Margie Haber remembers her best friend, the incomparable Mary Wilson.
In 1969, I met this crazy Jewish girl who soon became my best friend. – Mary Wilson, from her book, Dreamgirl, My Life as a Supreme
I am that “crazy Jewish girl.” My name is Margie Haber.
On February 8th, 2021, the world lost an extraordinary woman, a founding member of The Supremes, and a performing star in her own right.
I lost my best friend, Mary Wilson.
I can pinpoint the beginning of our friendship to the fact that I am a person who is compulsively early. In the spring of 1969, in Hewlett, Long Island, I walked into the studio of my singing coach, Ms. Teddy Hall for my weekly voice lesson.
I overheard her working with a prior student, so I popped my head in to let her know I was there. Teddy was sitting on the stomach of a woman I instantly recognized as Mary Wilson of the superstar group “The Supremes,” as she lay on the floor, a plastic bottle in her mouth, doing a vocal exercise.
Teddy Hall was not a small woman. She had sat on my stomach for that exercise once and I had nearly fainted. Mary didn’t even appear to struggle.
When they finished, Teddy waved me over and introduced me to a face I already knew well, “Mary, this is Margie. Margie, this is Mary.”
I had spent my entire four years of college listening to Motown – groups like the Temptations, the Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, and my favorite, The Supremes! And, now, here I was, meeting a true trailblazing music artist. I was psyched.
Mary asked, “Would you like to hear my new song?”
“Uh, yeah,” I said, stumbling for an answer.
She began to sing one of my favorite songs, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
Her vocals were fabulous. And her arrangement was so sexy.
Mary looked at me, standing silently by with my eyes glued to her, and laughed.
“Come on, girl. Let’s hear it. Sing it with me.”
A Supreme was asking me to join in! I was in heaven.
Before she left, Mary offered to have Teddy and I come to see her, Diana Ross, and Cindy Birdsong at the Empire Room at the Waldorf. The date was May 24, 1969, and I was twenty-three years old. I know, because my life changed that very day, beyond my wildest dreams.
A budding friendship
Mary and I bonded quickly into what became a life-long friendship. Whenever she would come to New York City, I would take a train in from Long Island, where I lived with my parents, and stay at the Sherry-Netherland hotel with Mary.
We shared many dinners in intimate conversations and countless laughs at our favorite place, Benihana, a Japanese restaurant on 56th street. It had just become popular and our tradition included getting the same chef, Mori San. He was not only entertaining, but gave us double portions of steak, which we would wash down with a couple of bottles of sake.
One night, my friend Jeffrey and I went to see her in a solo gig at the Apollo. I had never been to the Apollo and I’m sure it was obvious to the rest of the audience as we were the only Caucasians in a packed house of her fans. We experienced more than a few stares, as if we had walked into the wrong club.
Mary must have noticed the tension in the air. After her opening number, she shouted out to the audience, “I want to thank my best friend, Margie, for coming tonight. Please stand up. Let’s welcome her and her friend, Jeff.” The atmosphere warmed up immediately and we suddenly belonged. What mattered more to me was that Mary was proud of our friendship.
We were an unlikely duo, but I believe we saw in each other what was missing in our own lives. Mary was my beautiful, loving Diva who introduced me to her universe of bright lights, soul food, and even more Motown music. In return, I opened up a world of freedom and normalcy for her, while teaching her Jewish words like meshugana (crazy) and shayna maidel (pretty girl). We were like two teenagers together. My affection for her was as Mary, not as a Supreme. She trusted me, knowing I loved her unconditionally. I had grown up in a very sheltered life in Long Island. Mary expanded my small-town lens on the world at large and filled my need for adventure.
She wanted to introduce me to all of her friends. Dionne Warwick was playing at the Copacabana. After the show, we went backstage to see her. I entered Dionne’s dressing room with a huge embarrassed smile on my face. I was praying she would not notice the timid girl I was underneath, feeling way out of her comfort zone. After all, here was a woman whose posters covered the walls of my college dorm room and whose albums I had listened to over and over again.
Dionne was delightful and gave me a big hug as Mary introduced us. She finished “putting on her makeup” and asked how the two of us had met. We chatted like new girlfriends. Immediately upon returning to my hotel, I sang along with Dionne’s gorgeous rendition of “A House is Not a Home.” It was the beginning of many exciting introductions.
Mary was in love with singer Tom Jones and it was clearly mutual. While Mary had performances in New Jersey, Tom Jones was performing in Connecticut. She wanted to go see him.
I picked Mary up in my 1968 blue Camaro convertible and sang our way through New York freeways. Watching them greet each other was like watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance. Tom swept her up in his arms, repeating over and over again, “Oh Mary, Mary. I’ve missed you so.”
That night, Mary and I witnessed the craziest fans we had ever seen at any performance. They were screaming from the moment Tom gyrated onto the stage. One of the teenagers ran down the aisle removing her bra and twirling it as she jumped into the orchestra pit.
Later that year on July 20th, 1969, I sat with Mary in Tom Jones’ dressing room at the Copacabana nightclub as we watched Neil Armstrong land on the moon. I don’t know which was more surreal, Armstrong taking his first step or Tom Jones walking in draped in a short towel barely covering his million-dollar body. As this generation-defining moment in space technology occurred, I sat between two generation-defining performers, as we all watched in awe.
On tour with The Supremes
Wherever Diana Ross and the Supremes toured, Mary invited me along: from the Bahamas to Florida to Long Island, I was like a fourth Supreme. Diane, as Mary called her, was not very happy about it. Mary and I concluded that Diane might have been jealous of our friendship. I never wanted or tried to come between Diana and Mary. I knew they loved each other. They had all grown up together. Mary met Florence Ballard, the third original group member, in elementary school and they became best friends. Diana Ross grew up with Mary and Flo in Detroit’s Brewster housing projects. Along with the original fourth Supreme, Barbara Martin, they were equals when they began the female singing group they called the Primettes. Then Berry Gordy discovered them and changed the name to the Supremes when he brought them to Motown. However, success changes people.
I was staying with Mary in Manhattan when she asked me to go with her to Westbury Music Fair on Long Island. Preparing for our limousine ride, Diane asked me how long it takes to get from New York City to Westbury Music Fair. Well, any New Yorker knows that the 5pm traffic is insane, so I suggested leaving early, around three p.m. Diane and I had a dispute over this. She decided we would leave at four p.m. I tried to convince Mary, but Diana ruled. In the limo the next day, I am ashamed to admit, I prayed that we would be stuck in a bottleneck. I felt a little “Jewish guilt” for my thoughts, but nothing was more important to me than winning. Maybe it was karma or coincidence, but for whatever reason the freeway was like a ghost town. We got to the theatre in 45 minutes. Diana looked at me, triumphant! Mary whispered to me, “Being right doesn’t always look good.”
The last performances of Diana Ross and the Supremes
In 1970, Mary asked if I would come to Las Vegas for the last performances of Diana Ross and the Supremes. She knew it was going to be difficult and she wanted me to be there. She didn’t have to ask me twice. I flew out and met Mary at the Frontier Hotel where she brought me up to her incredible suite. It was a gambler’s paradise. The Supremes performed every night until 2 am. Then we would gamble from 2am to 10am and sleep from 10am to 4pm.
Our Blackjack table lineup was Mary Wilson, Cindy Birdsong, Diana Ross, Berry Gordy, George Hamilton, and yours truly! I only had $250 to spend for the whole 2 weeks, so I stuck to my $2 dollars a hand while the others were throwing down $100 chips. My jaw dropped each night watching thousands of dollars go from one player, back to the dealer, on to the next player. Champagne was flowing, we were grooving to the music and I was living the high life!
What an amazing two weeks… I am so thankful for blackout curtains.
The closing chapter of Diana Ross and the Supremes was a mixed bag of feelings for Mary. It had been a long road for Mary. With great success and long friendships came betrayals and disappointments. The most painful time for Mary was dealing with the loss of Florence Ballard. When Florence was fired from the Supremes, Flo’s life went downhill with alcohol and depression. This talented young woman died penniless at the age of 32. Florence Ballard was considered “one of rock’s greatest tragedies” and was one of Mary’s greatest losses. I know that Flo always held a special in her heart. Then there was Mary’s friendship with Diane. When Diana Ross became the lead singer of the group, their relationship changed. Mary had to fight for her individuality so as not to be looked at as “one of Diane’s back up singers.” I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for Mary.
At the last show of Diana Ross and the Supremes at The Frontier, I sat in the audience with hundreds of their fans, crying and screaming, expressing our love for them. Mary looked straight at me on stage while taking her last bow. She was as beautiful and glamorous as ever and truly loved by all. Before the evening ended, Berry Gordy got up and introduced the new lead singer, Jean Terrell. I don’t think Berry ever fully appreciated the talent and charisma that Mary Wilson brought to the group.
I went backstage to her dressing room and reveled in the unending hugs and tears of goodbye from her many fans, musicians, and other performers. So much love in the air! I saw Diane and decided it would only be right to go over and say goodbye. I extended my hand and said, “It was nice to see you.”
She took my hand and said, “Are you leaving?”
I said, “Yes, I am.”
And she replied, “I’m glad.”
I smiled and replied, “The feeling is mutual.”
As Mary and I escaped to our suite upstairs to get ready for the closing party, she nudged me and gleamed, “Go girl!”
Mary needed some downtime and wanted to take a few minutes to reconnect. We knew we had each other’s back. Mary shared her feelings and I listened with compassion. Then we toasted, “To our children, and our children’s children. To our friendship that will last for a lifetime.”
Mary looked at me and asked, “Why don’t you move out to Los Angeles?”
I said, “I don’t have the bread.” (That was my cool way of talking back then.) Mary smiled, “You can stay with me.” It was January 14, 1970.
A summer in Los Angeles
Mary Wilson lived up Sunset Plaza Drive on Rising Glen Rd. It was a rambling ranch-style home with picture-covered walls of Mary and the Supremes and Gold record albums of their number one hits. My room had a circular bed wrapped in red velvet drapes with a mirror on the ceiling. It was so decadent and extravagant, and so unfamiliar to me. Glass doors opened to a heart-shaped pool that overlooked the city of Los Angeles. At night, the lights shined brightly, illuminating the beauty of the palm trees and highlighting the richness of Beverly Hills. There was no smog in those days, so we could actually see the mountains surrounding the Pacific Ocean in all its glory.
Before I had a chance to catch my breath, Mary had planned a road trip with some actors, our acting coach Richard Brander, and her new boyfriend, Jack Lucarelli. We drove to Pebble Beach in Mary’s Mercedes convertible where she had been invited to attend Clint Eastwood’s tennis tournament. I had only been in Los Angeles for a week and I was already hanging out with Clint Eastwood!!
For the tournament, I sat between James Gardner and James Francisco; each more handsome than the other, watching Mary play doubles. Ron Ely (Tarzan) helped me step down from the bleachers and this adorable young guy, Peter Robbie, brought me a cool drink and immediately asked me out! It was a whirlwind of stars, alcohol, and romance. Not a bad start for a nice Jewish girl from Long Island.
Mary liked to entertain and people loved to stop by. Her little 10-year-old cousin, Willie, came to live with us that summer. The day he got there, he jumped into my arms. He was so excited to be part of Mary’s world. That week, Michael Jackson came to the house. I remember our first introduction. He was the same age as Willie and both of them were thrilled to play together. Michael was so sweet and loved being a kid. I would throw them into the pool and then they would playfully get back at me when I wasn’t expecting it.
Motown music blasted from the speaker system and Michael shared his dance moves with us. There were also some rare evenings when Diane would come over with Michael. As he got older, he seemed to emulate her – her walk, her voice, her mannerisms.
Flip Wilson used to hang out at the house. He was stoned most of the time. I would find him sitting in Mary’s empty tub, laughing at his own jokes that he was writing for his new show. Mary’s house is where he created his most famous character, Geraldine. I would lay on the floor outside of the bathroom eavesdropping, listening to him transform into Geraldine. He was one of the funniest comics I had ever met.
When Mary returned from her tours, she loved to go out clubbing. One night, we dressed up and went to the Candy Store, a nightclub on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood. Of course, going anywhere with Mary was always filled with adoring fans, but this night was different.
Mary said, “I have someone I want you to meet. He’s very special.” At the end of the bar, there was a man laughing with his back towards us, surrounded by lots of people. Mary took my hand and squeezed through the crowd, tapping him on his shoulder. His chair swiveled towards us and I almost fainted. There was Frank Sinatra smiling right at me! Mary smiled back at him, gave him a kiss, and said, ”Frank, I want you to meet my best friend, Margie. Margie meet Frank.”
“You must be quite special if you are best friends with this amazing lady,” Frank said admiringly.
Those who know me know that I am never at a loss for words. But at that moment I could barely breathe. He invited us to join him for a drink. Frank Sinatra was everything everyone has ever said about him – sexy, charming, and irresistible!
At the end of the summer of 1970, I moved out of that enchanted lifestyle and stepped into creating one of my own. But, I never left the world of my friend, Mary Wilson. I was there for her wedding and she came to mine. We were there for each other’s children. She was the godmother of my son, Michael. I held her hand tightly at her son Rafael’s funeral. Through tragedy and triumph, whatever happened we were there for each other, unconditionally.
I had the gift of having someone come into my life and completely change the direction of its path. Her name was Mary Wilson.
We laughed and loved and the memories she has given me will last for my lifetime.
Sleep in peace, my darling friend.
March 8, 2022 at 8:56 pm
Thank you for sharing this. The Supremes, and then, Mary herself, became my personal idol. I had the opportunity to hang out with her in 1979 when she was working on her Motown debut album. I would encounter a few more times later in life, and she was always warm and gracious. My condolences for your loss.
March 14, 2022 at 8:03 pm
Of coarse if she was friends with Mary she would have nothing but venom for Diana Ross. It sounds really messy to me and I can understand Diana’s response to this woman.
Don B. Welch
March 15, 2022 at 10:20 pm
Thanku forsharing this story.. I actually met u because during the time that Mary was starring in my play I had to bring her revisons on the script and she was staying at your place and i came over.. She introduced me to you and your son, who was maybe a teen at the time?? At least I think I am correct.. Don