On May 26, what would have been her 92nd birthday, Peggy Lee will be remembered with the grand opening of the Midland Continental Depot Transportation Museum in Wimbledon, the depot where she frequently served as agent while her father was nursing a hangover.
Norma Deloris Egstrom was born May 26, 1920, in Jamestown, to Marvin and Selma (Anderson) Egstrom. He was the Midland Continental Railroad agent and had a serious drinking problem.
After her father died, her father married Min Schaumber. Her stepmother was cruel to her. The one area where she found joy was music and singing. In 1925, her home in Jamestown burned and the Egstroms were forced to move in with her stepmother’s parents.
In 1926, her father was demoted from his job in Jamestown and transferred to the smaller town of Nortonville, 28 miles south of Jamestown. The family lived upstairs in the depot. At Nortonville the beatings intensified. Once she was struck in the face with a razor strap, which left a scar that she bore for the rest of her life. In 1930, they lost their second home to a fire when the depot burned.
To get out of her home and away from her stepmother, she took many different jobs. Her life began to have meaning when a neighbor taught her to play the piano and the Egstrom home received electricity, enabling them to purchase a radio. This allowed her to tune in to the music of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and other big band leaders.
When she was 14, the Midland depot at Wimbledon needed a new agent and her father was hired. Her stepmother was assigned as an agent at Millarton, and she was away from the Egstrom home much of the time.
Her father continued drinking and Peggy Lee, who adored her father, would fill in when her father was unable to tend to the necessary duties.
While in Wimbledon, she sang in the church chorus and high school glee club. In Valley City, Bob Ingstad established radio station KOVC and hired Lyle “Doc” Haines to provide live music on the air. Peggy Lee auditioned to sing with the Haines band and, after a trial run, was hired. Haines also employed her to do the vocals for his band at dances and other gigs. Later in 1936, she was hired by the Jack Wardlaw orchestra. Wardlaw’s Carolina Tar Heels had opened for Guy Lombardo.
She was occasionally employed to sing over station KRMC in Jamestown. One of the people who heard her sing was Bill Sawyer, a baseball player for the Fargo-Moorhead Twins. He found out that that she was also a waitress at the restaurant in the Gladstone Hotel, and paid her a visit.
He was a good friend of the program director of WDAY, Ken Kennedy, and he arranged an audition for her.
She impressed Kennedy, and he not only hired her, but put her on the air that afternoon. He also gave her a new name — Peggy Lee.
At WDAY, Lee received a regular singing spot on the Noonday Variety Show. She also was given other assignments playing Freckled Face Gertie on Hayloft Jamboree and singing with Len Hawkins and his Georgie Porgie Breakfast Food Boys. Additional tasks included filing music scores, sealing envelopes, and wrapping packages of prizes that contestants had won. None of this paid very much, so she also got work across the street at Regan’s Bakery, where she sliced bread.
North Dakota, as well as the rest of the country, was in the midst of the Great Depression in 1938, and Lee thought that she could do better financially elsewhere. One of her friends from Fargo had moved to Los Angeles and invited her to come and stay with her.
When Lee arrived in Los Angeles, she soon discovered that the Depression was just as bad there. Learning of a job as a cook and waitress in Balboa, 50 miles south of Los Angeles, she hitchhiked and the owner of the cafe found her a place to stay.
When her employment with the cafe was over, Lee was hired as a barker for a nearby carnival. She then got a job singing at the Jade, a hot spot for music in Los Angeles.
Lee was still a young teenager, and being naive in the Los Angeles night life almost cost her dearly. After a close call with white slavers, Lee decided she was not yet ready for Hollywood.
She was almost pleased when a doctor advised her to return home. Toward the end of 1938, she boarded a train for Hillsboro, where two of her sisters lived. She firmly believed she would return to Hollywood and, when she did, she would be triumphant.
Next week we will continue our story about Peggy Lee.
(Written by Curt Eriksmoen. Reach Eriksmoen at firstname.lastname@example.org.)