It’s an urban legend with origins in a rural place — the story of how a Scandinavian Lutheran girl from Jamestown, N.D. became the inspiration for Mexico’s most popular drink. Yet some say it is not a legend at all, but the absolute truth — the margarita was indeed named for North Dakota’s most famous singer, Peggy Lee.
A girl named Norma
First, a little refresher on who Peggy Lee really was. Born Norma Deloris Egstrom on May 26, 1920 in Jamestown, she was the daughter of a Swedish American railroad man named Marvin Olof Egstrom and a Norwegian American mom named Selma Amelia Anderson, who died when Norma was just four years old.
Norma became “Peggy Lee” when she was just a teenager singing for Fargo’s WDAY-AM radio in the 1930s. She left for Hollywood when she was just 17 years old, and there was no turning back. Her sultry voice helped make her one of the most iconic and popular jazz singers of the 20th century.
She had her first number one hit in 1942 with "Somebody Else Is Taking My Place", followed in 1943 by "Why Don't You Do Right?", which sold more than one million copies and made her famous. She sang with Benny Goodman's orchestra in two 1943 films, Stage Door Canteen and The Powers Girl.
So where does the margarita come in?
The story of Peggy Lee inspiring the margarita begins a few years later, in 1948, when she recorded the monster hit, “Manana”, a Latin-inspired hit that might not be seen as very politically correct for a 21st century crowd.
Lee was performing “Manana” in the Balinese Room, a tropical getaway located on a pier in Galveston, Texas — a very long way from the North Dakota prairie. According to eyewitnesses, after Lee performed her set, she asked Balinese bartender (and big Peggy Lee fan) Santos Cruz if he could make her a drink out of a new liquor called tequila. Lee and her husband Dave Barbour's favorite drink was “The Sidecar”, which is made with brandy, orange liqueur and lime or lemon juice, served in a glass with a sugared rim. Barbour was supposedly drinking one when Lee made her request.
Using The Sidecar as inspiration, Cruz kept the orange liqueur and lime juice but replaced the brandy with tequila and salt for sugar. The margarita was born. But why the name “Margarita?” Margarita is the Spanish version of “Margaret”, which is the full name for many women who go by the nickname “Peggy.” (Perhaps Cruz, Barbour and Lee had already had a few cocktails and forgot that Lee's real first name was not Margaret but Norma.)
While all of this sounds a little far-fetched, Cruz’s grandson, Nathan Cruz, confirms that Peggy Lee was indeed the inspiration for his grandfather’s creation. In fact, for years, a sign hung on the wall of the Balinese room detailing the story.
Others stake claim
But that doesn’t mean Peggy Lee’s place in the history of cocktail creation is secure. Many others stories exist about the drink’s origin. Tequila giant Jose Cuervo claims it invented the drink in 1938 after a Mexican showgirl named Rita De La Rosa. Dallas socialite Margarita Sames claims she invented the drink to serve to guests at her holiday home in Acapulco. Others claim it was named for Ziegfield dancer Marjorie King or movie star Rita Hayworth, whose real name was Margarita Carmen Cansino.
In what could be seen as ironic, the Balinese Room — the place where Peggy Lee supposedly inspired the margarita — was destroyed in 2008 by Hurricane Rita...a message from the great beyond?
No matter who invented the popular drink, the margarita is celebrated every year on National Margarita Day, February 22.
Others can buy into the stories of showgirls, socialites or movie stars inspiring the cocktail. But in the upper Midwest, many of us will probably choose to believe it was one of us that gave birth to the sweet, salty drink. So we toast to you, Peggy Lee, and hope we won’t have a hangover Manana.