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Pilgrimage to North Dakota

After visiting St. John's Lutheran Church, where a picture of Norma's 1934 confirmation class brightens the basement, I stopped expecting much of Jamestown architecture. I guess beauty isn't an architect's first concern in a place where winter temperatures sink to 20 below. Still, I couldn't help thinking how poor Norma must have suffered. Peggy Lee had her detractors (she was mean to the help, she operated on anger), but no one denies her brilliant understanding of surface appeal. The shimmering Jean Louis wardrobe, the confectionary coiffures—all were a response to the unpromising visual landscape of her youth.

No article of Peggy regalia in Jamestown refutes her beginnings like the lace dress, replete with fishtail train weighted with lead washers, in the Stutsman County Memorial Museum. The Stutsman is devoted to pioneer life and as such is filled with butter churns and chamber pots, making it an odd repository for such a vampy garment. "It's for standing, not sitting," said curator Leah Mitchell, referring to the gown's second-skin fit. Indeed, while the mannequin has the same waist size Peggy did at the time—27 inches—the only way it can wear the dress is minus a leg.

As thrilling as the exhibit is, Stevenson dismisses it as small change, like Peggy's inclusion on the wall of "Famous North Dakotans," which also features Angie Dickinson and Mr. Bubble creator Harold Schafer, in the Walz Pharmacy. The wall is behind a counter of crocheted baby booties, cruciform bookmarks, and Louis L'Amour postcards, the last a reminder of the work Stevenson must do if Peggy is to catch up.

Richman can hardly put his feet up, either. Anywhere else, 115 Fifth Avenue, Norma's home in Nortonville and now his, would be a tear-down. I saw the place under a slate-colored sky so low it scraped the grain elevators, and the desolation was numbing. "Norma would sing at P.T.A. meetings," Richman's neighbor, the nonagenarian Mabel Berg, told me. "But being bashful, she always turned her back to the audience. It was the funniest thing."

After Nortonville, Wimbledon seemed like Nice. The sun shone on the lemony clapboard depot where Norma wrote out waybills, climbing the stairs to her bedroom at the end of the day. Museum is a big word to describe the building, but that's how townies know it. Inside are bits and pieces associated with the Midland Continental and the girl who helped make it go before becoming a legend. Documenting one of the most fearless rises in showbiz is a naïve collage of clippings, presided over by a cutout of the singer, circa 1960, in full cry.

Before heading back to Jamestown for a ceremony at the college, in which a photograph of Peggy was hung, there was enough time for a carrot bar at the Wimbledon Café, which displays a copy of "Success Awaits at Labor's Gate," the class poem she published in the Wimbledon News upon graduating from high school. The college event drew a fine crowd, from which Richman was pointedly absent. Stevenson spoke of her dream of finding the funds to turn Jamestown's ravishing Gothic Revival courthouse into her planned Lee complex. Others shared their memories.

"Norma came to school in Nortonville with bruises on her body, so you knew something wasn't right at home," recalled Violet Colberg. "Her stepmother told her, 'Your singing will never amount to a hill of beans.' "

Filing out under a blanket of big, white North Dakota thunderclouds, I remembered the light, nostalgic attachment to Peggy that had brought me here just three days before. But now she was way under my skin. The only way forward would be to go deeper.

For information, call the Wimbledon Community Museum (701/435-2658) or log on to www.jamestownnd.com or www.peggylee.com.

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