Celebrity history- Joan McCracken 1917-1961
In the 1950’s Pines Yacht Club owner Peggy Fears invited many celebrities to the Pines to experience, and hopefully invest in the new community.Having come from Broadway and Hollywood she had many friends that she now invited to see this new found paradise and invest.
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, McCracken began to attract attention and praise, despite her small anonymous role. When the show debuted in 1943 it had a new name “Oklahoma”, and McCracken’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 separation he started a long term relationship with writer Truman Capote.
The inspiration for Capote’s novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was McCracken, 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.
Bob Fosse 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 re-adjust 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 Niles 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. Tiffany’s protagonist.)
“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 Wing, where he learned about acting and diction—helpful skills for a newly aspiring choreographer and director. When McCracken began work on the Rodgers & 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,” producer Hal Prince said in Sagolla’s biography.
“Joan had a lot of friends,” acknowledged Fosse, according to McCracken biographer Lisa Jo Sagolla, 0“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.”
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 as a teenager. By the age of 19, while still traveling with the Littlefield 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 choreography 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.
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 that to me. 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 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.”
Info supplied by FI Tide June 5, 2015 Kristin Thieling-DiRico and Wikipedia.
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