Liz Smith: How ‘Star Trek’ Beauty Nichelle Nichols Made TV History

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Also from our Gossip Girl: David Campbell and family unite for Australia’s flood victims … Max Bernstein, music man … remembering Margaret Whiting

“MR. SPOCK, the women on your planet are logical — the only planet in the galaxy that can make that claim!” said William Shatner to Leonard Nimoy in the famous TV series “Star Trek.”

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I WAS late getting back to town in time to see the famous ladies of TV’s greatest era at the 92 Street Y, but I am told each and every one of them – the great Angie Dickinson, the beautiful Linda Evans, the charming Stefanie Powers and the history-making Nichelle Nichols – gave greatly of themselves to a packed house of admirers and friends.

I will just repeat one story from the evening because it has resonance for this very week. Nichelle Nichols was the forward-thinking communications officer of the big hit “Star Trek.” She made some TV history when her character and Captain Kirk shared a brief kiss — the first interracial smooch on national television. (The censors danced around that a bit by having Captain Kirk under some kind of spell that “forced” him to kiss Lieutenant Uhura. Still, ground was broken.)

Nichelle told of how she had Broadway ambitions as a singer, dancer, actress but Gene Roddenberry, the “Star Trek” producer, signed her for one year to play Uhura. She performed beautifully for her year but still yearned to get back to the Broadway scene. Rodenberry gave her his blessing but begged her to stay with the show. Nichelle did not relent, but was doing an NAACP benefit when someone told her that “a fan” wanted to speak to her after.

She said okay and was amazed when Martin Luther King was brought to her to compliment her and tell her how very important her TV appearances were for black people the world over. “You have important powers, such grace, and you are an inspiration for all that we are trying to accomplish. I sincerely hope you change your mind about leaving ‘Star Trek’ as your role is so pivotal and important.”

Nichelle Nichols stayed on TV and made her mark in history!

This story reminded me very much of a tale Lena Horne told of her early days in Hollywood. She was disillusioned by her limited movie career and wanted to return to singing in clubs in New York. But her friend Count Basie told Lena. “You have to go back, sister. We don’t get these kind of chances very often. You have to go back and be Lena Horne, and be the best Lena Horne you can be!”

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THE EVENT at the Y was a kick-off promo for the new PBS series “Pioneers of Television,” airing this month. (Check local listings.)

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THE RECENT floods in Australia have been devastating. But that country’s famous rocker, Jimmy Barnes (often referred to as “Australia’s answer to Bruce Springsteen”) is putting together a special benefit album. It’ll be titled “Flood Light” and includes songs by Jimmy, his daughters Mahalia and EJ, along with selections from Jimmy’s son, David Campbell, well known in the U.S. as a brilliant cabaret performer.

David will offer songs from his latest CD, “On Broadway.” “Flood Light” is expected soon through iTunes, released for a nominal amount, with all profits going to the Queensland victims of the raging waters.

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Many places I go I run into one of my favorite people — although I am light years his senior and I always think he probably feels he is “covering” the wrong party when he sees me there.

I am speaking of the young intrepid reporter Jacob Bernstein of The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post and Women’s Wear Daily. Jacob’s mother, the famous writer Nora Ephron, is one of my longtime friends. Nora can handle her own fans, even her own critics, but she is ever-vigilant that no one she knows should ever embarrass either of her sons by commenting or connecting them.

Once upon a time not too long ago when I asked Nora how her younger son, Max, was doing, she answered tentatively, “Liz, have you ever heard of Ke$ha? Max plays guitar for that group.”

After that I kept a scrap of paper with ‘Ke$ha’ written on it, washing around my desk for months. Eventually I came to learn that Ke$ha is one of the reasons the music business is still alive. So now I know that my pal Jacob Bernstein has an equally talented brother. Jacob and Max Bernstein have the “fame” genes. And I am very proud of these young men!

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ON JANUARY 25th, the marvelous chanteuse Margaret Whiting will be memorialized at Frank Campbell’s funeral home. (She died last week at age 86.) It will be a private affair for friends and family only. Miss Whiting recorded over 700 songs in a career that spanned seven decades — she began recording as a teen and remained a fixture on the cabaret circuit into her 70’s and 80’s, her rich warm voice still evocative. One of her early hits was “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Johnny Mercer. That one is still heard every holiday season. Other memorable songs included “That Old Black Magic” and “Moonlight In Vermont.”

Of course, Margaret’s famous late-life marriage to gay porn star Jack Wrangler was a subject of considerable gossip, and put Miss Whiting into another sphere of celebrity, especially in Manhattan. Reportedly, when Miss Whiting decided she really wanted to get serious with their relationship, Jack exclaimed, “But, I’m gay!” Miss Whiting coolly replied, “Only around the edges, dear.”

In any event, they did marry and were happy for over 20 years. Mr. Wrangler died two years ago.

Her family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to The Johnny Mercer Foundation, c/o Prager and Fenton,  675 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017.

5 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    I think the considerable gossip was the result of the “notoriety” involved in the marriage. It wasn’t that Margaret Whiting had married a man everyone knew was gay but had married a man everyone knew was a very famous gay porn star.  And I think it irritated everyone that they stay married. Happily so.  For over 20 years. Despite the “notoriety” so to speak. It probably irritated the women who had also married men everyone knew was gay who had also stayed married but not necessarily happily so more than anyone else. I thought it was grand at the time. I thought it was still grand when he died.  Love is grand. And that was love.  Not all the things everyone very nastily said it was. At the time and later when he died.  And no doubt now that she has died.  The schadenfreuede.  At its worst.

  2. avatar Lila says:

    We first saw the original Star Trek as reruns in 1970-72, and we neighborhood kids would have adventures playing the characters.  I despised Nurse Chapel and the Yeoman (did she even have a name?), but loved Uhura.  She was part of the inner circle, she went on away teams, she had real importance on the crew.  Her race was no more significant to me than hair color or shoe size; all I saw was that she was competent, and equal to any of the men on the show.

  3. avatar Anais P says:

    I also loved Uhura’s coolness and dignity. The story about King telling her she was a role model and should stay in the Star Trek role was amazing. And Liz, I also love Lena Horne, who had that same sort of cool dignity. Too supremely talented ladies! I am sorry Nichelle Nichols did not get the career she wanted, but she got a role that was desperately needed and far more significant. All the best to her. 

  4. avatar Deirdre Cerasa says:

    Thank you Liz for mentioning the marvelous Margaret Whiting.  I have been listening to her since I was a child.  My parents put her records on at dinner, along with Sinatra and others.  She was just amazing and I am grateful we have her music to listen to forever.  Be at peace, Margaret.

  5. avatar Maggie W says:

    I can’t help but smile when I hear Margaret Whiting’s name.  One cold December early evening as the temperatures were plunging rapidly, I was desperately trying to coax a mare and her colt from pasture into the barn. The colt was frightened by the sudden weather change and would not move.  She planted. The mare was not about to leave her colt  and was “pitching a fit”.  A cowboy appeared to help, his hat pulled down low and a bandana across his nose and mouth.  When we finally got both of them secured,  “Baby It’s Cold Outside” was on the barn radio.  Now years later,  that song brings back memories for Cowboy and me of that icy Christmas.  I had no idea she had recorded that many songs; this news of her death saddens me.  I am also grateful we will have her forever.