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Despite a Crippling Tragedy, Whitfield Has Reasons to Sing

November 11, 1987|DON HECKMAN

The second half of Weslia Whitfield's life began 10 years ago, with the deceptively innocuous pop of a .22 rifle. In a frozen moment that will forever be etched in the San Francisco singer's memory, the rifle's tiny missile lodged in her spine and paralyzed the lower half of her body.

"I'd been stopped on a quite respectable San Francisco street by two kids," she said during a break from rehearsals for her performances at the Cinegrill (she opened Tuesday and will continue Thursday through Saturday and Nov. 19-21). "One of them--he couldn't have been more than 10 or 12--grabbed me and said: 'You'd better come with me.' When I ignored him and started to walk away, the older one said: 'Should I shoot her?' And the little one answered: 'Yeah, shoot her!' "

A second later I heard that little popping sound and I was spun around--a real balletic pirouette--and landed on my back looking up at the stars. The strange thing is that I didn't feel anything at all--no pain. I just knew I couldn't get up. Somehow I had the presence of mind to holler 'Fire!' because that's a cry that always gets attention in San Francisco.

"I had a five-hour operation, and the next day the doctor came in to tell me I'd never walk again. So that's it, that's the story of the event--which is what I prefer to call it--that changed my life."

Whitfield took a long breath and exhaled deeply. Ten years after she was struck down, the telling of the story is still painful.

A burgeoning singing career that began in the chorus of the San Francisco Opera Company and evolved gradually into nightclubs and cabarets appear to be over. "I was a singer who moved," she said. "I loved to move around the stage.

"I even had a job once as a singing cocktail waitress, and that really took some moving around. But that kind of mobility was gone."

Whitfield began a slow and painful period of recovery in which music--so important to her for the first 29 years of her life--was no more than a footnote. A year after her paralysis she made a serious attempt at suicide.

"I have no idea why it didn't work," she said. "Five of the pills I took were supposed to kill you. I took 48, yet, even though it stopped my heart briefly, I somehow survived. I guess it really wasn't my time."

But Whitfield's dark days were not quite over. As a result of the suicide attempt, she was committed to a mental ward.

"We called it the 'Ha Ha Hotel,' " she said, sardonically. "And yet, strangely enough, it really was the turning point for me. They made us talk, endlessly it seemed, about what had happened, and about our feelings. After five weeks there, I knew that I had to find a way to live."

Confused and uncertain about how to accomplish that goal, Whitfield returned to school and studied to become a systems analyst. As part of her training, she worked on the software that eventually became Bank of America's Versateller machine. But two years in front of a computer terminal were enough to convince her that her new life, like her old one, would have to be devoted to music.

By 1980, Whitfield was once again performing in San Francisco cabarets. A brief, rapturous, but ultimately unhappy love affair had the positive result of giving her a new perspective on her material.

"That relationship, miserable as it turned out to be, was the first time since I was shot that I once again had a sense of myself as a sexual being," she said candidly. "All the love songs that I'd sing, as songs, became real to me. There's no more phony emotion."

Whitfield's cooly precise singing, reminiscent of Lee Wiley and Irene Kral, became a staple at San Francisco's Plush Room and Buckley's Bistro. An appearance at Michael's Pub brought rave reviews in New York, and, in 1985 she was the only West Coast vocalist nominated for the first Mabel Mercer Foundation Award.

A happy, productive marriage to her pianist-arranger, Mike Greensill, has capped a recovery that Whitfield could only have dreamed about in the dark, chaotic years after she was wounded.

"I'm doing what I want to, now," she said. "And it's really not all that complicated. My husband lifts me up on the stage, places me in this little stool we carry around with us, and I sit there and sing the great American popular songs.

"It's not exactly the way I thought things would work out, and the road has had a few strange detours, but the truth is I'm finally doing what I wanted to do all along."

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