The work ethic and determination that made Peggy Lee an international star as a singer, songwriter and actress started right here in North Dakota, according to her granddaughter Holly Foster Wells.

"She was very proud of being from North Dakota," Wells said. "... she worked hard in North Dakota, a lot of physical labor and she was always singing."

Lee was born as Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown on May 26, 1920. She passed away on Jan. 21, 2002.

Her father, Marvin Egstrom, was employed by the Midland Continental Railroad and the family lived in Jamestown and Wimbledon during her youth. There is a museum in her honor at the Midland Continental Railroad Depot in Wimbledon.

Members of her family continued to reside in North Dakota with her brother Mel operating a repair shop on the present location of U.S. Bank, according to George Spangler, a local resident who has researched the era of Egstrom's North Dakota years.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

"She was a remarkable woman," Spangler said. "When they lived in Wimbledon she had a job in Valley City at KOVC (radio). She rode the bread truck from Wimbledon to Valley City to sing."

Wells said Lee was always thankful for the assistance of the people who helped her during those early years.

"A lot of people helped her out," she said. "Lent her dresses, gave her rides, helped her to performances."

Lee wrote the song "The Folks Back Home" in honor of the help she received during her days in Jamestown and Wimbledon, Wells said.

During her life she recorded more than 1,000 songs and wrote over 200.

"Not a lot of people know she wrote songs," Wells said. "She really was one of the first singer-songwriters in American music."

That library of music and other businesses make up the company Wells operates today although Lee is best remembered as a grandmother by Wells.

"She was an amazing grandmother to have," she said. "We lived with her in a wing of the house for a time, she was like a second mom."

Wells said her family continued to spend holidays with her grandmother even after moving to Idaho.

"I remember going to rehearsals and recording sessions," she said. "But mostly she was just my grandmother."

Wells also said that her grandmother told her that someday, she would run her company.

"She started a publishing company," she said. "My grandmother was a very good businesswoman; she told me 'don't ever sell these songs.'"

That song library is in demand and is still under the control of the company Wells runs.

"She picked such great songs," Wells said, referring to the library of music Lee recorded. "She always said the genre didn't matter. There were good songs and bad songs, and she picked the good songs."

Making the songs memorable involved more than just selecting good material, Wells said.

"Tony Bennet called her the female Frank Sinatra," she said. "She delivered songs that were perfect but had the swagger like Sinatra."

Her musical skills and long career have prompted the Grammy Museum in California to create its first online presentation honoring Lee in a way that fits with the coronavirus pandemic precautions.

"It is a mystery why Jamestown is not more excited for her," said Kate Stevenson, professor at the University of Jamestown and an enthusiast for Peggy Lee music. "She is still a big deal in the world of music. If it hadn't been for the coronavirus it would have been a big deal in Jamestown again."

Stevenson said a series of tribute concerts, including a stop in Jamestown this summer, have been postponed due to the pandemic. The hope is the events will be rescheduled to 2021.

"It would have been a fabulous time," Stevenson said. "It still can be in 2021."

Stevenson called Lee "one of the most iconic female performers of the 20th century."

Wells said she accomplished those things on her own using the traits she had developed in this area.

"She had a vision of what she wanted for a career and did it unapologetically and without permission," she said.