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

By Matt Schudel
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.

"I think of nothing but the lyrics when I sing, of setting up word pictures," she told the New Yorker. "Each song has its own mood, color, texture."

Margaret Eleanor Whiting was born July 22, 1924, in Detroit and moved as a child to Beverly Hills, Calif. Her father wrote songs for the movies, and her mother was an agent for singers, including Sophie Tucker.

Ms. Whiting had an idyllic childhood, in which famous songwriters gathered around the family piano, polished witty lyrics and taught her the finer points of singing.

"Johnny Mercer would listen to me when I was practicing, and he'd say, 'You don't mean what you're singing," she told the New Yorker. "Think of a ballad as a one-act play. Find the top moment in a song, and build to that.'"

Ms. Whiting released dozens of records through the mid-1960s, until rock-and-roll began to supplant her style of sophisticated music.

Her career had a resurgence in the late 1970s, about the time she met Wrangler, who had grown up in Hollywood as the son of a television producer. As their romance began to blossom, he admitted that he was gay.

"Only around the edges, dear," Ms. Whiting responded.

After living together since 1978, they were married in 1994. The Chicago Tribune once described them as as "one of New York's most popular, most controversial and most durable duos."

As Ms. Whiting became a favorite performer at the Algonquin Hotel and other cabaret nightspots, Wrangler wrote and directed many of her shows. He died in April 2009 at 62.

In her 1987 memoir, "It Might as Well Be Spring," Ms. Whiting described her somewhat racy love life, including an affair in the 1940s with actor John Garfield.

Her first three marriages, to CBS executive Hubbell Robinson Jr., Capitol Records music director Lou Busch and John Richard Moore, an inventor of Panavision, ended in divorce. Survivors include a daughter from her second marriage, Deborah Whiting.

In later life, Ms. Whiting was a mentor to younger singers, appeared in Broadway revivals of "Gypsy," "Pal Joey" and "Call Me Madam" and co-starred for more than a dozen years in a touring theatrical production called "4 Girls 4," with Rosemary Clooney, Helen O'Connell, Rose Marie and a rotating cast of other performers from an earlier age.

Ms. Whiting was a member of the board of the Grammy Awards and Songwriters Hall of Fame and often performed tribute shows in honor of her childhood tutor, Mercer. She often recalled that when Mercer first suggested she sing "Moonlight in Vermont," she demurred.

"I don't know what to sing about in this song," she told him. "I've never been to Vermont. How can I sing a song about a place I've never been to?"

"We'll use our imagination," he replied.

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