Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Monday, January 30, 2012

John Stillman a.k.a. Jack Wrangler

When the big-band era singer Margaret Whiting died at the age of 86 last January, I remember reading a few salacious details in her obituary. Whiting certainly raised eyebrows in 1994 when she married John Stillman, better known as gay porn star Jack Wrangler. At the time of their nuptials he was 47 years old and Whiting 69, yet they forged an unconventional 15-year marriage that lasted until Stillman’s death from emphysema in 2009.

Stillman (1946-2009) was a complex character, an out homosexual who starred in both straight and gay porn, inspiring a feature length documentary film, Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon (2008). His career was about more than porn, however. He was also a TV, stage and movie actor, writer, and theatrical producer and director.

Stillman’s father was a Hollywood TV and film producer, and his mother was a dancer in Busby Berkeley musicals. Growing up in Beverly Hills, his acting career began at age nine on a syndicated television religious family show, The Faith of Our Children. Stillman later wrote that he knew he was gay by the age of ten.

After earning a degree in theater from Northwestern University, he found work in LA and NYC as a stage actor, model and dancer. He easily accommodated the on-stage nudity required by some of his early stage roles and eventually settled in NYC, where he also worked as a go-go dancer and bartender. When Stillman made an appearance in a 1970 male strip show, he used the name "Jack Wrangler," a pseudonym inspired by the label on his Wrangler-brand work shirt. He was approached by a gay pornographic film studio and starred in Eyes of a Stranger (1970), one of the first hard-core gay porn films released commercially in the U.S. Stillman never looked back. He appeared in 47 porn films over a sixteen year period, before retiring from the industry at age 40.

Amazingly he maintained a legitimate acting career while making porn films, appearing in stage roles from 1979 through the mid 1980s. He published his autobiography, The Jack Wrangler Story, or What's a Nice Boy Like You Doing?, in 1984. The next year Stillman wrote the book for the musical, I Love You, Jimmy Valentine, starring Margaret Whiting, whom he had met in a nightclub in 1976. Wrangler later recalled: “I was with my manager when I looked over at Margaret, who was surrounded by five guys in a booth. There she was with the hair, the furs and the big gestures. I thought, 'Boy, now that's New York! That's glamour!' I had to meet her.” Within in weeks of first meeting, they began a romance and became the very definition of The Odd Couple.


Urged by Whiting to give up his porn career and live erotic shows, Stillman eventually turned his attention to her cabaret career, plunging headlong into a dizzying number of projects. He became a board member of the Johnny Mercer Foundation and worked to promote Mercer's music, writing and producing a 1985 cabaret show for Whiting which featured Mercer's music. In 1996 Stillman co-wrote and produced Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: The Jazz Concert, inspired by the Mercer music used in the film. He helped conceive the 1997 Broadway revue Dream, which starred Whiting singing Mercer songs. He developed a ballet based on Mercer's 1946 musical, St. Louis Woman, which was performed by the Dance Theater of Harlem in 2003. Stillman also wrote and produced cabaret shows for singer Carol Woods from 1984 to 2001. He wrote, directed, or produced a number of other plays, musicals and revues, including The Valentine Touch, The First Lady and Other Stories of Our Times, and Irina Abroad! In his spare time he penned a column on health and fitness, "Wrangler's Weights and Measures", for the gay-lifestyle magazine Au Contraire.

Many years ago I remember being bored by a cabaret performance by Whiting at the Fairfax Hotel in Washington DC, in which she seemed to be just going through the motions to earn a paycheck. Now I know that all the spark in her life was at home, not on the cabaret stage.

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