Bob Fosse was a dancer, choreographer, and film director. His relationship with Gwen Verdon will be the focus of the new FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon, but viewers will also get to see the dissolution of his marriage to Joan McCracken.
McCracken was an actress and comedian, who was instrumental in helping Fosse attain worldwide fame. Learn more about their marriage, as well as the ways in which Fosse and McCracken worked together during the 1950s.
1. She Rose to Fame With a Supporting Role In the Musical ‘Oklahoma!’
McCracken was born in Philadelphia on December 31, 1917. She took up dancing from an early age, and in 1940, she moved to New York City to pursue a stage career. According to Pines History, however, she struggled to find work, and made ends meet by dancing in Radio City Music Hall’s ballet company. It wasn’t until 1943 that she landed her breakout role in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! She had a famous pratfall during one of the musical numbers, and subsequently became known as “The Girl Who Fell Down.”
McCracken’s notoriety led to her signing a film contract with Warner Brothers. She appeared in two films, Hollywood Canteen and Good News, both of which were successful, but she decided that her true passion was the stage, and promptly returned. She scored massive hits with the Broadways runs of Billion Dollar Baby in 1945 and The Big Knife in 1949. She also starred in the 1950 production of Peter Pan, which drew rave reviews and remained her favorite part.
As her popularity on the stage waned, McCracken turned to television. She appeared on standalone episodes of The Pulitzer Prize Playhouse in 1950 and The Revlon Mirror Theater in 1953. Her final TV gig was on the popular variety series Toast of the Town.
2. She Met Fosse When They Were Working on the 1950 Play ‘Dance Me a Song’
McCracken met Bob Fosse on the set of the 1950 play Dance Me a Song. The former was the star, while the latter was one of the specialty dancers. They quickly struck up a romance, and got married in December 1952. McCracken worked tirelessly to advance her husband’s career as a choreographer during this time.
It was McCracken who pulled aside George Abbott, the producer of the 1953 play The Pajama Game, and insisted that Fosse be made the choreographer. Abbott acquiesced, and Fosse went on to have one of the most celebrated stage careers of all time.
In addition to her influence on Fosse’s career, McCracken was an inspiration for countless stage performers and actresses. Shirley MacLaine, who briefly worked with McCracken, said that she had “a sense of ‘in your face’ comedy years before it was fashionable … and she possessed a generosity about other people’s talent.” Today, McCraken is considered a pioneer in combining comedy and dance.
3. Fosse Regularly Cheated on Her During Their 7 Year Marriage
Fosse cheated on McCracken throughout their marriage. The choreographer was infamous for his sexual dalliances, often times with the dancers that he hired for shows. “You can assume he’s going to try to make you,” said a former collaborator. “He tries with every girl and gets a fair percentage. He’s so casual. He doesn’t give you much respect.”
“He is constantly helping the female dancers with their positions, working their legs apart with his hands, wrapping his arms around them to get their hips just so,” she added. Another source told People Magazine that Fosse would flirt regardless of whether or not it was reciprocated. “He’s not easily discouraged,” she revealed. “If you tell him you’re engaged, he keeps asking if the wedding hasn’t been called off.”
Fosse’s daughter Nicole (from his second marriage) spoke about his infidelity more recently. “I hope that it spurs conversations,” she told the New York Times. “About people’s behavior, what is right, what is wrong, how to uphold boundaries and what to do to help people when you see that a really good person is in distress.”
My father was a loving family man, and then there’s this other stuff. He was completely contradictory. It must have been torturous for him,” she added. “He believed in the sanctity of marriage, but he couldn’t do it himself. And that creates self-loathing. I’ve come to see it as a spiritual split.” McCracken and Fosse divorced in 1959, just as the latter was starting his relationship with Gwen Verdon.
4. She Dated Actor Marc Adams Before Her Untimely Death In 1961
McCracken’s health declined with her marriage. She was a lifelong diabetic, and suffered a massive heart attack in 1955 that sidelined her career. It was followed by a bout of pneumonia that required an extended stay in the hospital. McCracken and her publicity team tried to keep the details of her stay out of the public eye, but they managed to get out nonetheless. Upon release from the hospital, she was told that she could no longer dance.
McCracken’s final stage performance was an off-Broadway production of The Infernal Machine in 1958. After her divorce was finalized, she moved to a beach house on Fire Island, New York, and began dating actor Marc Adams.
According to the biography The Girl Who Fell Down, McCracken died on November 1, 1961. She was 43. The cause of death was later determined to be a heart attack brought on by her diabetes. She was cremated by her own request, and her ashes were given to her mother.
5. She Was the Inspiration for Truman Capote’s Novel ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’
McCracken is commonly cited as the inspiration for Truman Capote’s seminal novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Her mannerisms and comedic timing delighted Capote, who applied them to the novel’s lead character, Holly Golightly. McCracken and Capote traveled in the same circles and were said to be close friends, as Capote was dating her ex-husband Jack Dunphy.
McCracken met Dunphy when they were both dancers at the Littlefield company. They married in 1939, and moved to New York City together in 1940. They separated after Dunphy returned from World War II and admitted that he had an affair while he was abroad. He later came out as gay to his friends, and divorced McCracken in 1951. Dunphy and Capote would stay together until the latter’s death in 1984.