Pilgrimage to North Dakota
If you call the Convention and Visitors Bureau in Jamestown, North Dakota, looking for Peggy Lee, it wastes no time referring you to Kate Stevenson, a loquacious 4-foot-11 hurricane of enthusiasm who teaches French and German at the town college.
Driving a Mazda Protegé with PL FAN plates, Professor Stevenson is a brisk vision on Jamestown's otherwise motionless residential streets, which are six lanes wide to accommodate the banks that snowplows build along the curbs in winter. Among her trophy possessions is a Baccarat compote that adorned Lee's breakfast tray and a woodland scene that proves the star a doubtful Sunday painter. As the creation drags on of a local museum and music conservatory that would honor the great honey-haired songbird, who was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown in 1920 and died two years ago in the ritzy Bel Air section of Los Angeles, Stevenson has appointed herself guardian of Lee's memory in her idol's home state.
"Jamestown is known as the birthplace of Louis L'Amour, the pulp western writer, and the Anaheim Angels' Darin Erstad, but not nearly enough is done to promote Peggy Lee," says Stevenson. "There are traces of her everywhere, not to mention people who knew her as a girl. And yet there's not a single place where you can buy her records. It angers the snort out of me."
Of course, this wouldn't be a story about a major cultural icon who famously dominated every musical idiom she essayed—from big band ("Why Don't You Do Right?") and jazz ("Fever") to pop ("I'm a Woman") and art song ("Is That All There Is?")—if there wasn't a challenge to Stevenson's hegemony. Her opponent is Steven Richman, a pleasant-looking thirtysomething Lee scholar who is living out every fan's fantasy by inhabiting one of his heroine's childhood houses. Stevenson, 48, enlisted Richman for her proposed Lee center, but the two have fallen out, as he explained over kung pao shrimp at a dreary Chinese restaurant in a Jamestown strip mall.
Richman charges Stevenson with opportunism, hinting darkly that "Peggy Lee does not belong here" and that North Dakota is such a sinister place, "a Fargo-type murder could take place today, absolutely." For her part, Stevenson insists she has no idea what she did to make Richman, who works paginating the local paper, stop taking her calls. War is perhaps too strong a word. But Jamestown's placid prairie veneer is cracking.
Lee is worth fighting over. Ella Fitzgerald is better known, but Peggy is the more interesting (and greater, many hard-liners would say) artist. Black Coffee, her landmark 1953 album, is pure Billie Holiday. More than 20 years later she scored with "Let's Love," penned (and produced) especially for her by a little songwriter named Paul McCartney.
I must confess I had a personal investment in seeing how the battle lines are drawn here, 101 miles east of Bismarck. Though I may not be one of Lee's "intellectual and spiritual prodigies," as Richman portrays himself, she means a lot to me. Not quite as much as a certain former Supreme on the skids, but a lot.
My first Peggy album was a 1972 release entitled—are you sitting down?—Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota. I was 17. The record's epic showpiece is "Just for a Thrill." Hearing Peggy sing, in breathtaking control of her storied wooziness, "You made my heart stand still/And it was just for a thrill," produced the same effect as the poppers that were cracked under my young nose in the same period at Le Jardin, the first-generation Manhattan disco I patronized, resplendent in platform Kork-Ease. The point is that dance palaces, shoe fashions, and recreational drugs come and go. But Peggy Lee is forever.
On the front cover of Norma, Peggy looks over the collar of her sable coat, almost but not quite stony, slightly challenging, meticulously groomed (hair simply parted—gone are the sixties sausage curls), mistress of the moment. On the back cover there's...a road map of her corner of North Dakota! I flipped the album over a million times trying to square Peggy's worldliness with her early years in a back of beyond where people still eat squirrel, swan, and crane. Obviously this was self-invention on a very high level. Peggy's message was clear: You can get there from here. How did she view "here"?"How could it be so hard to get away from nothing?" she once wrote.
Peggy fled a place and a life, one involving frying-pan beatings by a sadistic stepmother and a workload inherited from a father too sloshed to do his job as a railroad depot agent. Marvin Egstrom raised his family in Jamestown and nearby Nortonville and Wimbledon, towns that grew up with the Midland Continental Railroad, his employer. The defunct line was grandly meant to connect Canada with Texas, but wound up covering only 68 miles. It was a stretch little Norma knew well.
The dour brick Trinity Hospital where she was born still stands, albeit as the Jameshouse retirement apartments, but the modest dwelling her mother carried Norma home to was razed in a fire when she was four. Using a map Richman annotated for me, I wandered around the forlorn lot on Seventh Avenue, beside the Jamestown Ready Mix concrete plant, where the house most likely stood. Somehow, the experience was more powerful—freakier—than those I had at Peggy-related places that still exist, and certainly more meaningful than the ones I have when I return to my own sorry-ass hometown of Glen Cove, Long Island. Frissons followed me all the way to my rental car.
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.