UPDATE Tuesday morning: Wilson died following a stroke, her son, actor Holt McCallany, said.
Julie Wilson, a sultry, whiskey-voiced chanteuse who ruled the soigné cabaret rooms of Manhattan, from the top of the world at the St. Regis Hotel’s King Cole bar to the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, died Sunday night at her Midtown home. She was 90. No cause of death was given in the announcement by her longtime friend and protege Ann Hampton Callaway, but Wilson had been in poor health for some time.
Wilson, who arrived in New York a starry-eyed ingenue from Omaha, NE, and soon was trodding the boards of Broadway musicals, led a kind of double life as a saloon singer who patterned herself on her personal goddess Billie Holiday, right down to the ever-present gardenia behind her ear at every performance. Sleek, dark and sheathed in elegance betrayed only by a mischievous glint of the eye and a just-between-us intimacy of style, Wilson taught generations of cabaret singers how it’s done. And thousands of worshipful fans why the great American songbook is a sacred if ever-evolving touchstone.
Her first Broadway show was Three To Make Ready in 1946, and in the mid-1950s she joined the casts of Kismet and The Pajama Game. Her final Main Stem show was playing a cabaret singer in Legs Diamond, for which she earned her lone Tony nomination. Other Broadway credits include The Girl In The Freudian Slip, Jimmy and Park. She played the West End in such shows as South Pacific and Kiss Me, Kate and recorded numerous cabaret albums including Live From The Russian Tea Room and Julie Wilson At The St. Regis.
In her later years, battling crummy health, constant pain and the indifference of a dwindling industry, Wilson not only persevered with her own shows but was an inexhaustible champion of young singers, regularly appearing at clubs to show her support.
On her own, however, Wilson was to the bone an incomparable show woman and interpreter of the greats from Irving Berlin to Stephen Sondheim. Poured into a form-hugging midnight black or magenta couture gown, her hair pulled tight in a French bun, she delivered each song as though she had lived it personally — which in most cases, whether it was Rodgers and Hart’s ode to lust “Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered” from Pal Joey or Sondheim’s anthem of survival “I’m Still Here” from Follies, she had. She excelled at ballads for the world weary, the lovelorn and the hopeless dreamers — as well as the heartless antiheroes like Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny.”
When I first met her in the 1980s, she was a regular at the now-shuttered Oak Room. I persuaded her to come to Dallas, where I was working at the time, and a fast, enduring friendship was born. I was hardly alone as she took everyone who crossed her path under her wing. With her enthusiasms for life, for the unmatched beauty of a witty lyric paired with a haunting melody, and for the latest gossip about the lowest-down scandal — Julie Wilson was one of the very greats.