If it hadn't been for a crazy, long-haired runner from Lock Haven University
in the 1980s, I might never had had a chance to form a warm, decades-long,
on-and-off acquaintanceship with music legend Margaret Whiting, who passed away
January 10, 2011 at age 86.
Maggie, as she was affectionately known in the show business world, was a top
recording star in the post-World War II era, with million-selling records like
"Moonlight in Vermont," "It Might As Well Be Spring" and my personal favorite,
"My Ideal." She remained active long after her last hits dropped off the
Billboard charts in the 1960s, performing in nightclubs and theaters, on TV
specials and hosting workshops for young musicians until, in her final years,
health problems finally curtailed her activities.
It was an odd Lock Haven incident that kicked off the first of a long series
of conversations with Maggie over the phone, and a few fleeting meetings with
her during the last decade of her life.
It all started with a Rebecca Gross Day at LHU in the early 1990s. At that
time I met up with an old friend and visiting LHU alum, Andy Shearer, the
aforementioned long-haired runner, with whom I had been friendly during our
undergraduate days. By then Andy was the manager of a Philadelphia radio station
that specialized in Big Band music, and I pitched a show to Andy in which I
would interview old time music stars, interspersed with bits of the stars'
One of the first stars with which I landed an interview was Margaret Whiting,
who delighted me with her sharp and funny anecdotes about the music business.
Her father, Richard Whiting, had been one of the great songwriters of the Golden
Age of Hollywood. Among other tunes, he wrote "Hooray for Hollywood" and, for
film star Shirley Temple, "The Good Ship Lollipop."
That song, by the way, was inspired by Margaret, who as a tiny little girl
climbed on her father's lap while he was trying to compose on the piano. She had
a huge lollypop in her hand and ended up getting sticky stuff all over the sheet
music, frustrating her dad until finally inspiration struck: That's it, he
thought, he'd write a song about lollipops!
Margaret told me during her childhood, her home in Beverly Hills was
constantly filled with artistic, creative people. Folks like Cole Porter and
Judy Garland would stop by for visits and hang around at the piano singing and
playing their latest tunes. It must have been incredible.
"We'd sit with Dick Rogers and Larry Hart and some of these great songwriters
and then they'd go in and play and there was no escaping for me," Margaret told
me during one of our telephone conversations. "That was it."
Stories like that absolutely astounded me. The fact that she talked about men
like Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart on a first-name basis - these being the
authors of such classics as "The Lady is a Tramp," "My Funny Valentine" and "My
Heart Stood Still" just blew me away.
"It really was a great thing for me," she said. "I remember one day when I
came home from school, this was in Holmby Hills, next to Bel Air, and I said,
'Where's Daddy?' Well, he was down playing golf at the little pitch and putt
golf course about two blocks from us.
"If any of these songwriters were working at the Hollywood studios, they
loved to play golf when they were writing. They'd play their songs for Daddy and
they'd have wonderful creative people who could judge them and tell them, 'Oh,
my God, that's a gorgeous song' you know. The masters of songwriting would all
come over, they'd have a drink, they'd have lunch, they'd go down and play golf,
they'd come back and have another drink and play the songs and have a wonderful
"So on this day I came home from school and was told my father was playing
golf, and I decided to go down there. I took my bike - it was only two blocks -
and I found him with five different men, all of whom I knew. I said, 'Hello
Uncle Johnny.' That was Johnny Mercer. 'Hello Uncle Harry.' That was Harry
Warren. 'Hello Uncle Harold.' That was Harold Arlen. And then there was one man,
much older than the rest of these people, who was kind of smiling about all
"And this man said, 'I've heard about you, Margaret. I hear you're going to
be a wonderful lady and I've been anxious to meet you. I long for the day when
you can call me Uncle Jerry. But right now I'm just Jerome Kern.
"So I said, 'Gee, you're my father's favorite composer!' And the other three
chimed in with, 'OUR favorite composer!'"
It took me days to recover from that story. Imagine a casual grouping of the
greatest popular songwriters of all time gathered in one spot, trading quips
with an tiny little girl who would herself grow up to become a music legend.
Just a quick refresher, for those who might not be familiar with Margaret's
myriad golf-playing "uncles." If all Harry Warren ever did with his life was
write the gorgeous, "You'll Never Know," he would have left the world a much
better place. But he also wrote countless other hits including "The More I See
You" and a particular favorite of our current president, "At Last," which was
played over and over during the Obama inauguration balls.
Johnny Mercer wrote "Skylark," "Laura," "Moon River" and "Midnight Sun."
Harold Arlen wrote the immortal "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "The Man
that Got Away."
Jerome Kern? "A Fine Romance." "The Way You Look Tonight." "All the Things
My first interview with Margaret went very well. In fact we hit it off so
well that she invited me to attend an event she was hosting at the Bucks County
Playhouse later that week, an engagement I had to skip because I had already
RSVP'd to a party for guitar god Les Paul at Manhattan's Iridium Nightclub on
the same night. I lived kind of a glamorous life in those long-ago days.
In any case, Philly radio station manager Andy Shearer and I were making
arrangements to air the interviews with Margaret and other musical stars of that
era when the station was suddenly bought by Disney and changed format. My shows
about old music stars were permanently shelved.
Then in 1995 I was at a party in New York celebrating the launch of a now
defunct fashion magazine when I looked up and there, standing across the room in
tasteful plaid, was Margaret Whiting.
I walked over and said hello and told her I was planning on soon seeing a
mutual friend - the singer Rosemary Clooney - in concert.
"Tell her I'll be in to see her soon," Margaret said of Rosemary. "I always
go to see her when she's in New York." Whiting and Clooney spent years
performing together in an act called "Four Girls Four" with big band singer
Helen O'Connell, the Dick Van Dyke Show star Rose Marie and a host of other
Happily, a photographer was present to snap a photo of the Margaret and me
I liked Margaret especially well, and rang her phone number whenever I could
come up with a reason to do another story about her, which happened about a
half-dozen times over the course of the next 10 years.
At one point I was doing some freelance work for a magazine called "Out in
Jersey" and they wanted celebrity quotes on the most romantic songs of all time
for a Valentine's issue. I called Maggie about that one, and her answer was
Roger's and Hart's "My Romance."
In the 1970s, Margaret set tongues wagging when she entered into a rather
unconventional romantic relationship with a fellow named Jack Wrangler, then the
number one gay porn star in America. Indeed, I once asked her if she'd let me
interview her about her relationship with Wrangler, but she turned me down about
that one. It was just a little too personal, I think.
Over a decade later both Jack and Maggie participated in filmmaker Jeffrey
Schwarz's terrific documentary, "Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon," which is
surprisingly tasteful despite the subject matter.
In 2003 and 2004 I began writing and researching a long article for an
Internet website on the aforementioned Four Girls Four nightclub act. I had
several conversations with Margaret for that story, and after it was published,
Margaret and I spoke on the phone again and she shared a few further details
about Rosemary Clooney and the other ladies in the act that never saw print
"When we started, we had a young boy who drove us around, Rosemary did,"
Margaret said slyly. "He's grown up now. He's doing pictures. Maybe you know
him, George Clooney? He drove us around. At least he drove Rosemary and myself
around. I don't know how the other girls got around. He was a beautiful
Did she have any idea at the time that this young kid would someday be a
huge, Oscar-winning film personality?
"No," she said. "No, no, no. I knew he was hip, because he was connected to
that family. I had met his father, Nick, who was a great reporter in Cincinnati. He
had a TV program and I was on it. And George is like his father. He has such
belief in the world and knows it's in such trouble and wants to help the
countries of Africa. They're in such a mess, you know?
"He did a movie about one of my favorite people who I was fortunate enough to
know, being in the business: Edward R. Murrow. Murrow and I shared two programs
on CBS. I was on with Bob Crosby and his orchestra and the Andrews Sisters and
we had a wonderful time singing with the band and everything. Then at 6:15 or
6:30 Murrow would go on from Philadelphia with a program about world issues. He
was such a wonderful speaker.
"I was invited to Washington for a party hosted by the president, and he
went, too. He picked me up in the CBS plane in New York and flew me to
Washington, where he dropped me off. So I went to the hotel and didn't see him
after that till I was walking up the steps of the White House and I heard this
voice say, 'Hello, Maggie. It's me, Edward R.'
"Later I did something with the CBS sponsors and I got to know Edward R.
Murrow very well, and I thought it was so wonderful for George to do that
"That picture," was "Good Night and Good Luck," the story of pioneering TV
journalist Murrow's battles with Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. It was
nominated for six Academy Awards in 2005, including for George Clooney's
The last time I saw Margaret in person was at Patsy's Italian restaurant in
New York City, where there was a memorial dinner for Rosemary Clooney. She
attended with Wrangler, who I had never met or spoken with, so I was a bit leery
about approaching her table.
"When Rosemary died they had a party for all of her friends here in New York,
at Patsy's, where I guess you and I passed in the night," Margaret said with a
laugh during a conversation I had with her in 2006. "But it was so wonderful to
see George's father there, and how much George is like his father. What a great
family. Nick was talking about Rosemary and he said she had died with
passion and goodness. It was really wonderful. Rosemary and I were very close.
She used to say I reminded her of her sister, Betty."
At which point we both got a little choked up. Betty and Rosemary Clooney
were a particularly close singing duo in the late 1940s. They later recorded the
hit record "Sisters" together, but Rosemary never really got over Betty's death
from a brain aneurysm in 1976.
I changed the subject and we talked a little about Wrangler, for the first
time. Given his more colorful career before he met Margaret, I was impressed, I
told her, with how much she stuck by him. She has written that she believed he
was capable of more than mere pornographic movies, that he could be a great
writer and stage producer.
"Some people dug him right away and saw what I saw in him, but he certainly
proved himself to people," she said. "Being in a relationship takes guts, you
know. It takes knowledge. It takes humor, but when you know that someone has
that talent and can do things like that, I just said, 'Let me show you what you
should be.' But he was on his way out of the other thing (pornography)
Did she feel he was exploited during his years in gay porn?
"No," she said, somewhat surprisingly, and described a party she once
attended that apparently was largely populated by Wranger's co-stars and
colleagues from that industry.
"When I met them, and I went to the first gorgeous party, it was so different
than what I imagined. They were men and women that came from the industry and
they were directors and producers that had done big pictures, and it was very
much on one level that they were going to do something that was a little
different, but they did it with taste and they did it with their ability. You'd
be surprised the people that were in that group. They were professionals.
"We don't worry about any of that, now," she said, and with that the subject
seemed to be closed.
It was at about that same time that I talked to her about coming to Lock
Haven and to hold a kind of master class for LHU music students. It had already
been cleared by one of my professor friends in the university Arts department,
so I simply picked up the phone and asked her.
She demurred, saying she was too busy writing the second volume of her
memoirs and performing at the 92nd Street Y, one of the great performance spaces
in New York City. But I suspect her health was already troubling her and that
she worried about the four-hour drive out to Clinton County.
But she promised to take me out to lunch the next time I was in New York
City. And when we next spoke on the phone, in 2006, for a radio interview
program I had launched here in Lock Haven, she reminded me of the earlier lunch
"Will you call me the next time you're in New York?" she asked.
"Probably not," I said with a laugh.
"Why not?" she asked.
"Because you're Margaret Whiting and I'm just some schmuck from New Jersey,
"Now please don't be like that," she scolded. "Promise you'll call me next
time you're in New York."
But I never did. And it was pretty rare that I got into New York by then,
Sadly, Jack Wrangler died in 2009 at age 62, leaving Margaret somewhat
rudderless. He was always a heavy smoker and emphysema was what got him in the
end. Margaret was bereft.
I spoke with her after Jack died, and she cried frequently when talking about
Rosemary ("She was my girlfriend... I still miss her so...") and particularly
about Jack: "My husband died three weeks ago," she said through copious
"I know. I know, dear," I told her.
After Margaret's death at age 86 last month, I left a message on the
voicemail for her old telephone number in New York, asking where I should send a
sympathy note to her daughter, Debbi. A few days later, Debbi phoned me in
We spoke at some length about her mother's last years. For example, by the
time the documentary about Wrangler came out in 2008, she said, both Jack and
Margaret were already too ill to attend the premier.
During her last weeks in her New York apartment, Margaret rarely went out,
Debbi said, and she grew bored watching the same old movies on TV. She longed
for companionship, so she was very sincere, Debbi said, when she had asked me
repeatedly to come visit her in New York. She would have loved to have had
someone new to talk to.
It made me feel doubly sad, not just for the loss of this great lady, but for
the opportunity I had missed to spend some more time with her.Matt Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article
originally appeared in Lockhaven's The Express on
February 19, 2011.