BY BILL WILSON
Bill Wilson Copyright © 2009
Having just celebrated my 59th birthday I was already acutely aware of my mortality. I didn’t need another reminder, but there it was, “Jack Wrangler dead at 62.”
Other headlines added, “Famed Porn Star”. I had met Jack Wrangler in the early 80’s when he was performing his one man show at the Follies Theatre in Washington DC. A place that also now only exists in memory because it was one of the gay establishments demolished to make way for the new stadium for the Washington National baseball team.
I don’t think it is possible for a young person today to understand what a pioneer Jack was. We are so surrounded by superstars in the media and media superstars, it is difficult to remember when communication wasn’t as instantaneous and isolation made the closet possible.
In a just post Stonewall pre-Aids age Jack Wrangler was the personification of what we all hoped to be – confident, open, functioning sexual human beings unfettered by convention.
Today’s politically correct assimilation culture might be aghast at that fact that Jack was someone we looked up to, as Jack himself was.
He told me he felt like a prude when he went out after one of his shows and ended up in the back room of a bar called “The Exile”. He said he was so amazed at what was going on, but he left almost immediately because he was afraid someone might recognize him.
People had interesting reactions to seeing Jack on the street.
I ran into him in New York City in June of 1983 while waiting for the Gay Pride parade to start. We were talking when this young man, who I think may have been deaf, came up and said, “I know you’re…” and then started pantomiming jerking off.
Jack nodded his head.
The person couldn’t believe it and kept repeating, “Wow!” several times before leaving. It was funny, because he was able to get his point across so perfectly without words.
After his autobiography came out he was in DC with Margaret Whiting, who was performing at a club in Georgetown, he and I took a tour of the Dupont Circle bookstores to see if any of them had his book.
The first store we went to I asked the clerk if they had a book by Jack Wrangler and his reply was, “Oh, he was an actor wasn’t he?” I smiled at Jack who was standing next to me and said, “I think he still is.”
We had lunch at another bookstore that also had an outdoor café. At first we were told that they didn’t have any copies, which surprised me because when I had called that morning they said that they had two copies.
After we had ordered lunch the clerk came out to where we were seated and sheepishly asked Jack if we would mind signing the two copies he found. Since the clerk was from New York they had a common bond to discuss while Jack was signing the books.
That afternoon Margaret Whiting, Jack and I went to see the pandas at Washington’s National Zoo. The pandas didn’t cooperate and stayed out of sight in their enclosure, but we had a good time.
I felt I was given a glimpse of the people behind the public images – the Jack Stillman that existed before Jack took the stage name of Wrangler. Even in his relationship with Margaret, who was twenty years older than he was, Jack pushed the boundaries.
Others questioned, why? But it was clear after spending time with them that the answer was simple. They were happy together.
I think Jack actually served as a role model for everyone, not just to the gay community, because he followed his heart.
So, yes, as this column confirms, I’m now officially “I can remember when …” old.
See Related: ON SCENE WITH BILL WILSON
Bill Wilson is a veteran freelance photographer whose work is published by San Francisco and Bay Area media. Bill embraced photography at the age of eight. In recent years, his photos capture historic record of the San Francisco LGBT community in the Bay Area Reporter (BAR). Bill has contributed to the Sentinel for the past five years. Email Bill Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.