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Margaret Whiting, 1940s singing star and peerless interpreter of classic songs, dies at 86

In this Jan. 21, 1949 file photo, big band singer Margaret Whiting is flanked by Jerry Lewis, left, and Dean Martin at the Hollywood Brown Derby on in Los Angeles. Whiting, the sweet-voiced singer who sold millions of records in the 1940s and 1950s with sentimental ballads such as
In this Jan. 21, 1949 file photo, big band singer Margaret Whiting is flanked by Jerry Lewis, left, and Dean Martin at the Hollywood Brown Derby on in Los Angeles. Whiting, the sweet-voiced singer who sold millions of records in the 1940s and 1950s with sentimental ballads such as "Moonlight in Vermont" and "It Might As Well Be Spring," died Monday, Jan 10, 2011 at the age of 86. (AP Photo/File) (AP)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 6:12 PM

Margaret Whiting, a recording star of the 1940s who had a long career as one of the most respected and enduring singers of classic popular songs, died Jan. 11 at a retirement home in Englewood, N.J. She was 86. The cause of death was not disclosed, although she had suffered a stroke in recent years.

Ms. Whiting was among the first singers to introduce some of the best-loved tunes in what is often called the Great American Songbook, including "That Old Black Magic," "Moonlight in Vermont," "It Might as Well Be Spring" and "My Ideal," which was co-written by her father, Richard Whiting.

One of the most popular singers of her era, Ms. Whiting had a dozen million-selling records and presented hundreds of shows for the military during World War II. In later life, she became a cabaret star and was part of one of the odder couples in show business with her fourth husband, Jack Wrangler, a star of gay pornographic films who was 22 years her junior.

Ms. Whiting grew up in Hollywood, where many of the most celebrated tunesmiths of the golden age of popular song - Harold Arlen, Frank Loesser, Harry Warren, Jerome Kern, and George and Ira Gershwin - were frequent guests at her family home. One of her childhood friends was Judy Garland.

"Everybody I knew was famous," she told the Chicago Tribune in 1985. "I didn't really know anybody who wasn't."

Her father, who wrote "Hooray for Hollywood," "Ain't She Sweet" and "Too Marvelous for Words," as well as the lyrics to "She's Funny That Way," said his daughter was the inspiration for one of his best-loved songs.

When she was about 8, Ms. Whiting rushed into her father's studio with a lollipop and left sticky traces all over his hands and face. Richard Whiting then wrote "On the Good Ship Lollipop," which became the signature song of Shirley Temple.

After her father died at 46 in 1938, Ms. Whiting became a protegee of songwriter Johnny Mercer, one of her father's closest friends. Mercer, who was perhaps Hollywood's premier lyricist from the 1930s through the 1950s, nurtured Ms. Whiting's career and offered her a recording contract at Capitol Records when she was 18.

She had her first big hit, "That Old Black Magic," written by Arlen and Mercer, in 1942 with the Freddie Slack Orchestra. Within three years, Ms. Whiting recorded "My Ideal," "It Might as Well Be Spring" and "Moonlight in Vermont" and became a fixture on radio and USO shows all over the world.

"She has unerring dynamics, perfect pitch and a tightly controlled vibrato," critic Whitney Balliett wrote years later in the New Yorker. "Margaret Whiting's voice floats . . . free, and it becomes one with the song she is singing."

In 1948, Ms. Whiting and Mercer had a No. 3 hit with their wry winter-weather duet, "Baby, It's Cold Outside," which is now a pop-jazz classic. Two of her songs reached No. 1 on the charts, "A Tree in the Meadow" in 1948 and "Slippin' Around," a 1949 duet with country singer Jimmy Wakely. Her 1947 recording of Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn's "Time After Time" was featured in the 2009 film "Julie and Julia."

In the mid-1950s, Ms. Whiting and her sister, Barbara, had a short-lived TV show, "Those Whiting Girls." Mostly, though, she was known as a brilliant performer of classic songs, with a sturdy, unwavering voice and a gift for interpreting a songwriter's words.


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