Meet Peggy Lee: The Woman Who Inspired Miss Piggy

The nasal-voiced pig puppet was known for her fancy style and crush on Kermit the Frog, but Miss Piggy had a life long before the green amphibian stole her heart. Miss Piggy’s soul belongs to a famous jazz singer who stole the hearts of men in the 1940s.

Peggy Lee / Miss Piggy / Peggy Lee / Peggy Lee.
Source: Getty Images

Her name was Peggy Lee, and she was the inspiration behind the snazziest Muppet we know. In fact, Miss Piggy’s original puppet name was Piggy Lee. Her inspiration, Peggy Lee, lived a true rags to riches story, but after finding fame she eventually fell from grace.

This is the story of Peggy Lee.

Piggy Lee and Her Love Interest, Hamilton Pigg

About a decade ago, the handwritten note and some Polaroids were auctioned off. The photo of Miss Piggy, aka “Piggy Lee,” and her love interest, Hamilton Pigg, were featured. (This was before Kermit ever came along.) “She is delicate and lovely,” Henson wrote. “He is cigar smoking — the epitome of grossness.”

An image of Miss Piggy and Hamilton Pigg.
Piggy Lee, Hamilton Pigg. Source: Pinterest

These were made in 1974, the year Piggy Lee and other early versions of the Muppets made their appearances on a television special. They were actually guest spots and were so well-received that the Muppets themselves quickly got their own show, which debuted two years later. The rest, folks, is history.

The Woman Behind the Puppet

Bonnie Erickson was the one who designed and built Miss Piggy back in 1974 for that early “Muppets” special. When asked who inspired the character of Miss Piggy, Erickson said that her mother used to live in North Dakota, which is where pre-famous jazz singer Peggy Lee sang on the local radio station.

A portrait of Miss Piggy.
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“When I first created Miss Piggy, I called her Miss Piggy Lee,” Erickson recalled, “as both a joke and an homage.” The puppet designer saw the jazz singer as a “very independent woman,” as was the puppet she created.

They Didn’t Want to Insult the Beautiful Peggy Lee

Miss Piggy started out as a minor character, but by 1976, when The Muppet Show premiered, she became the glamorous blonde who was obsessed with Kermit the Frog. What started as something of a homage came close to becoming an insult.

A dated portrait of Peggy Lee.
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Miss Piggy grew in fame as the Muppets came to be a big hit, and the last thing Erickson wanted was to upset the beautiful jazz singer who might be hurt by a pig puppet being used in her name. Therefore, the Muppet’s name was officially changed to simply Miss Piggy.

Fun fact: Frank Oz (who voiced Miss Piggy) once said that Miss Piggy grew up in Iowa. Her dad died when she was young, and her mother was a mean woman. The pretty pig had to enter beauty contests to make money.

A Child of the Depression

Born in 1920, the singer, composer, and actress, was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota. A grandchild of Swedish and Norwegian immigrants, she had to live through the Depression, and it was brutal.

A studio portrait of Peggy Lee.
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She was the sixth of seven children, and her mother died when she was only four years old. Not even a year later, her alcoholic father remarried an abusive woman. Peggy’s only means of escape was listening to the radio. She also spent her time writing songs, and she sang continuously.

Becoming Peggy Lee

Peggy started singing for herself, but would also perform for others, on special occasions like birthday parties, in church choirs, in glee-clubs and talent shows. By the time she was 15, she landed her own sponsored 15-minute weekly radio show on KOVC in Valley City.

A portrait of Peggy Lee.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

She would sing at the Rudolf Hotel with the Dutch Room Serenaders. She would also sing at Jamestown’s KRMC station and would tour locally with Doc Haines’ six-piece college band. By 1937, at 17, she was hired by Fargo’s WDAY. That’s when the program’s director, Ken Kennedy, gave her a new stage name: Peggy Lee.

Hello, Hollywood

A year later, her father bought her a train ticket to Hollywood. She came to Hollywood with $18 in her pocket. To make a living, she started waiting tables, but she wasn’t any good at it (“I always seemed to ‘flunk’ waitress,” she later wrote).

Peggy Lee performs on stage.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the evenings, she would sing at LA’s Jade Lounge. But her employment was cut short when she fainted on stage. Apparently, she was being overworked and malnourished. She ended up heading back to her hometown. In North Dakota, she was back in the radio stations and performing at coffee shops.

Finding Her Signature Voice

In 1940, Kennedy got her a gig as the lead singer of his cousin Sev Olsen’s band in Minneapolis. It was this job that eventually landed her a real job with the nationally known Will Osborne Orchestra. She made a name for herself with Osborne and his band, but the group broke up.

A picture of Peggy Lee at a recording studio.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

So, Peggy went back to California to sing at the Palm Springs celebrity haunt, the Doll House. There, she found her trademark vocal style. “The audience was unusually boisterous,” Peggy told an interviewer in 1948, explaining her vocal style…

From the Doll House to the Buttery Room

“To cope with the noise, I lowered my voice with each successive song. The people soon forgot their bad manners, and I found a kind of delivery I’d been seeking for a long while.” Peggy was scouted by Frank Beringin at the Doll House. He was the co-owner of Chicago’s East and West Ambassador Hotels.

A picture of Peggy Lee sitting behind a microphone.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

She started working the hotels in 1941. Not long after, the “King of Swing,” Benny Goodman heard Peggy at one of the hotel night clubs, the Buttery Room, and wanted her immediately. He asked her to replace Helen Forrest.

The Road Was Like Boot Camp

It may sound fun and exciting, but for Peggy, life on the road was “like boot camp, tremendously tough to endure.” Yet, she got through it, and felt as though it prepped her for anything that would come her way.

A studio portrait of Peggy Lee.
Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns/Getty Images

1942 was when she got her first #1 hit with Somebody Else Is Taking My Place. The next year saw the million-selling Why Don’t You Do Right? And she sang in two films: The Powers Girl and Stage Door Canteen. But she had her own songs, too, which she wrote, like Little Fool.

Enjoying New York’s Jazz Scene in the ‘40s

Peter Richmond, who wrote Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee, explained that Peggy started to compose lyrics, which eventually distinguished her from almost every other female singer of her era, “as well as produce some of the most remarkable musical poetry the American songbook would ever see.”

A portrait of Peggy Lee among other female singers at the time.
Photo by Metronome/Getty Images

Working with Benny Goodman in the early 1940s was a delight for Peggy – “living in New York, the Broadway scene and the 52nd Street clubs.” After hours, in Harlem’s Café Downtown, she would go see Billie Holiday sing. For Peggy, Holiday was the singer she wanted to emulate the most.

A Wonderful Circus

The fact that Peggy came from less than modest means meant that she really appreciated the luxury and the once-in-a-lifetime chance she had. It was a “privilege to be alive then,” she said. She said she got to be at a “wonderful circus every night.”

A picture of Peggy Lee kissing Jimmy Durante on the nose.
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Peggy truly felt that she would rather be with musicians “than any other kind of people.” Just as she was being swept up into a world of “big-band singing and hit records,” another man came into her life. David Barbour, she soon realized, was her “true love.”

Meeting David Barbour, the Love of Her Life

Barbour joined the Benny Goodman Orchestra as a guitarist in 1942 but left the following year when his relationship with Peggy became serious. You see, Goodman didn’t allow any of his band members to do any “fraternizing with the girl singer.”

A photo of Peggy Lee and Dave Barbour singing together.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

As for Peggy, she remained in the band for a little while longer, until she reached the end of her contract. In 1943, she married Barbour and, not long after, gave birth to their daughter, Nicki. Peggy remembered that time as the happiest she had ever been.

The Offers Just Kept Coming In

She was enjoying her time at home with her new family and wanted to relish it a little longer. But her success with Goodman and the hit Why Don’t You Do Right? led to multiple offers coming through. She was getting non-stop calls, and with her husband’s encouragement, she finally took one.

A picture of Peggy Lee and Dave Barbour holding their baby girl.
Photo by Ray Whitten Photography/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Peggy agreed to record two songs for Capitol Records, a project they called New American Jazz. Her two songs, and Dick Larkin’s Ain’t Goin’ No Place and Sammy Fain and Lew Brown’s That Old Feeling, got the most airplay from the album.

From the Radio to NBC and CBS

With her newfound popularity, Peggy eased back into recording and performing. She wrote several songs for Capitol, including I Don’t Know Enough About You and It’s a Good Day. In 1946, Peggy was named the “best female singer not with a band” in Down Beat magazine.

A portrait of Peggy Lee.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

For the rest of the ‘40s, Peggy was heard often on the radio. She started singing with Bing Crosby on the Kraft Music Hall as well as with Jimmy Durante on his Rexall program. Peggy had the pleasure of going to NBC and CBS studios with “not one but two of the greatest entertainers who ever lived.”

The Beginning of the End

She became a regular at the studios, where every week there was a “parade of stars.” In 1948, she made a TV appearance on the premier episode of Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town. Known for singing Mañana and Golden Earrings, Billboard named her the “Nation’s Number One Vocalist.”

A studio portrait of Peggy Lee.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

She was on a roll and soaring high, but Peggy’s marriage was at an all time low. By 1950, they were about to call it quits. She and Barbour can be seen during one of their last performances together in Bing Crosby’s film, Mr. Music.

It’s Hard to Be Married to a “Career Girl”

Peggy and Barbour divorced in 1951. She later said that she “loved him dearly but eventually we began to come up against the problem of my career.” She explained how it’s “always very difficult for a man to be married to a career girl.”

A studio portrait of Peggy Lee at the time.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

For men, it’s hard to come second to the one who gets all the attention. Peggy described Barbour in her biography as a “self-destructive alcoholic.” He was the one who asked for the divorce “because he didn’t want his daughter to see him with his problem.”

He Was Just One of Four

By 1965, after Barbour had been sober for years, he and Peggy remarried, but it was short-lived considering he died a few days later. Barbour wasn’t the only man she married. Peggy married and divorced a couple of actors, one being Brad Dexter, who was one of the Magnificent Seven.

A photo of Brad Dexter holding Peggy Lee in his arms.
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“He complained she wouldn’t let him out of the bed their entire honeymoon,” wrote Gavin. Then, she married toyboy actor Dewey Martin, her third husband, following a whirlwind romance. But apparently, he was abusive.

Fourth Time’s a Charm?

Peggy told her friends, referring to her marriage to Martin, that “Instead of a wedding veil maybe I should have worn a crash helmet.” She went on to marry her fourth husband, bongo player Jack Del Rio. “Even as she was getting married, she knew it was a mistake,” Gavin explained.

Peggy Lee is assisted from a hansom cab by Dewey Martin.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

“He moved out after only three months.” All the while, her daughter Nicki, who wanted nothing more than her mother’s attention, was raised mainly by servants as her mom was barely around.

Her Marriages Were Like “Costume Parties”

When speaking of her marriages, Peggy said, “Each one could have been annulled. They were like costume parties.” But there were other men in her life – the ones she didn’t marry, like Frank Sinatra. We all know that Ol’ Blue Eyes was a ladies’ man, but did you know he had his moments with Peggy Lee?

A picture of Peggy Lee during a performance in Las Vegas.
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When Sinatra would flip through his little black book, looking for that night’s “booty call,” he would first try Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland. But “when all else failed Sinatra called singing star Peggy Lee – always sure that she would come running,” James Gavin said in his biography of Peggy.

Her Relationship With Frank Sinatra

Their close relationship began in 1941 when they both played at the Paramount Theater in New York. They remained close until Sinatra’s death in 1998. “There have been very few men in our business,” Peggy once said, “who have affected me so deeply…”

A portrait of Peggy Lee.
Photo by Metronome/Getty Images

Sinatra complimented Peggy: “Her wonderful talent should be studied by all vocalists; her regal presence is pure elegance and charm.” In 1957, when her contract with Decca expired, Sinatra, Capitol’s lead artist, told the label’s president to “get Peggy back.”

Terrified of Being Alone

Gavin’s biography reveals the sadder side of Peggy’s life – the side with the drugs, the breakups, and the loneliness. “Peggy Lee was a deeply troubled and delusional woman who was desperate for love, over-sexed, afraid to be alone,” he wrote.

A portrait of Peggy Lee during an interview in a hotel room.
Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images

Gavin explained that Peggy was gripped by addiction – to alcohol and tranquillisers – and went deeper and deeper into “a fantasy world of her own creation.” Gavin didn’t hold back, saying Peggy was frightened – terrified of being alone. Her fear of loneliness meant she would keep talking in her bed until she fell asleep.

She Hated Barbra Streisand

“Peggy hated the ground Streisand walked on,” a friend of Peggy’s stated. Peggy had a tendency to hold grudges. In 1969, she almost signed a $250,000 contract to perform at a Las Vegas casino only to learn that Barbra Streisand had signed a $1million deal at the same venue.

A studio portrait of Peggy Lee.
Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

Streisand was supposedly upset when Peggy got more attention in the lounge then she was getting in the ball room. Things got worse when Peggy had the hotel place promotional cards on and one of her records in every room. When Streisand requested, they all be removed, and hotel complied, Peggy was infuriated.

Filling the Void With Men

Peggy tended to fill the emptiness with men and sex. She had many short affairs, several with musicians, regardless of whether they were married or not. According to Gavin, Peggy’s childhood trauma was partly a delusion she came to believe.

A picture of Ed Byrnes and Peggy Lee.
Photo by Hulton-Deutsch/Corbis/Getty Images

Peggy spoke of her stepmother beating her with a frying pan, getting kicked and dragged around by the hair. She even said she tried to poison herself by drinking bleach. “But that was just the mythology that she created around herself,” Gavin wrote. He spoke with a childhood friend of Peggy’s…

A Cinderella Complex

Her friend from North Dakota, who saw Peggy daily, recalled no bruises, no cuts, no black eyes. She had never mentioned any beatings as a child. “I have no doubt that her father was emotionally unavailable, and her stepmother was cold, but it was Lee’s insecurities that transformed her childhood into an abusive fantasy,” wrote the author.

A portrait of Peggy Lee.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

From an early age, she seemed to create this fantasy which helped her cope with her miserable reality of always feeling abandoned and rejected. “She saw herself in many ways as Cinderella,” Gavin said.

Rags to Riches and a Fall From Grace

“She created the evil stepmother who forced her to scrub floors and beat her, the emotionally unavailable father and the Prince Charming who swept her off her feet in the shape of her first husband Dave Barbour.”

A portrait of Peggy Lee.
Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

She eventually made it big, bigger than she could have ever imagined. However, the urge to escape reality was always present and it got the best of her. She eventually ruined her career with alcohol and, later, tranquillisers. It’s a classic rag to riches story meets a fall from grace tale.

She Was Told Not to Touch the President

She was at a Warner Bros. party and got so drunk that the studio execs never gave her another movie. “She sang and took a bow but was too drunk to stand up straight again,” Gavin said. The studio was watching it in horror.

Peggy Lee poses for a portrait.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But things got more embarrassing a few years later when she performed for President Richard Nixon at a White House state dinner. She had been told not to approach the President, but once the alcohol kicked in, she went up to him and kissed him on the cheek.

Valium and Million-Dollar Lawsuits

The ‘70s rolled around and so did the disco era. Peggy was now in her 50s and using Valium consistently. Her assistants were finding bottles of pills all around the house. She was also having trouble keeping up with her luxurious lifestyle and got involved in numerous lawsuits.

A photo of Andy Warhol chatting with Peggy Lee.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Three decades after writing songs for Disney’s classic The Lady and the Tramp, she sued the studio for video royalties, battling them for three years to win a $2 million settlement. In 1978, when she got fired from her long-standing gig at New York’s Waldorf Astoria, she slipped and fell while walking through the hotel.

Rejecting Doctors’ Orders

She sued the hotel for millions. Perhaps the lawsuits were her only way to fund her grandiose lifestyle. Even during her final months in the hospital, she demanded a luxury suite and 24-7 security. By the late ‘70s, Peggy was in San Francisco after returning from a European tour and was so ill that she was packed in ice and immediately hospitalized.

A photo of Peggy Lee performing on stage.
Photo by National Jazz Archive/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Doctors told her she had a bad heart, diabetes, and a disorder in her inner ear. She even temporarily went blind. She was urged to retire but went to Australia on tour instead.

Gone at 81

In 1985, she underwent a double bypass heart surgery. Two years later, she fell on stage while performing at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and fractured her pelvis. She recovered only to fall again in the marble bathroom of her home, injuring the vertebrae on her lower spinal column.

An image of Peggy Lee signing on stage.
Photo by National Jazz Archive/Heritage Images/Getty Images

And yet she kept performing. Four years before her death in 2002, Peggy suffered a massive stroke at the age of 78 that left her barely able to speak. Peggy was 81 when she died at her Bel Air home after being bedridden for a long time.

The Man I Love

In total, Peggy made over 700 recordings and 59 albums, her favorite being The Man I Love. The Man I Love was recorded in 1957 and the orchestra was conducted by Sinatra. Blue Eyes was intimately involved in the album, so much so that he arranged for menthol to be put in Peggy’s eyes in order to get a certain misty look in her cover photo.

A portrait of Peggy Lee.
Photo by David Redfern/Getty Images

She was known for her slinky satin gowns, dangling earrings and tinted glasses. Later, she would use a use a jeweled cane and often performed sitting down due to all her medical problems.

Let’s Get Back to the Muppets

If the Muppets and Miss Piggy are what pulled you into this story in the first place, then you should know that many of the Muppets have surprising stories behind them. Let’s go through some of them, starting with Cookie Monster.

A portrait of Cookie Monster.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Back in 1966, Jim Henson drew some monsters eating snacks for a General Foods commercial. In the end, the commercial was never used, but Henson recycled one of his monsters for an IBM training video (1967) and again for a Fritos commercial (1969). By then, Henson started working on Sesame Street and decided his favorite monster would have a home there.

Kermit Was Born in 1955

Kermit first showed up in 1955 on Sam and Friends, a five-minute puppet show created by Henson. The first version of Kermit was made out of Henson’s mother’s coat and ping pong balls. He was more lizard-like at first. He became a frog in 1969 when he showed up on Sesame Street.

A portrait of Kermit.
Source: Copyright: Walt Disney Pictures

Rumors have it that Kermit got his name either from a childhood friend of Henson’s or a puppeteer from the Muppets’ early days. Either way, Henson always refuted both rumors.

Gonzo and His Romantic Interest in Chickens

What is Gonzo? Nobody knows, not even Henson who had no specific species in mind. Throughout The Muppet Show, Muppet Babies, and the Muppet movies, Gonzo has always been referred to as a “Whatever,” a “Weirdo” or an alien. He first appeared in 1970’s The Great Santa Claus Switch as Snarl the Cigar Box Frackle.

A portrait of Gonzo.
Source: Copyright: Walt Disney Pictures

He became Gonzo the Great in the first season of The Muppet Show, where he developed a thing for Camilla the Chicken, which has a funny backstory, too. During an episode where chickens auditioned for the show, puppeteer Dave Goelz improvised the line, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you… nice legs, though!” From then on, Gonzo had a bizarre romantic interest in chickens.

Bert and Ernie Were Not Inspired by It’s a Wonderful Life

Many people think Bert and Ernie were inspired by some minor characters in It’s a Wonderful Life, but according to Henson, that’s just a rumor. Henson always said that was just a nice little coincidence. The truth is that the names simply went well together and fit the characters.

A photo of the characters Ernie and Bert.
Photo by Bill Greene/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Jerry Juhl, one of the company’s head writers, verified this and said that Henson had no memory for small details from old movies like that and would never have remembered the name of the cop and the cab driver in an old Jimmy Stewart movie.

Elmo Was a Happy Accident

Elmo is by far one of the most famous puppets to have ever been created. So, it’s amusing to hear the puppet was created by accident, albeit a happy accident. The way a Sesame Street writer described Elmo’s origins was that an extra red puppet was just lying around the studio.

A photo of Elmo.
Photo by Desiree Navarro/WireImage/Getty Images

People had tried to do something with him, but nothing ever came to fruition. Then, one day in 1984, a puppeteer named Kevin Clash picked up the little red guy and started doing the infamous voice. The voice and the personality clicked, and, boom, Elmo was born.

Fozzie Bear Used to Embarrass Viewers

Poor Fozzie Bear; he was always the target of Statler and Waldorf thanks to his bad jokes and puns. The thing is the character actually caused something of a problem during the first season of The Muppet Show. Why? Because whenever Fozzie got heckled, he would get upset and sometimes cry.

A photo of the Fozzie Bear.
Photo by Laura Cavanaugh/WireImage/Getty Images

Viewers weren’t sympathetic, they were embarrassed. So, they solved the problem by making Fozzie an eternal optimist. That way, when he got heckled, he was good-natured about it. Oh, and he wasn’t named after Frank Oz, his puppeteer. Oz said it was just a variant of “fuzzy bear.”

Oscar the Grouch Was Based on a New York Cab Driver

Carroll Spinney, the guy who performs Oscar the Grouch, is the same guy who does Big Bird. Spinney said Oscar’s cranky voice is based on this New York cab driver he once had the pleasure of riding with. Oscar was also originally orange.

An image of Oscar the Grouch.
Photo by Children’s Television Workshop/Getty Images

Funnily enough, Oscar is known around the world under different names. In Pakistan, his name is Akhtar and the character lives in an oil barrel. In Turkey, his name is Kirpik, and he lives in a basket. In Israel, he’s not Oscar at all but Oscar’s cousin, Moishe Oofnik, who lives in an old car.

Grover Debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show

Grover, the cute, furry little monster, made his debut in 1967 on the Ed Sullivan Show. But he was known as Gleep back then and he was a monster in Santa’s Workshop. He was included in the first season of Sesame Street, but he was green and had a reddish-orange nose.

An image of Grover.
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By the second season he was Grover. The original green Grover was recycled, though, as Grover’s Mommy. Like Oscar, Grover has been renamed around the world. In Latin America, he’s known as Archibaldo. In Spain, he’s Coco; in Portugal, he is Gualter; and in Norway he’s Gunnar.

Count von Count

The Count made his first appearance in 1972. He was created out of an “Anything Muppet” pattern, which is a blank Muppet head to which features can be added. He also used to be more sinister. For instance, he would hypnotize and stun people and then laugh in a classic villainous way.

An image of The Count.
Source: Pinterest

The Count was made into a more appealing puppet for little kids, though. He’s also something of a ladies’ man, having been linked to Countess von Backward, Countess Dahling von Dahling and Lady Two.