The first time I even heard the name Julie Wilson, I was twelve. I’d begun saving my allowance every month to make a trip to the old Disc-O-Mat record store in the city on 58th and 3rd because they sold Broadway albums for $3.99 apiece, so I’d buy three or four at a time. One of the first was Gypsy, and the liner notes explained that countless tours of the show had also starred such women as Mary McCarty (of whom I knew because I was a big fan of the TV show “Trapper John MD,” and I had no idea she was also a singer) and Julie Wilson, who I’d never heard of at all. So I just sort of put her name on a back burner and figured I’d get around to her eventually. I had a lot of learning to do, after all.
A few years later, in my late teens and when I started getting into cabaret proper, was when I really started learning exactly who Julie Wilson was and what she meant within entertainment circles. From what I could gather aside from her sensational facial beauty and perfect physique, she’d been somewhat of a big Broadway star and did a few movies, married a big Broadway producer named Michael McAloney and had two sons with him, went through a messy divorce, and all the while maintained a career as a major cabaret star at clubs like La Maisonette and The Persian Room. And was particularly known for wearing her hair in a beautifully-coiffed chignon with a gardenia attached over her left ear, much like Billie Holiday. Nice. But by the time I came along, apparently her voice wasn’t nearly what it had been in her heyday, and what she relied on most was talk-singing her way through the songs and managing to still thoroughly communicate the essence of the lyrics. By that point I’d still never seen her on stage, although I heard a few albums and honestly couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. That, clearly, was the naivete of a precocious seventeen-year-old who believes they know everything.
In 1990, I got my very first job as an entertainment journalist, for a magazine called Night & Day. And my debut assignment was covering the MAC Awards, which at that time was presented at Symphony Space. Receiving the Henry Luhrman Memorial Award that year just happened to be Julie Wilson. I didn’t know Hank (Henry) at all, he was before my time and had just died of AIDS sometime shortly prior. But in the course of her speech she revealed that she’d been in semi-retirement out of town and that it was Hank and his longtime partner Hilary Knight (best known for illustrating the “Eloise” series of children’s books) who had convinced her to come back to NYC and start over. Well, she started over but good; she got booked at the Carlyle and stayed three weeks. Bear in mind that up to this point I’d still never seen her perform on stage.
Well, I guess my coverage of the MAC Awards must have been pretty good, because three days later they had me sauntering off to the Ballroom to review Peggy Lee. Which was excellent. Then to the Duplex to review Judy Carne’s comeback show. Which wasn’t so excellent. Then I got wind of the fact that Mollie Taylor Martin (no relation to me) would be doing a show at Don’t Tell Mama that weekend, so I asked my editor John Hammond for clearance and he said yes. Mollie and I had done summer stock together on the Bucks County/Pocono/etc circuit in ’86. You can imagine my surprise walking into the club and literally smack into Julie, looking very beautiful with her chignon but no makeup and no gardenia and ordinary street clothes. She smiled at me, and I said, “Oh! Miss Wilson! Congratulations on the award the other night!” and kissed her hand. She said, “Well, aren’t you a gentleman! Although you look about twelve. What’s your name?” I said, “It’s Andrew Martin, but you wouldn’t know me.” She said, “Oh, but I do! You’re that new young man who writes the reviews. Are you reviewing our Mollie?” I said, “Well, yes. What brings you to see Mollie?” She said, “I dated her uncle for a time. Have you seen her perform?” I said yes, she and I had done summer stock together. Julie took my arm and said, “Well, then we have to sit together and you tell me all about yourself!” and steered me into the room to a table. But I didn’t tell her all about myself, because she did all the talking. She talked about how her older son (Mike) was planning to move into his first apartment on his own but she wouldn’t let him because it had no refrigerator, and how her younger son (Holt) was trying very hard to have an acting career and make a living, and the whole thing was frankly dizzying. So that was really the beginning of the beginning. We became friends and always had a wonderful time talking together. But she wasn’t like this “mega-star Julie Wilson person,” she was just Julie. And she was fabulous.
A couple of years later, at someone’s show at Eighty Eights (I can’t remember whose, I apologize), I brought my mother as my date (which I was wont to do when she was still mobile, because she loved going out to shows in the city). And Julie happened to be at the show, so we all had a drink downstairs afterwards. The meeting between Julie and my mom went off like a Roman candle. As many know, my mom was on TV a lot when she was a kid, so she and my grandmother were always running to coffee shops for snacks and stuff in between shoots, and there was this one day when they stopped in at (I think) Child’s around the corner from the Roxy. And of course Julie worked at the Roxy as one of the showgirls. My mom told Julie, “You know, this one day when I was eight or nine, you stopped in at the coffee shop around the corner from the Roxy and ordered a coffee to go. And I told my mother, ‘Mommy, I think that’s the most beautiful girl I ever saw in my whole life.'” Julie, of course, dissolved in peals of laughter when she heard my mother tell her this. So then, of course, THEY became great friends. In a lot of ways, Julie was like a second mother to me in that respect; if the three of us were hanging out at a show together and I said something to my mom in a snappy tone, Julie would say, “Andrew, don’t TALK to your mother that way!” and my mother would say, “Yes, you LISTEN to Julie!” So it was a lose-lose for me, but it was brilliant.
I was on my hiatus from cabaret during my marriage, we’re talking between 2001 and 2008, so other than occasionally attending a show if I had to cover something for New England Entertainment Digest or a similar publication, I really sort of kept my nose out of it. But I did know that Julie suffered her first stroke at that time. I didn’t see her again until the autumn of ’08 when I came back onto the scene, and even though she walked and spoke more slowly and seemed a bit feeble, she was the same old Julie when I ran into at Joan Crowe’s show at Metropolitan Room. And it was NOT like having to talk to an old lady who’d lost her marbles; she’d have suffered none of that gladly. Her first words when she saw me (even if a bit slurred) were, “Andrew, where’ve you been and how’s your mother?” God bless her.
She did a brand-new show in ’09 at the Met Room, and by then she couldn’t sing anymore at all; she performed the songs more or less as monologues. But even that was unequivocally brilliant and the utter essence of cabaret communication. I brought my cherished friend Alice Kane with me, and we had the most marvelous evening, slurping down Grasshoppers and watching Julie. Her eleven o’clock number, as I recall, was Brecht/Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny,” and by the time she got to the end of the final verse, screaming, “TAKE THAT PIPE OUTTA YOUR MOUTH, YOU RAT!!!” we were all absolutely mesmerized. THAT was Julie as only Julie could be on a stage, musicality or not.
The very last time we got to speak was (I believe) at the ’13 MAC Awards. The afterparty, specifically. I don’t know what prompted me to bring it up, but I asked if she knew that my then-husband and I had seen “Below,” a thriller that just happened to star her son Holt as the captain of a doomed submarine (my ex was crazy about submarines, don’t ask). She smiled and said, “You know, Holt brought me to the premiere. They treated me like a queen, which was very nice, and then the movie started. And it wasn’t very good. And then came THAT SCENE. You know the one, where he’s in the shower.” (There’s a scene where Holt is in the shower, fully naked from the back. Which for me was the best part of the movie, but I digress). She continued, “I was horrified. The lights finally came up when it was over, I slapped him on the arm and said, DON’T YOU EVER DO ANOTHER MOVIE WHERE EVERYBODY GETS TO SEE YOUR TUSHIE!!!”
Oh, my darling Julie. I can’t believe you’re gone today. Go with God, my sweet gardenia-bird.