He was so much more than just a power-penis and the unapologetic (and twenty years younger!) husband of legendary big-band singer, Margaret Whiting. He was the man who put to rest my immature fears that all gay men were either obviously gay in mannerism and presentation or were faking their "straight/masculine/butch" demeanor. The larger (in every way) than life Jack Wrangler died this week and deserves not just the respectful New York Times obit, but a moment of final applause for all that he shared with us.
For those of you unfamiliar with Jack Wrangler, I am linking you to this work-safe set of photos and to a trailer for his autobiographical movie Anatomy of an Icon.
When I was a young and closeted priest, I would drive two hours to Albany to enter unobserved a movie theater located on a dreary commercial highway. I do not recall how I discovered the place but I felt that it was sufficiently distanced from my parish and that if I parked behind the building and darted inside, my dirty secret would remain intact.
I would sit in the back row, entranced by the big-screened gay porn and by the silhouettes of the men in the rows in front of me as they would jump like checkers from one seat to another eventually paired with an object of desire and sinking lower until the head and shoulders of only one of the couple was visible.
Precious and fearful, I never touched anyone and would shun all advances. This left me with several hours of time focused on the movies themselves, though they were not really to my taste until the day that theater delivered to my eyes Jack Wrangler. Sitting bolt upright with hands gripping the armrests, I do not think I would have been more conspicuous had I jumped up singing Etta James' At Last.
Here was a man not unlike the blue-collar working-class loud-mouth guys with whom I grew up. Guys who did not have to be told by a director not to cross their legs at the knee while sitting on a bar stool. Guys who could smoke cigarettes in the corner of their mouths while mowing the lawn next door. Guys who were most articulate when spitting on the sidewalk. Guys who actually liked the taste of beer. Guys on their backs changing the oil of their cars through some arcane ritual that allowed me to look adoringly for a few moments at the bulge in their tight jeans before they would slide out from underneath the chassis and wipe the grease off their faces with a curse. Oh yes, I had it bad.
I was not unhappy knowing that I would never be one of those men, but I felt foolish thinking that any of them would ever desire the kind of sex I wanted. Jack Wrangler bridged the gap between me and them with his easy mannerisms, narrow hips, uncontrivedly muscular build, unbuttoned and sleeveless shirt and a spectacular penis that jumped off the screen at me like a heat-seeking missile.
I have read that Jack was appreciated by producers because he could effortlessly maintain his immense erection for as long as it took to complete a scene. I hope they also came to appreciate the fact that his acting convinced me that had I been in those scenes with him, he would have aimed that rabid penis at me with no less desire than what he expressed for his other co-stars. This element of the fantasy was crucial: I did not want to have sex with a hyper-masculine man who would merely tolerate my advances. I wanted him to want me, and that is just what Jack Wrangler delivered.
In the years that followed my visits to that theater, I rapidly learned that there was no real gap between the "straight" men of my youth and me, and that the world was full of Jack Wranglers who wanted a piece of me. Having learned this, the fantasies evaporated and I was able to move on without the strangle-hold of an obsession. While watching Jack Wrangler in that theater, I was totally unaware of the fact that I was being watched by a ruggedly handsome fireman who always attended my Masses and had been frequently following me to Albany disguised in a wig and glasses. Eventually he got up the nerve to invite me to his house for dinner and a confession. If Jack Wrangler had not paved the way for that evening, I certainly would have felt that the fireman's intentions were insincere.
I would also like to emphasize the difference between the hyper-masculinity of Jack Wrangler and that of the heroin-hungry tattooed thugs or the cash-strapped frat boys in two currently popular veins of gay porn. Jack delivered reel-life dominance without humiliation. That is why his real-life marriage to Margaret Whiting is understandable and does not diminish his gayness, and why it provided a final and most powerful lesson: fully evolved sexual exploration can dismantle the needless barriers erected by the fearful, anguished and hysterical moralizers charged with our upbringings. Jack Wrangler taught me that you do not need to be one thing or the other. That old-school lesson may be little more than a yawn for the youngest gays among us, but I will cherish the memory of Jack Wrangler who taught me as much about God in five movie minutes as did all the theologians in Rome over the four years I spent among them. If there is heaven, Jack's in it.