Margaret Whiting , Singer and Social Activist, 1924-2011
by John Pietaro
Margaret Whiting (July 22, 1924 – January 10, 2011), star of Broadway, cabaret and recording, died this past week at the Lillian Booth Actor’s Home in Englewood New Jersey. A vocalist since childhood, her father was acclaimed songwriter Richard Whiting, musical partner of Johnny Mercer. With such successes as “Hooray for Hollywood”, the family moved from New York to Beverly Hills where Mercer was to found Capitol Records. Following her father’s untimely death in 1938, Mercer acted as a father figure and the young Ms. Whiting, already active in clubs and theatre, was the first vocalist signed to Capitol; she was just eighteen.
A string of 1940s and ‘50s hit records, initially as a big band singer and then as a solo artist or in duet with others, included “That Old Black Magic”, “Moonlight in Vermont”, “Baby Its Cold Outside”, “Slippin’ Around”, “Come Rain or Come Shine” and her theme song, “It Might As Well Be Spring”. Whiting split her time between the two coasts—and beyond-- headlining on Broadway, acting in films and performing in both nightclubs and USO reviews until ultimately settling in Manhattan. There she was quick to move into television work in the earliest 1950s and in addition to guest appearances on contemporary variety shows, she and her sister Barbara had their own situation comedy, “Those Whiting Girls”, which furthered her celebrity. Important cabaret appearances and recordings continued through the 1960s and Whiting was even asked to play an uncredited role in a noted film, dubbing a singing track for Susan Hayward in ‘Valley of the Dolls’.
In the mid-1970s Whiting met Gay porn actor Jack Wrangler (twenty years her junior but who lived only until 2009) and the two developed a close, caring relationship, ultimately marrying. Famously, Whiting declared Wrangler only as “gay around the edges”. While the pair stated their relationship was never sexual, they had a partnership which saw Wrangler producing several of Whiting’s shows including in Broadway theatres. The marriage to Wrangler was her fourth; previously she’d had a relationship with actor John Garfield and then three unsuccessful marriages to others involved in film or theatre. Her second marriage, to musician Lou Busch, produced her only child, Deborah, who survives her.
While Whiting’s work in theatre and clubs sustained her name throughout the 70s, 80s, 90s and into the 2000s, she also became increasingly known as a social activist in this latter period. According to WBAI-FM air personality David Rothenberg, Whiting was a strong advocate for civil rights and civil liberties causes and was known in New York as a great supporter for progressive political campaigns. Rothenberg, a founder of the Fortune Society and a theatre publicist who ran for City Council in 1985, stated that she was always available to perform for fundraisers. In an on-air statement on January 15, he said her loss was great and that she’d been a much-loved figure in the progressive arts world.
Most powerfully, she is recalled as an AIDS activist who aligned herself with this cause before most other celebrities would, performing at the very first HIV benefit concert in 1982, San Francisco. She also organized and headlined many other such events and helped to sustain then little-known organizations which would grow into national advocacy and social service groups. The New Jersey blog ‘Plainfield Today’ featured an article on Whiting’s importance in trying to help the fledgling Hyacinth AIDS Foundation in a fundraising concert in the mid-80s:
“The Hyacinth AIDS Foundation…pioneered outreach and services to those with HIV/AIDS in the Garden State… The formation of the group coincided with the deepening health crisis -- and the subsequent awareness that HIV/AIDS was not a 'gay problem', but a communitywide health issue of enormous proportions. Thousands of dollars were raised by the Margaret Whiting event, at which the singer movingly talked about the friends and acquaintances she had lost to the AIDS epidemic…Whiting spurred RSVP members to get active in raising funds for medical research, providing social services and educating the community generally that what we were facing was a public health emergency” (http://ptoday.blogspot.com/)
Whiting maintained her role in activism, particularly in the company of Jack Wrangler, well beyond the early years of the AIDS epidemic, yet this fact has been elusive in current press. Her activist core aside, Whiting will be recalled as a favorite of the great American songbook. As she was beginning to experience a decline in health in 2009, Whiting was able to see something of a renewed interest in her career when her 1947 recording of the Julie Styne/Sammy Cahn song “Time After Time” was heard on the soundtrack of the Meryl Streep film ‘Julie and Julia.
(Photo: 'Life' magazine)