Gardner-Khaury, 41, was there when Tiny, as he was known, began to leave the stage. "I asked him if he was okay, and he said, 'No,' " she recalls. "Then he collapsed." Rushed to Hennepin County Medical Center, he was pronounced dead of an apparent heart attack, at age 64. "The last sound he heard was the audience's applause," says Gardner-Khaury. "I believe his spirit left his body with the applause still in his ears."
It was a sound the eccentric crooner dearly loved. Two months earlier he had collapsed while performing at a Massachusetts convention and was hospitalized for 11 days with congestive heart failure. His doctors advised him to retire; Tiny slowed down but wouldn't stop. "I have to work," he told PEOPLE in his last interview, eight days before his death. "Even carrying luggage through airports is exhausting. But I need the money."
A more likely explanation is that he needed the applause. Tiny's third wife, a Harvard graduate who owns part of her wealthy family's Minneapolis packaging business, told her husband he didn't have to work, but Tiny wouldn't hear of it. "As long as they hire me," he said last May, "I'll keep on singing."
Music, after all, was the love of his life. As a child, the New York City native would "sing along with all the great vaudevillians on the radio," remembered Tiny, who was born Herbert Khaury in 1932. He perfected his quavering falsetto on the streets of Times Square before landing paying gigs in New York clubs. One of his early managers, who had worked with midgets, dubbed him Tiny Tim.
It became a household name in 1968, when Tiny's lilting cover of the 1929 ditty "Tip-toe" reached No. 17 on the pop charts. The next year, Tiny's wedding to Vicki Budinger on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show drew 40 million viewers, making it one of the most watched events in TV history—exposure Tiny parlayed into appearances on Laugh-In. "I was mobbed everywhere I went," he said of his heyday. "I made $50,000 for a week at Caesars Palace."
But he was a novelty act, and the novelty didn't last long. Divorced from Budinger in 1977 (their daughter Tulip, 25. is a Pittsburgh homemaker), Tiny spent most of the next two decades singing on cruise ships and recording sporadically. Unable to find steady work, he left New York in 1992 for Des Moines, where he met and fell in love with Sue Gardner, a fan of Tiny's since she was 12. He left his estranged second wife, Jan Alweiss, to marry Gardner in August 1995 and joined her in Minneapolis.
Professionally, Tiny trudged on, releasing two albums in 1996 and appearing frequently on the Howard Stern radio show. He also performed volunteer shows for local charities, even though he was in poor health. "It was taking him longer and longer to get in and out of cars," said Gardner-Khaury of Tiny, who in recent years suffered from diabetes as well as heart problems. Never diligent about taking his medication, Tiny stopped entirely before Thanksgiving. "He'd say, 'What difference does it make?' " says his widow. " 'One day it won't matter.' "
What mattered to the end was his singing—and the adulation that came with it. "We always fight for our place in the sun," he would say. Last week, Tiny Tim was to be interred, possibly along with his beloved Martin soprano ukulele, in Minneapolis's Lakewood Cemetery. "There is," says Gardner-Khaury, "no one to replace him."
MARGARET NELSON in Minneapolis