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The Girls of 4 Girls 4

About the Author Matt Connor


You're listening to Helen O'Connell sing Green Eyes

Helen O'Connell armed forces radioEnter Helen O’Connell

After the enormously successful opening run at the Doheny, the Huntington Hartford Theater in Hollywood immediately booked the "girls" for Thanksgiving week. But with McNair out of the picture, Loeb and the three remaining performers brainstormed over who would make a good replacement. Rose Marie and Clooney both suggested Kay Starr, who had a series of top-selling singles in the 1950s and early ‘60s. Contacted about joining the group, Starr declined, nervous about joining an act with three other women. A single act and an only child, she wasn’t sure she could manage the group dynamic.

"Barbara McNair was the fourth girl, but somehow it didn’t work out for her," Whiting said. "As it went along, they told us we weren’t going to work again till November, and that we were going to open in a big theater in Hollywood. Now, whom do you think we could get to replace Barbara? And we all said, ‘Helen O’Connell.’ We thought she’d be the best. She’s different from me, she’s different from Rosemary, and Rose Marie was a comic. So that’s the way we were going."

"Helen I’d known for many years," Loeb said. "I was not involved with her as much as I was the other three, who I had been with for forty, fifty years total."

Helen O’Connell was offered the position of the Fourth Girl, and she accepted. She was perhaps the biggest female big-band singer of the war years, and her on-stage act melded well with the other women’s. Undeniably beautiful at age 57, she also looked stunning in the footlights.

Helen O'Connell"She was gorgeous! She was gorgeous!" Rose Marie said. "In her sixties, she looked like she was twenty! She was gorgeous!"

But backstage the women often found her irritating, or worse.

"Helen was the biggest pain, but I don’t want to speak ill of the dead," Sviridoff said. "She pushed everybody’s buttons, but when it came to defending her, everyone jumped to everyone else’s defense."

"She’s gone now, but Helen O’Connell was a pain in the ass," Rose Marie said. "Helen caused all kinds of trouble by saying things and doing things and then coming around and saying, ‘I’m sorry. Forgive me.’ There were times when we never talked to her. It was aggravating to a lot of us, because, how can you go out and work under those conditions, you know?"

"Helen was a thorny lady," said songwriter John Meyer. "She was, I think, impatient. That was my impression of her."

"I grew close to Rose Marie and to Margaret, even through the usual frictions of life on the road," Rosemary wrote in Girl Singer. "Only Helen O’Connell rubbed me the wrong way, as I did her... The other girls had problems with Helen, too, but she could be disarmingly apologetic when she knew she’d gone too far. She’d go over to Margaret or Rose Marie, then she’d take their hands in both of hers and say, ‘Let’s start over. Let’s take it from the top.’ I would warn them, ‘Don’t do it. It’s going to happen again!’ But of course it was easier to keep the peace – or what passed for the peace."

"I remember standing backstage, watching the act, and getting ready for Rosemary’s turn to go on," Schlereth recalled. "Rose Marie was finishing up her part. I was lucky enough to stand there in the wing during the show, and someone came up behind me and put their arm around me and said, ‘Let me get you a seat.’ And it was Helen. And so she brought over a stool from the stagehands. And I sat there and watched Rosemary, and Helen stood there with her arm on my shoulder watching Rosemary, too. I think that Helen truly admired and liked Rosemary Clooney. She couldn’t help being a pain in the ass. That’s just the way she was... She would watch Rosemary perform, and she would listen to her. I remember thinking that the feeling she left with me was that she liked Rosemary very much, or at least admired and appreciated her music. I don’t think there was a bitter rivalry there.

"But she was a pain in the ass."

"Helen was sassy, kind of sassy. She always had a remark, that sort of thing," said Dante DiPaolo, Rosemary’s devoted second husband, who traveled with the 4 Girls 4 for years before the couple was married. "But they had so much fun on stage. You talk about the Rat Pack? They were the Rat Pack of the women. They were the female Rat Pack. They used to tell stories on each other sometimes, stuff that wasn’t in the script. They got the people laughing. There was a lot of good entertainment there."

Rose Marie, Rosemary Clooney, Helen O'Connell & Margaret WhitingBetween the September Beverly Doheny gig and the Huntington Hartford run in November, the newly-constructed 4 Girls 4 had several weeks of downtime before returning to rehearsals. And for two of those four girls, those few weeks in the autumn of 1977 would change their lives forever.

Almost immediately after that first appearance of the 4 Girls 4, Rosemary resumed the Bing Crosby & Friends Tour, flying out to the United Kingdom with the troupe for the Palladium appearance. Rosemary later fondly remembered the last night of that engagement

"The evening was memorable, the music excellent," she wrote in Girl Singer. "The audience gave Bing a standing ovation. Bing didn’t seem to know what to do. He’d always had a hard time acknowledging his feelings, even with family and friends. Now thousands of strangers were cheering him so enthusiastically that he had to respond somehow. He held his arms in a tentative way, then drew them together as though he were folding them, enclosing the audience in his embrace. I saw him mouth the words, ‘I love you.’

"It was a stunning moment."

Backstage, the two singers shared an elevator immediately after final curtain. Rosemary purposely didn’t mention Bing’s uncharacteristic emotional display during the standing ovation ("it was too fragile to talk about," she wrote).

"I guess I won’t see you for a while," she said to him.

"No, you won’t. I’m going to Spain for some serious golf."

The elevator doors opened. He gave her a quick kiss and stepped off.

She never saw him alive again. On October 14, 1977 Bing Crosby died of a heart attack on that golf course in Spain. Twenty years later, she would still be telling audiences about the sadness she felt when she first heard the news.

"I still miss him every day of my life," she would say.

Back home in California, Rosemary attended Bing Crosby’s pre-dawn funeral at St. Paul’s Chapel in Westwood. She sat there in the little church, mourning a great friend and greeting the other guests, "But underneath, an intrusive thought of my own future tugged at me. My career had just begun to right itself and move forward with Bing’s help. What now?"

Jack and Margaret 2003Weeks later Margaret Whiting was sitting in a little hole-in-the-wall nightclub in her adopted hometown of New York. The owner of the club took to the stage and pointed out the few celebrities in the crowd. He said a few flattering words about Margaret, and a few other comments that Margaret couldn’t quite make out about an attractive blonde fellow sitting on the other side of the room. When the applause died down, the young gentleman strolled over to Margaret’s table. They chatted briefly.

"It wasn’t enough that he was young, good-looking, evidently funny, but he also had a way with words," Whiting wrote in her autobiography, It Might As Well Be Spring. "At least, he got right to this 1 Girl 1."

She asked what he did for a living.

"I’m an actor," he said. "Jack Wrangler."

She told him she’d love to see one of his shows. He invited her to a 14th Street theater where he was performing the following Friday. She said she’d be there. When she heard what kind of show it was, she shrugged it off. Always inquisitive, always open-minded, never the prude; that’s Margaret Whiting.

She showed up at the theater as scheduled. At the appointed hour, Wrangler stepped onto the stage and slowly stripped off his clothes to classical music for an enthusiastic all-male audience.

Well, not all male.

When his act had come to an end, Wrangler covered himself in a burgundy robe and gestured toward Whiting, who was as close to speechless as she’d ever been in her life.

"There’s someone I want you to meet," he told the crowd, "Miss Margaret Whiting."

She stood, and the audience of gay men gave her a standing ovation just for showing up. Okay, so they had to do a lot of adjusting before they got to their feet, but still.

"It was a hoot," Whiting would later tell journalists who asked about that night.

And that's how Margaret Whiting, the sweet-sounding songbird who brought the world dozens of the most tasteful tunes in the Great American Songbook, met Jack Wrangler, described in his understated drama guild biography as "the star of eighty nine rather questionable films."

The two very soon became inseparable. Not that there weren’t problems in the beginning. Margaret’s daughter initially disapproved, as did Wrangler’s then-manager, who also happened to be in love with him.

"I really didn’t understand any of this," Margaret wrote ten years later. "Wasn’t this boy supposed to be gay? What was he doing being attracted to a woman? What was he doing with his manager? What was I doing, being attracted to Jack? I said to myself, Let it happen. Whatever happens will be all right. Go with the flow. Time takes care of everything. A lot of truisms to cover up my confusion."

Dr. Phil and all the other experts can say what they want about what makes a healthy relationship, but the truth is, nobody really knows why certain people hit it off. In these days when almost half of all married couples end up in divorce court, Whiting and Wrangler seemed to have found something lasting.

"All of the girls, their mouths dropped when Margaret told them she was dating Jack," DiPaolo said. "They were like, ‘What? You’re dating who?’ They couldn’t get over it for a while. But he showed up and he was okay. He was nice. Everybody liked him."

In November 1977, Margaret flew back to L.A. to rehearse for the Huntington Hartford engagement. On opening night, Wrangler sent a gift backstage for Margaret – a can of Magic Nuts and a fetching photograph of himself, shirtless, with a come-hither look in his eye.

In her dressing room at the Hartford, Margaret was staring at the photo when Helen O’Connell walked in, surprising her.

"Where did those nuts come from?" Helen asked. Margaret nervously dropped the photo, drawing it to O’Connell’s attention.

"Oh, I meant those nuts," she said, pointing to the can on the table. The two roared with laughter, attracting the attention of Rose Marie and Clooney, who came rushing in to see what all the comedy was about. Like a group of high school girls gossiping about the dreamy linebacker for the football team, the other three women giggled and peppered Margaret with questions until someone remembered it was nearly showtime.

"The show!" they all shouted in unison before scrambling back to their respective dressing rooms.

Frank Ortega’s orchestra swung into the overture. Among those sitting in the audience that night were Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, Bob and Dolores Hope and Danny Thomas and his TV star daughter Marlo.

"That night we had it all," Whiting wrote in It Might As Well Be Spring. "We clowned, we ad-libbed. We had almost fourscore and ten years of professional experience behind us, and we used every bit of it. We just reveled in the moment, and the audience showed its appreciation. Nothing beats the moment when you step forward for bows and the roar of the audience is like a tangible thing, a force. It surrounds you, envelops you, carries you with it. There is nothing like it in television, or in the movies. It comes from live performance. It is a totally personal kind of communication.

"Afterward, four stunned, sweating prima donnas looked at one another in amazement, wondering what had happened."

What had happened was that a sensational new act was born. Though still a work in progress in 1977, the 4 Girls 4 shows at the Beverly Doheny and Huntington Hartford were hardly a fluke. The "girls" were soon confronted with standing room-only crowds wherever they went, and a major concern seemed to be shaping up an act that was still in its infancy.

"We used to toss a coin to see who was going to go on first," Whiting said during a recent telephone interview. "Finally I said, ‘Let’s stop tossing to see who goes on first. Since I do some theatrical things, let me open the show.’ I remember saying, ‘Girls, this is fun, but it’s amateurish. We’ve got to have a big-time act. Now we’re going into the big money and we’re being booked everywhere.’"

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