obit (the dust) of the month: what a little moonlight can do

Margaret Whiting, whose career as an interpreter of popular song began in the Big Band Era and was revived in the 1990s when she starred in the Broadway show Dream, died Jan. 10 at the Actors’ Fund Home in Englewood, NJ, her daughter Debbi Whiting told Playbill.com. The singer was 86.

Ms. Whiting came from a musical family. Her father, Richard A. Whiting, was a successful songwriter (“Till We Meet Again,” “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” “Ain’t We Got Fun?,” “Too Marvelous for Words”) and her aunt, Margaret Young, was a recording artist in the 1920s. Both she and her sister, Barbara Whiting, pursued a singing career. Growing up, her home was a gathering place for composers like Jerome Kern and Gus Kahn, and she was often called upon to sing. She was given an early boost when songwriter Johnny Mercer, a collaborator with her father, heard her voice when she was only seven. When Ms. Whiting’s father died, Mercer took her under his wing; when he started Capitol Records in 1942, he signed the teenage Ms. Whiting.

Her early hit recordings included “That Old Black Magic” with Freddie Slack and His Orchestra; “Moonlight in Vermont” with Billy Butterfield’s Orchestra; “It Might As Might Be Spring” with Paul Weston and His Orchestra; “All Through the Day,” a bestseller in 1946; and “In Love in Vain.” “A Tree in the Meadow” was a number one hit in 1948.

As her popularity faded, Ms. Whiting relaxed into a cabaret career, performing at Freddy’s Supper Club, Arci’s Place, The Oak Room and Michael’s Pub. “Ms. Whiting has always been a blunt, no-frills interpreter who remains fiercely loyal to the songwriter’s intentions,” wrote Stephen Holden in a New York Times review. “With that bluntness softened, she allows a pensive vulnerability to peek through.”

The singer was much-married. She wed producer Hubbel Robinson Jr. in 1948; pianist Lou Busch in 1951; John Richard Moore, a founder of Panavision, in 1958. Her most sensational marriage, however, came late in life when she met and married the much-younger, gay porn stay Jack Wrangler in 1994. The union proved her longest. Wrangler reportedly protested, “But I’m gay!,” to which Whiting reportedly replied, “Only around the edges, dear.” He went on to produce and direct many of her cabaret shows. They stayed together until his death in 2009.  READ MORE.

I knew both Margaret and Jack a little from working at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.  This was way back in the day; I was running the Music Theater Conference and they were master teachers at the fledgling Cabaret Symposium. One summer I heard Whiting sharing an anecdote about the great Johnny Mercer with a handful of over-enthusiastic singers. It stuck with me and I can’t tell you the number of times I asked her to repeat it whenever our paths crossed:  She was all of 19; Mercer had just heard “Moonlight in Vermont” and told her she needed to debut the song as it was perfect for her voice.  “But I’ve never been to Vermont,” she said. “How can I sing a song about a place I’ve never been?”

“I don’t know, I’m from Savannah,” Mercer replied. “We’ll use our imagination.”

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