and theaters including the Apollo.
Her skill didn’t go unnoticed. Langston Hughes wrote of Gladys:
“For 2 or 3 amazing years, Miss Bentley sat and played piano all night long with scarcely a break between the notes, sliding from one song to another, with a powerful and continuous underbeat of jungle rhythm. Miss Bentley was an amazing exhibition of musical energy- a large, dark, masculine lady whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard- a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm.”
In 1932, Gladys publicly married a white woman during a civil ceremony in New Jersey. We don’t know who the woman was or much about their marriage.
When Gladys tried to take her show to Broadway in 1933, the owners of the Clam House club she had been playing at sued her, saying that their club had been built around Gladys’ music and that they had a 5-year contract with Gladys’ and her performances.
This led to a Supreme Court battle as Gladys tried to take more control over her career. Despite the suite, Gladys moved her act to Broadway. Unfortunately, her raunchy performances caused people to complain and the police began locking the doors of places she performed.
This forced her to move back to Harlem where she performed at the Ubangi Club for 3 more years before it closed in 1937.
The decline of prohibition was great for everyone, but it resulted in the decline of Harlem speakeasies which hurt Gladys’ career.
She moved to southern California where she played at gay nightclubs and was billed as “America’s Greatest Sepia Piano Player” and the “Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs.”
What hurt her more than the end of prohibition was the government’s increasing criminalization of LGBTQ+ people. Due to federal laws, Gladys had to carry a special permit to be allowed to perform in her signature suites.
Then in the 1950s U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy came on the scene.
McCarthy was an infamous fear monger who was super popular
during the Cold War era when everyone was waiting for Russia to Nuke the United States.
McCarthyism, the practice of accusing people of treason, being a communist, or whatever else you felt like, was named after him.
During this time, people were being accused of having communist sympathies or being traitors to the United States.
It didn’t take much to become accused of something. Being a black lesbian who wore suites made Gladys a target.
Gladys suddenly began wearing dresses and married a man whom she only knew for 5 months.
She claimed she had been ‘cured’ of her lesbianism by taking female hormones and undergoing an operation.
They divorced later and the dude later denied he and Gladys were ever married.
On January 8th , 1960 at the age of 52, Gladys died unexpectedly from Pneumonia in her Los Angeles home.
Just before her death, she had been ordained as a minister, but never got her official paperwork.
Gladys was challenging societal norms of gender, sexuality, and entertainment from day 1. Her masculine attire and public relationships with women in a time when being ‘out’ was dangerous and unaccepted.
Gladys never attempted to ‘pass’ as a man but displayed an energy of ‘black female masculinity’ that challenged her audience’s views on race and sexuality.
Fencing Lesson. Artwork by Charlotte
“Mademoiselle Maupin de l’Opera”. Anonymous print, ca. 1700.
From the resource History Masquerade
La Maupin, L’Heroine
Cover page of the French magazine “Le Matin” (Morning), 1910s
What she did: Sword-slinging opera singer, and larger-than-life bisexual celebrity of 17th-century France.
Julie d’Aubigny was born in France around 1673. She was the only child to a secretary to King Louis XIV’s Master of Horse, Count d’Armagnac, one of France’s great nobles.
After first living in the riding school at the Tuileries Palace in Paris (where she learned to ride and take care of horses), she then moved with the court to the opulent Palace of Versailles in 1682.
While her father worked in King Louis XIV’s luxurious court, Julie d’Aubigny grew up in less-glamorous quarters, namely, the Great Stables.
Julie excelled at fencing from a very early age and her father chose to educate his only child alongside the young boys. It was while training alongside the court pages that her love for dressing up as a boy first began.
In 1687, the Count d’Armagnac took her for his mistress when she was barely fourteen years old.
He then had her married to Sieur de Maupin of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and she became Madame de Maupin (or simply “La Maupin” per French custom).
Soon after the wedding, her husband received an administrative position in the south of France, but the Count kept her in Paris.
She soon ran away to Marseille with her fencing instructor, Séranne.
While travelling and performing in these impromptu shows, La Maupin dressed in male clothing but did not conceal her sex. She was already so skilled with the sword at this point in her life that audiences sometimes would not believe that she was actually a woman.
When one drunken onlooker proclaimed loudly that she was actually a man, she tore off her shirt, providing him ample evidence to the contrary.
On arrival in Marseille, she joined the opera company run by Pierre Gaultier, singing under her maiden name.
Eventually, she grew bored of Sérannes and became involved with a young woman a local merchant’s daughter.
The merchant, desperate to separate the two, sent his daughter to a convent
La Maupin followed, entering the convent as a postulant.
In order to run away with her new love, she stole the body of a recently dead nun, placed it in the bed of her lover, and set the room on fire to cover their escape.
Their affair lasted for three months before the young woman returned to her family. La Maupin was charged in absentia—as a male—with kidnapping, body snatching, arson, and failing to appear before the tribunal. The sentence was death by fire.
La Maupin left for Paris and again earned her living by singing.
In Villeperdue, still wearing men’s clothing, she was insulted by a young nobleman. They fought a duel and she drove her blade through his shoulder.
The next day, she asked about his health and found out he was Louis-Joseph d’Albert Luynes, son of the Duke of Luynes. Later, one of his companions came to offer d’Albert’s apologies.
She went to his room and subsequently they became lovers and, later, lifelong friends.
After Count d’Albert recovered and had to return to his military unit, La Maupin continued to Rouen.
There she met Gabriel-Vincent Thévenard, another singer, and began a new affair with him. Together they returned to Paris and on their first day there, while Julie was visiting her old lover d’Armagnac to convince him to arrange a pardon for her little indiscretion in Provence, Thévenard auditioned for the Opéra, and was hired immediately.
His condition was that Julie also be allowed to audition and the Opéra reluctantly agreed, so by the age of 17 she found herself a member of one of the world’s greatest musical companies.
She debuted as Pallas Athena in Cadmus et Hermione by Jean-Baptiste Lully the same year.
She performed regularly with the Opéra, first singing as a soprano, and later in her more natural contralto range.
The Marquis de Dangeau wrote in his journal of a performance by La Maupin given at Trianon of Destouches’ Omphale in 1701 that hers was “the most beautiful voice in the world”.
Due to Mademoiselle de Maupin’s beautiful voice, her acting skill, and her androgynous attire, she became quite popular with the audience, although her relationship with her fellow actors and actresses was sometimes tempestuous.
She famously beat the singer Louis Gaulard Dumesny after he pestered the women members of the troupe She responded by ambushing him, pushing a sword in his face, and demanding a duel. When he refused (on the grounds that he was a wimp), she beat him with a cane, stealing his snuffbox and watch. The next day, she caught him complaining that he had been assaulted by a gang of thieves. She called him a liar and a coward, threw his watch and snuffbox at him.
She also fell in love with Fanchon Moreau, another singer who was the mistress of the Grand Dauphin, and tried to commit suicide when she was rejected.
Her Paris career was interrupted around 1695 when she kissed a young woman at a society ball and was challenged to duels by three different noblemen. She beat them all but fell afoul of the king’s law that forbade duels in Paris. This entertained Louis XIV so much that he pardoned her from any punishment. and even though the king had pardoned her (musing that the law governed men, but didn’t say anything about women). She fled to Brussels to wait for calmer times.
There, she was briefly the mistress of Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria. Their relationship did not last too long. Apparently the Elector was a bit nonplussed when she stabbed herself onstage with an actual dagger.
From there she went to Madrid. She found herself working as a maid to a Countess Marino, whom she resented so much that one night before a grand ball she dressed the Countess’s hair with radishes so that everyone but the Countess could see them.
She performed for the court at Versailles, appeared once again in most major Opéra productions, and introduced the Italian idea of the contralto voice to France.
She and Thévenard remained best of friends until her retirement, although they also had some infamous spats, and one evening on stage she bit his ear so hard he bled.
In 1703 she fell in love with Madame la Marquise de Florensac, the “most beautiful woman in France” so beautiful that she too had had to flee to Brussels for several years because the Dauphin was obsessed with her.
The two women lived, according to one account, in perfect harmony for two years, until de Florensac died of a fever when Julie was 31.
She retired from the opera in 1705 and took refuge in a convent, probably in Provence, where she is believed to have died in 1707 at the age of 33. She has no known grave.
She was technically married throughout all of that. Don’t worry if you forgot about it, sounds like she did too.