Why North Dakota’s Peggy Lee was truly legendary and deserves recognition in Fargo
Born Norma Doloris Egstrom, the legends surrounding Peggy Lee's historic music career are still fondly remembered in her home state.
Over the years, I have heard many stories about the late singer and popular entertainer Peggy Lee. There is a fascination about her that is both compelling and inexplicable.
Once, while dining with friends at a restaurant in downtown Fargo, I noticed that nearly everyone present had a different Peggy Lee story to share.
The setting was perfect because at the time, the restaurant was located on the lower level of the former Powers Hotel. This happened to be one of the places where Peggy Lee performed back in the 1930s. We heard that the old hotel was haunted, not by the ghost of Peggy Lee, but by one of the lovestruck musicians who had accompanied her when she sang. Even death could not silence his nighttime playing.
A historic landmark, the old Powers Hotel building still stands in downtown Fargo. The large brick structure is located at 400 Broadway.
Before I mention a few of the other stories, a little background is necessary. Peggy Lee was born in 1920 in Jamestown. Her birth name was Norma Deloris Egstrom. She and her family lived for a time in small towns like Nortonville and Wimbledon. In 1936, she sang for KOVC in Valley City. Soon after, she landed a job at WDAY in Fargo. It was “Ken Kennedy” Sydness, the program director at WDAY, who encouraged the talented young singer to change her name to something catchy like “Peggy Lee.”
By the time she was 21, Peggy Lee was singing with the Benny Goodman Orchestra in Chicago and her career took off like a blazing rocket. In her lifetime, she recorded numerous songs and won many awards. Some of her hits included “Lover,” “Fever,” “Big Spender,” and the unforgettable “Is That All There Is?” When Peggy Lee passed away in California in 2002, she left behind an impressive legacy.
But what about all the Peggy Lee legends that are still told here in the Upper Midwest? Folk legends are stories that may or may not be true. They exist in different versions and are transmitted via oral tradition or social media. Influential celebrities often give rise to a veritable wealth of legends.
One prevalent, Cinderella-like story is that Peggy Lee was abused as a child by a cruel stepmother. Peggy Lee did lose her mother at the tender age of four. The stepmother who raised her was physically and emotionally abusive. Nonetheless, Peggy Lee had high hopes and she dreamed. Perhaps her Prince Charming turned out to be music itself.
Another story is that when the future Peggy Lee sang for KOVC in 1936 in Valley City, she was paid with hot meals and other food. This is believable because during the Depression, food as a form of payment was not at all unusual.
The strange tale that the young Peggy Lee once worked as a “carny” in California is also factual. Many years later, she wrote a song about that early experience entitled “The Nickel Ride.” Yes, carnival rides once cost only a nickel.
Perhaps the best-known folk legend about “Miss Peggy Lee” is that she was the inspiration for the margarita cocktail. This story dates from the late 1940s when a bartender concocted a special tequila drink in Peggy Lee’s honor in Galveston, Texas.
Alas, this origin story is questionable at best. A major tequila distributor was running eye-catching ads as early as 1945 promoting the margarita as a mixed drink. If the margarita was inspired by Peggy Lee, why was the drink not called the Peggy Lee?
Yet another legend is that Miss Peggy Lee was the inspiration for Miss Piggy the Muppet. Surprisingly, this story is true. The Muppet’s designer, Bonnie Erickson (born in Anoka, Minnesota), originally called her creation “Miss Piggy Lee” but over time, the name was shortened to Miss Piggy.
Some Peggy Lee fans contend that the epitaph on Peggy Lee’s California tombstone reads “Is That All There Is?” Actually, the epitaph that appears above her name is “Music is my life’s breath.”
Did a clergyman in the Fargo area once refer to Peggy Lee as “the singer of a thousand songs?” Yes, and it turns out that this man of the cloth was not exaggerating. During her long and illustrious career, Peggy Lee recorded more than 1,100 songs.
Today, the town of Wimbledon has a special museum exhibit devoted to Peggy Lee. Valley City will be holding its second Peggy Lee Day on June 16.
Maybe the city of Fargo should also set a special day aside and celebrate the legendary life and legacy of Peggy Lee? After all, it was here in Fargo that the very young and highly talented Norma Deloris Egstrom first became known as Peggy Lee.
Kloberdanz, an NDSU professor emeritus, makes his home in Fargo. In 2018, he wrote the novel One Day on the River Red. In that book, he brought Peggy Lee back to life for an outdoor concert along the Red River in north Fargo.