Joan McCracken & Bob Fosse's Marriage On 'Fosse/Verdon' Shows The Choreographer's Relationships Followed A Pattern
Fosse/Verdon is all about Bob Fosse's relationship with his wife Gwen Verdon. But the choreographer had many complicated relationships with women, including his second wife Joan McCracken. Fosse/Verdon will highlight Fosse and McCracken's marriage in the April 16 episode, "Who's Got the Pain?" Fosse definitely had a type since as People reported in a 1980 interview with him, he was married three times and all of his wives — Mary Ann Niles, McCracken, and Verdon — were dancers. Fosse was married to McCracken when he met future wife Verdon during Damn Yankees. And just like Verdon had a major influence on Fosse's career, so did McCracken.
In 2003, Lisa Jo Sagolla wrote a biography on McCracken called The Girl Who Fell Down, which TheaterMania reviewed. According to the biography, McCracken gained fame as a dancer in Oklahoma! on Broadway in 1943 by doing a choreographed, crowd-pleasing fall during a number. So when she met Fosse in 1949 while doing the Broadway revue Dance Me a Song, she was already an established star.
She had a leading part and Fosse, who was relatively unknown, was cast as a specialty dancer. The two began an affair even though Fosse was married to Niles at the time.
According to Sagolla's biography, Fosse married McCracken, who was 10 years his senior, on December 30, 1952, in a civil ceremony. In an interview The New York Times in 1973, Fosse said of his second wife, "She's the one who encouraged me to be a choreographer. I was very show biz, 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, and I'll always be grateful."
Famed Broadway producer and director Hal Prince (played by Evan Handler of Sex in the City in Fosse/Verdon) also acknowledged how McCracken was responsible for Fosse's career trajectory. TheaterMania noted in its review of Sagolla's biography that Prince said, "Joan McCracken was single-handedly responsible for getting Bobby Fosse his first job as a choreographer on Broadway." That job was The Pajama Game, which premiered on Broadway in 1954. The Guardian reported that McCracken asked the director and writer George Abbott to hire her husband as choreographer — and Fosse ended up with his first Tony for creating iconic dances like "Steam Heat."
Fosse's next stint as a Broadway choreographer was the following year with Damn Yankees, which starred Verdon as Lola. And just like Fosse cheated with McCracken while they worked on a show together, he began his affair with Verdon during the 1955 musical. Vulture reported that Fosse didn't divorce McCracken until 1959 even though he was partnered with Verdon both romantically and professionally with projects like New Girl in Town, the Damn Yankees movie, and Redhead during that time.
Verdon and Fosse married in 1960 and he would cheat on her as well as he did with his other two wives. In his 1980 interview with People, Fosse referred to his three performer wives as "sparklers" and noted, "In each case my contribution to the failure of the marriage was paramount." People also covered his philandering ways by noting Fosse would consistently target the dancers in his productions. "He tries with every girl and gets a fair percentage. He's so casual. He doesn't give you much respect," one dancer told People. "He's not easily discouraged," another noted. "If you tell him you're engaged, he keeps asking if the wedding hasn't been called off."
Before she was with Fosse, TheaterMania wrote that McCracken was married to Jack Dunphy. She cheated on him while he was serving in WWII and they divorced with Dunphy going on to have a long relationship with Truman Capote. TCM noted that it's rumored that McCracken may have been the inspiration for Capote's character Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's. In a feature with Interview magazine, Capote called McCracken a "terrific girl," whom he liked "very much."
As viewers will see in Fosse/Verdon, McCracken was seriously ill with diabetes in the 1950s. TheaterMania wrote that she died at the age of 43 in 1961 only two years after her divorce from Fosse. But her contributions to the world of dance — through her own career and her marriage and mentorship to Fosse — live on in Fosse/Verdon.