Though she is only featured in one episode of Fosse/Verdon, choreographer Bob Fosse’s second wife, “triple threat” Joan McCracken is considered the linchpin to his career, getting him started in designing dance sequences for major musicals and movies.
Vanity Fair reported that in episode two of Fosse/Verdon, viewers had a front-row seat to the breakdown of Fosse’s second marriage to the entertainer, Joan McCracken, who herself met the choreographer when he was married to his first wife.
Fosse met Verdon when working on Damn Yankees, while his wife was mostly spending time at home, often bedridden with an illness which is unnamed in the show. While working on the musical, Fosse and Verdon became intimately involved, and he broke things off with his wife to eventually marry his leading lady.
But while viewers don’t learn much about McCracken, other than the fact that she, like Verdon, sings, dances and acts, there was much more to the talent than what was covered in the story. Fosse spoke fondly of McCracken, even after their marriage was over, saying that she was the force behind his career, calling her “the biggest influence in my life.”
“She was the one who changed it and gave it direction. 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.”
But the illness that was dogging McCracken at the time of her split with Fosse was diabetes, which was diagnosed when she was a teen touring with a ballet company. She was insulin-dependent but kept that, and the nature of her illness a secret. Little was known then about managing diabetes with diet and controlling alcohol intake, and she believed if she went public, she wouldn’t get hired.
Friends say McCracken often lived on cigarettes and minimal calories, causing complications like heel spurs, arthritis, and heart problems. While her health was in decline, Fosse started working with Verdon, leading to his second divorce.
McCracken died in 1961 of a heart attack after she went into decline post following her divorce from the choreographer. Fosse biographer Martin Gottfried said that the dance master did not visit McCracken when she was sick.
“He did not want to visit anyone who was ill.”
Fosse reportedly did not go to his second wife’s funeral, choosing to watch from across the street as her coffin was carried to the hearse. The choreographer lived other two-plus decades, but continued to give credit to McCracken.
“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.”