It was a raw winter night in Greenwich Village in 1978. I was tending bar at Bradley’s, a now long gone, legendary saloon on University Place that featured the best piano jazz on the planet. The supremely gifted veteran, Jimmy Rowles, was at the keyboard, Sam Jones was playing bass, and all was right with the world. I loved my job because I loved the music.
A recent discussion on the message board brought back memories from my youth of a glamorous figure in a time when glamour had not yet assumed the tawdry implications that would later become attached to it. In 1959, Peggy Lee appeared in an engagement at a nightclub in New York City called Basin Street East, a place in which she’d achieved a triumph the year before. The poster announcing her return was displayed in front of the club and became a sensation unto itself. Versions of it made their way into newspapers, and it was pasted up on available surfaces everywhere on the island of Manhattan. In it, Peggy was wearing a white, backless, sequined gown, and the picture was taken from behind. Her bare back, revealed to the waist, was a thing of beauty to behold, and she was looking over her shoulder, her mysteriously lovely countenance caught in a look of elegant seduction. Whatever else she might have been, she was certainly an astonishing presence. Sparks seemed to fly away from her person and draw strangers into the aura they projected. This startling vision was, at the same time, contrasted by a clear statement of aloofness, distance, and unavailability. There was no question that the image being observed, although unquestionably magnificent, was an artifice that she had created. It was a measure of her talent in this regard that nobody ever asked about the real woman behind the mask. In bold letters above the photo, the caption read, “PEGGY’S BACK!”
Arnold and I were talking about the modern world. He thought a moment and then said, “History is a thing of the past.” The comedic surface of that remark, coupled with its profound undertones, was typical of his extraordinary mind.