A Requiem for Mrs. Tripod
Like Ugly George, like bag-lady/freedom fighter Billie Boggs, and like the manster I used to see on 42nd Street who had a finger growing out of the middle of his palm, Margaret Whiting was a champion charmer in a rare league of peculiarly beguiling local New York figures—super-intense emphasis on the “peculiar” there.
I’ll spare you the inevitable “Dude, where’s my New York City?” bellyaching, but these past few decades have eradicated this wholly distinct brand of Gotham celebrity—anti-stars who you just loved to let make your skin crawl.
Yes, I know Joe Franklin still mitzvahs among us, but he’s been off TV for 18 years now and he even recently moved out of his legendarily proto-Hoarders freak-pit of a Times Square office.
So things happen. Times change. And glazed, ancient, grape-shaped cabaret ladies depart this mortal coil to reunite with their incandescently homo porn star husbands in whatever weirdness may lay after—super-intense emphasis on the “lay” there.
Margaret Whiting, her New York Times obituary tells me, was discovered as a kid singer by songwriter Johnny Mercer and then emerged during her teens one of the most popular big band warblers of World War II.
From there, she scored numerous pop standard hits, became the toast of Broadway musical theater and remained among New York’s most elite nightclub songbirds who appeal to a very particular audience of men.
Since her recent death on January 10, 2011, I’ve been checking Rex Reed’s column maniacally to read his eulogy, if you catch my rainbow drift.
As to how Margaret Whiting blipped on Youngman McBeardo’s radar, I’ll just turn it over to the Times completely:
“In her later years, Ms. Whiting was known to many as the unlikely wife of Jack Wrangler (originally John Stillman), a star of gay pornographic films in the 1970s who went on to become a cabaret and theater producer.”
Ms. Whiting and Mr. Wrangler, 22 years her junior, met in the 1970s, lived together for many years and married in 1994. She wrote about their relationship in an autobiography, “It Might as Well Be Spring,” saying it was based on similar interests and mutual respect, not sex. When they first became involved, he told her, “I’m gay,” to which she replied, “Only around the edges, dear.”
More directly, let us turn to the indispensable (and now very expensive) 1984 autobiography The Jack Wrangler Story of What’s a Nice Boy Like You Doing?, wherein Ms. Whiting suggests that our hero move in as her common-law spouse and, right before the lights dim on the Broadway show they’re attending, he blurts out:
“But I’m a fucking faggot!”
From the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s youth, Jack Wrangler and Margaret Whiting remained staple guests of local talk shows such as Live at Five, Stanley Siegel and, of course, the aforementioned Rabbi Franklin’s wee-hour kibbutz.
I was familiar with Jack Wrangler’s name before I ever saw him, though, by way of my childhood fixation on porn movie ads in the New York Post and the Daily News. I studied those newsprint paste-ups every day, occasionally for hours straight, desperately trying to absorb the illicit, adults-only thrills they so garishly portended.
Mr. Wrangler’s moniker stood out, among a glandful of others, because it appeared repeatedly in ads for both straight and gay porno movies (can you believe that the local newspapers came chock full of such things just a few pages away from the comics—every day?).
In particular, Wrangler’s name turned up regularly in films by stark queer auteur Joe Gage, the titles and ads for which always sort of chilled me (e.g.—Garage, Kansas City Trucking, L.A. Tool and Dye).
“How come they call it gay,” I wondered, “when it looks so depressing?”
I was eight.
When I finally caught sight of Jack Wrangler he seemed very much the opposite of depressed, flamoboyantly dishing and swishing on, I think, Midday Live, a noon chat show on channel 5 hosted by Bill Boggs (from whom the homeless headcase mentioned earlier took her literal street name).
Penis-size, in some roundabout way, came up and Jack explained that much of his on-screen impressiveness came courtesy of tricky camera angles, laughingly braying: “After all, I’m not a TRIPOD!”
For quite some time after that, I wondered what “tripod” meant. The context made me too scared to ask anybody.
A few years later, on a 1985 all porn-star episode of channel 5’s erudite overnight talker, The David Susskind Show, Jack repeated a variation on the line, and I didn’t mind. Neither did Gloria Leonard, Candida Royalle, Samantha Fox and Marc “10 1/2 Inch” Stevens, who paneled right alongside him.
(And by then I knew what a tripod was.)
Other than those couple of shots, though, if you wanted Jack Wrangler, you got Margaret Whiting and vice versa—on TV, I mean.
Actually … who knows?
All I do know is that this silver fox muscle queen and his plump grand-muh-mah whose makeup you could smell through the Zenith speaker were a routine presence on my formative years’ boob tube.
There, they’d perennially be, always glad-handing and beaming and gabbing away, clearly believing they were cocktail-and-caviar Noel Coward sophisticates come to suave, albeit—ooh!—naughty life.
And she was a foofy-coiffed balloon full of baby powder wrapped in sequins.
God, were they gross.
And, God, did I love them.
I still do.
Individually, the Whiting-Wranglers tickled me, as well. One of the first porn tapes I watched at an underage beer party was The Devil in Miss Jones 2, with Jack playing the male lead and literally shooting fire out of his dick.
In 1986, channel 9, New York’s premiere round-the-clock horror movie outlet, ran and repeatedly reran an oddball special titled 4 Girls 4.
It was a behind-the-scenes look at a touring musical revue of the same name starring Rose Marie (of The Dick Van Dyke Show), Rosemary Clooney (of Coronet paper towel commercials), Helen O’Connell (some other retirement home singer) and, indeed, Margaret Whiting.
The special showed this (way) post-menopausal quartet playing to packed houses of deeply appreciative fans.
The three divas would scat-sing, finger-shake and ooze ICU “glamor” while, in between, Rose Marie performed grotesque baby-talk routines.
I have to say that, at home, tuned in deep every time, I numbered among those rabid admirers.
Plus, apparently, I wasn’t alone in this fecactuh fandom.
Have you ever heard a joke on TV and thought, “Wait—did they write that exclusively for ME?!”
My greatest such experience occurred on a 1987 episode of Late Night with David Letterman. Chris Elliot was portraying a Liberace-esque, hyper-femme fancy-pantalooned piano maestro. He looked directly into the camera and announced, “And I want to give a great big hello to my dear friends Jack Wrangler and Margaret Whiting!”
I’m still laughing about it.
Alas, today, we shed a tear.
Jack Wrangler and Margaret Whiting remained a colorful New York presence until … well, this week.
Wrangler arrived at the lawsuit figure by counting $2 million for her injuries, and another hot mil for “loss of conjugal relations.”
Ah. They never lost it.
Sadly, we have now lost them both. Jack died in 2009, at age 62, from emphysema. Margaret left us at 86 from, simply, being 86. She is 1 Dead Girl 1.
You are gone, Jack and Margaret, but the heebies you jeebied linger on.
Long may you skeeve.
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