The Joan McCraken story 1917-1961
Broadway showgirl Peggy Fears with actor Zachary Scott and his wife Ruth. Below celebrities like Heddy LaMarr, Herschel Benardi, Richard Burton,Troy Donahue, Judy Holiday, and Jerome Robbins were just a few who visited and some bought in the Pines during the 50’s.
Over the years many people have called Fire Island their home. Among the most intriguing was a woman who rose to fame as ” The girl who fell down” in the original production of “Oklahoma!, and went on to inspire the careers of countlessdancers and choreographers, most notably Bob Fosse (her second husband). She also inspired Truman Capote, who is said to have modeled the iconic Holly Golightly from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” on this fallen star.
McCraken started dancing at an early age, at a time when youth ballet was far from popular activity it is today. In fact according to biographer Lisa Jo Sagolla, Philadelphia’s “1926 yellow pages contained 85 different listings for dance teachers, but few if any offered serious ballet training. Despite this, McCracken was driven- and her talents were obvious. She won a scholarship at the age of eleven for her acrobatic work at a Philadelphia gym. In 1934 she dropped out of what would have been her sophomore year of high school and moved to New York City to study with the iconic choreographer George Balanchine at his School of American Ballet in that institution’s debut year.
A year later McCraken was back in Philadelphia to dance under famed ballerina Catherine Littlefield as a member of Littlefield’s new comapny, The Littlefield Ballet ( which later became the Philadelphia Ballet). At the company’s official debut in November of 1935, McCraken was a pricipla soloist. She would later tour with them as a part of the first European tour by an American Ballet company.
Sadly, the history making tour was difficult for McCraken, who had recently been diagnosed with what was then called “juvenile diabetes.” The condition was difficult to treat, with insulin therapy a relatively new innovation, and the schedule demands of the tour made treatments even more problematic. McCraken never divulged her diagnosis, fearing that it could hurt her career. Problems with fainting, a side effect of the disease, would occasionally interfere with performances. The diabetes resulted in lifelong complications for McCraken.
In 1937, she met fellow Littlefield company dancer Jack Dunphy. The two were married in 1939. They moved to New York City in 1940, but nether found immediate success. Both worked sporadically until 1942 when they were cast as ensemble dancers in a new Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Away we Go. As the show toured in out of town tryouts, McCraken began to attract attention and praise, despite her small anonymous role. When the show debuted in 1943 it had a new name “Oklahoma”, and McCraken’s character was no longer anonymous; she was now Sylvie, “the girl who fell down.” Thanks to a scene stealing pratfall during the popular number “Many a new day.”
After her success in “Oklahoma” she was offered a contract with Warner Brothers studio, who cast her in the film “Hollywood Canteen.” She was not pleased with the films depiction of servicemen as her brother and husband were serving, and the lack of professionalism. She broke her contract and returned to Broadway. In 1944 she appeared in “Bloomer Girl” and in 1945 starred in “Billion Dollar Baby.” She returned to Hollywood for “Good News” only it wasn’t and stardom never happened for her.
After being unfaithful to her husband Jack Dunphy while he served in WWII they divorced in 1951. By that time he was no longer dancing and had published a well received novel John Fury. After their sepeartion he started a long term relationship with writer Truman Capote.
The inspiration for Capote’s novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was McCraken, and she would remain lifelong friends with Jack Dunphy.
McCracken met dancer and choreographer Bob Fosse (below) while both were appearing in Dance Me a Song, in which she had a starring role and he was a specialty dancer. She was married to him from December 1952 to 1959. She worked actively to advance his career and encouraged his work as a choreographer. Her intervention with producer George Abbott led to his first major job as a choreographer, inThe Pajama Game. They divorced as her health worsened, and as Fosse, who was serially unfaithful during their marriage, left McCracken for Gwen Verdon.
Later in life, she was in a relationship with actor Marc Adams, and spent many of her final years at a beach house in what was then an isolated section of the Pines. She passed away in the place she felt most at home. Another celebrity who’s star shines down on Pines history…
Info supplied by FI Tide June 5, 2015 Kristin Thieling-DiRico and Wikipedia.
The Pines Yacht Club.