When it came to Bob Fosse’s love life, there were no clean act breaks. As the second episode of FX’s Fosse/Verdon attests, the choreographer (played by Sam Rockwell) met and fell for Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams) while still married to Joan McCracken (Susan Misner). Before that, he fell for McCracken while still married to first wife and dance partner Mary Ann Niles. But McCracken stood out from Fosse’s revolving door of romantic partners. And, decades after the marriage crumbled, Fosse would call McCracken “the biggest influence in my life.”
“She was the one who changed it and gave it direction,” Fosse elaborated. He met McCracken—who was about a decade older than he was—when he was still harboring dreams of a career as a dancer. But McCracken was able to size up his ability and readjust his ambitions in an instant. “She saw that I wasn’t going to be Fred Astaire, that I was floundering. So, she persuaded me to knock off for a year and go back to school to study not only dancing but movement, acting, speech, and music.”
McCracken and Fosse met in 1949 while working on the comedy-musical Dance Me A Song. McCracken was one of the stars, while Fosse and Mary Ann were specialty dancers. By that point, McCracken had become a sensation for her ability to merge comedy and dance—best demonstrated in her “Many a New Day” pratfall during the original Oklahoma! production. She had a Warner Bros. contract, a sophisticated taste in literature, and an impressive rolodex that included Truman Capote. (McCracken is rumored to be one of the inspirations for Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s protagonist.)
“Joan had a lot of friends,” acknowledged Fosse, according to McCracken biographer Lisa Jo Sagolla,“artists and writers and composers, and we would have a party and people like Truman Capote would be around. I’d just sit in a corner and say nothing, and I guess everyone thought I was just her trick. But I’d listen to this verbal dexterity, and it was another world.”
According to Sagolla, McCracken and Fosse’s affair began during the show’s Boston tryouts. Though McCracken and Fosse tried to keep the romance a secret, Niles soon discovered Fosse was sleeping with one of the show’s stars. She wasn’t just heartbroken. Per Fosse biographer Sam Wasson, “That McCracken continued to upstage her onstage was a humiliation almost too perverse to bear.”
McCracken would thrust Fosse—still partnered with Niles onstage, and legally at least, offstage—on a new professional track, entirely. “I was very show biz,” Fosse later told the New York Times of McCracken’s impact. “All I thought about was nightclubs, and she kept saying, ‘You’re too good to spend your life in nightclubs.’ She lifted me out of that.”
At McCracken’s insistence, Fosse took a year off dancing and attended the American Theatre School, where he learned about acting and diction—helpful skills for a newly aspiring choreographer and director. When McCracken began work on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Me and Juliet with director George Abbott, she suggested Abbott consider Fosse as a choreographer. “Joanie sounded off about Bob every time I went into her dressing room,” Abbott said. “To me, he seemed very unassuming, not very impressive at all. But she built him up to be like the next Great White Hope.” Sure enough, Abbott agreed to hire Fosse as a choreographer on The Pajama Game. “Joan McCracken was single-handedly responsible for getting Bobby Fosse his first job as a choreographer on Broadway,” Hal Prince said in Sagolla’s biography.
As her husband’s career was suddenly taking off, however, McCracken’s was on the decline. Choreographer Agnes De Mille partially blamed the downturn on McCracken’s professional choices—which veered away from her strength in comedy. “Hollywood was screaming for her,” de Mille said of her. “But she got lost in being arty.” But there was a better explanation for McCracken’s absence onstage, which the dancer had kept a secret from most: she had been diagnosed with diabetes a teenager. By the age of 19, while still traveling with the Philadelphia Ballet, McCracken had begun administering her own insulin injections. Little was understood about managing diabetes in the ’30s, and McCracken kept the diagnosis quiet to ensure she would be hired. But decades of smoking and subsisting on minimal calories—she, like many dancers, was concerned about her weight—had exacerbated her condition and its complications. She dealt with heel spurs, arthritis, and heart problems.
Instead of staying home to help care for his sick wife, Fosse began work on his second choreographer gig, Damn Yankees. It was during rehearsals that Fosse fell for the dancer he was instructing, Gwen Verdon. Verdon was fond of saying, “A dancer dies twice”—once when they retire. And again when they draw their last breath. And McCracken’s first death coincided with her heartbreak.
“At one point Fosse offered McCracken the chance to substitute for Verdon in the starring role of a musical he had choreographed,” wrote Sagolla. “But when McCracken went to see the show, she realized she was too sickly to be able to handle the role’s physical demands. One can imagine how painful it must have been for McCracken to watch Verdon—the woman who had snatched her husband—dancing at a level she no longer could. . . The confluence of events that surrounded Verdon’s rise to stardom and McCracken’s fall would make it difficult for McCracken ever to see Verdon without being reminded of her own demise.”
McCracken’s health only worsened and, in 1961, she died from a heart attack. Fosse “had not seen her while she was ill,” wrote biographer Martin Gottfried. “He did not want to visit anyone who was ill.” Rather than attend his ex-wife’s funeral, according to Wasson, Fosse waited across the street from the funeral home, and watched as her coffin was carried to a hearse.
Though Fosse would live for another two-plus decades, McCracken would continue to haunt him. And he would speak about her influence long after her death. “Ours was the only relationship I ever had that had something of the mother-son in it, and it was very exciting,” Fosse later said. “Sometimes, you need an outside force to kick your ass out the door. Joan gave me that. Joan opened up almost everything for me, and I’m glad she lived to see a couple of the shows I choreographed.”
When it came time to co-write his semi-autobiographical masterpiece All That Jazz—about a drug-, sex-, and work-addicted choreographer and director—Fosse conceived of an “angel of death” character named Angelique. The character—played by another Fosse love interest, Jessica Lange—was an unshakeable presence, watching over the protagonist’s life as he struggled and tempted death. It has been suggested that the character was inspired by McCracken.
Even Gwen Verdon would acknowledge the hold McCracken seemed to have over Fosse. Before All That Jazz premiered—and went on to win four Oscars—Verdon said of her husband, “He can have half a million in the bank, all the Tonys, Oscars, and Emmys one human being can amass in a lifetime, and all he lives with is the fact that Joan McCracken died so young on him. Years from now, you’ll read how Bob enhanced so many lives, which he did. But I’m going to tell you Bob’s real tragedy: Nobody, not one of us, except Joan, was ever able to enhance his.”