Peggy Lee’s ‘Is That All There Is’ Was Inspired by a Thomas Mann Story

Peggy Lee’s haunting 1969 hit “Is That All There Is”—if you watch Mad Men, you’d recognize it from both the opening and closing of the midseason premiere—was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller during the 1960s, but its roots date back to an 1896 Thomas Mann novella. In a 2011 Los Angeles Times story on Jerry Leiber, Randall Roberts expanded on the song’s history:

As you’re delighting in Stoller’s landmark instrumentation and structural genius, listen to the lyrics, which as Leiber evolved as a songwriter started drawing ideas from other, unexpected sources. Wonderfully transparent about his inspirations, he didn’t hide the fact, for example, that the words to Peggy Lee’s 1969 hit “Is That All There Is?” were taken from a prose meditation by German writer Thomas Mann called “Disillusionment.”

In Mann’s story, after recounting the numbness of his life experiences, the narrator awaits the ultimate disappointment: “So I dream and wait for death. Ah, how well I know it already, death, that last disappointment! At my last moment I shall be saying to myself: ‘So this is the great experience — well, and what of it? What is it after all?'”

Leiber used Mann’s words nearly verbatim, but with one major difference. Mann dwells on futility until the very end. Leiber though gave it an ironic twist that will echo long after his departure. If that’s it, she sings, “Then let’s keep dancing / Let’s break out the booze and have a ball / If that’s all there is.”

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