Brow Beat

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Fosse/Verdon Episode 3

Did Verdon really have a shotgun wedding? Did she really become a sensation so suddenly she didn’t even have time to get dressed? We break it all down.

American actor, dancer and singer Gwen Verdon wearing a black unitard, high heels, a rose bonnet, and black lace gloves, poses on a bench in a full-length promotional portrait for directors George Abbott and Stanley Donen's film musical, 'Damn Yankees' and actress Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon.
American actor, dancer, and singer Gwen Verdon in a full-length promotional portrait for Damn Yankees and actress Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images and Eric Liebowitz/FX

With Episode 3 of Fosse/Verdon, Gwen Verdon has moved on from her decision to finally kick Bob Fosse out of the family home following her discovery of his affair with the German translator on the Cabaret shoot, the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. As Verdon tries to maintain a professional as well as physical separation from her ex and resist his efforts to lure her into helping him with the difficult Cabaret edit, we also learn more about Verdon’s pre-Fosse career via flashbacks. Just as we’ve done for the past two episodes, we break it all down below.

Verdon’s Childhood and the Shotgun Wedding

Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon in real life, and Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams in Fosse/Verdon.
Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon in real life, and Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams in Fosse/Verdon. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Bettmann/Contributor and Eric Liebowitz/FX.

Reluctant to assume babysitting duties for even one night, Bob enlists his best friend Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz) so he can go have a tryst with Cabaret’s assistant editor. When Gwen returns, she is horrified to find Chayefsky and her young daughter Nicole alone together watching TV in Bob’s hotel bedroom because this triggers memories of when an older family friend cornered her in her parents’ basement when she was 16.

In the flashback, Gwen is in the family living room in Culver City showing off her dance moves to a social gathering of her parents’ friends (this, as one observes admiringly, despite being born with a twisted leg that required wearing a large leg brace for much of her childhood). Afterward, her mother introduces her to James Henaghan, a “theater critic.” Henaghan lures the naïve Gwen (then still Gwyneth) to a small room and locks the door. A year later, she has a son and is unhappily married to Henaghan.

Verdon did indeed wear orthopedic boots and rigid braces as a child for 10 years to correct feet and legs that had been weakened by rickets (which she developed as a toddler—it wasn’t a birth defect). According to biographer Peter Shelley, Verdon was also cross-eyed and skinny, leading her to develop a lively personality because she felt she had to compensate for her ugly-duckling looks. The turned leg that became a Fosse trademark grew out of her characteristic stance, an attempt to hide her deformity.

Verdon’s mother had her take dance lessons—everything from ballet to tap—to further strengthen her legs and by the time she was 6, Verdon was already performing in theaters as a child tap star. By age 11, she had appeared in a film as a solo ballerina.

Henaghan was not a theater critic but the Hollywood Reporter’s “Rambling Reporter,” writing a column that was (and still is) a mixture of personal and industry gossip. It’s not a matter of public record whether he ever cornered the young Verdon in a locked room. What is known is that in 1942, at the age of 17, Verdon gave up her promising career to suddenly “elope” with Henaghan, and their son James Jr. arrived in March 1943. Given the dates, the show’s suggestion of a shotgun wedding does not seem unlikely.

Babysitter Paddy Chayefsky

Photo illustration of Paddy Chayefsky and Norbert Leo Butz as Paddy Chayefsky.
Paddy Chayefsky and Norbert Leo Butz as Paddy Chayefsky. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Kevin Winter/Getty Images and Pari Dukovic/FX.

Chayefsky, who made his name as one of the most acclaimed writers of naturalistic dramas on television and is still the only screenwriter to have won three solo-credit Oscars for best screenplay—for 1955’s Marty, 1971’s The Hospital, and 1976’s Network—was indeed Fosse’s best friend and was as irascible (like a burlier Larry David) as depicted. Whether he ever was entrusted with babysitting Nicole on his own is not verifiable. It may be something Nicole (a consultant on the show) remembered, or it may be invention.

Breaking Into Showbiz

In the episode, Gwen is stuck at home with a screaming baby and a husband who drinks too much and sleeps till noon. But then she attends a nightclub show and is entranced by the dancers. She goes backstage to interview the choreographer, Jack Cole, telling him she’s a reporter for the “Hollywood Bugle” and blurts out, “I’m a dancer.” Next, we see her leaving the baby with her parents and heading out on the road, her son’s cries echoing in her ears.

Verdon did initially give up dancing to stay home with her son. “I thought being married meant doing the laundry,” she told the New York Times. “I mean, what do you know when you’re that age?” However, she continued to do legwork for her husband’s column and sometimes put it together when he was incapacitated. “He was a drinker, so he would wind up in Kansas City and not remember how he got there,” Verdon said in the same interview. By New Year’s 1944, she’d had enough. “I said ‘That’s it’ and I went home to Mama,” she recalled. “I took my child, my dog and my cats and left.”

Faced with earning a living as a single mother, Verdon picked up occasional assignments from the Hollywood Reporter and elsewhere. One night she was asked to review a show at a nightclub called Slapsie Maxie and, as in the show, was transfixed by Jack Cole’s dancers. “I was absolutely floored,” she told the Times. “I did not write a review. I went backstage and I was not even dancing at the time and I said, ‘If I get back in condition can I audition for you?’ and he said ‘yes’.” Verdon’s mother continued to raise James Jr. as Gwen launched her dance career, first as Cole’s assistant and then as his primary dancer. (It was Verdon who helped Marilyn Monroe with her moves for the Cole-choreographed number “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.)

The Can-Can Curtain Call

In the episode, Gwen remembers the performance in Can-Can that made her a literal overnight sensation. She finishes the number and rushes offstage for a quick costume change. But the audience won’t stop cheering, so a producer goes to Gwen’s dressing room to bring her back, even though she is by now down to her underwear. Quickly wrapping a towel around herself, she returns to the stage for another bow, having literally stopped the show.

This is pretty much what happened. Verdon was cast as the second female lead in Can-Can. During the out-of-town previews, reviewers were considerably more enthusiastic about Verdon than they were about the ostensible star, a French music-hall chanteuse called Lilo. Lilo insisted Verdon’s big number be cut and her role pared down, so by opening night Verdon had only eight lines of dialogue and two featured dances. Moreover, Lilo had ensured that Verdon would exit the dance numbers in which Verdon featured before they had finished, making it impossible for the audience to show their appreciation. A frustrated Verdon had already given her notice and had arranged to leave the show in a month.

What is not shown is that Verdon owed her triumph largely to a mistake. One of her two numbers was an “apache dance,” a combative number in which she was supposed to plunge a knife into her partner’s chest, but when when she grabbed the knife, the handle came off in her hand. Thinking on her feet, Verdon instead pulled her partner to her and kissed him. As syndicated Broadway columnist Earl Wilson wrote, Verdon “danced a slow-motion apache dance so brilliantly the applause became a roar,” with the audience continuing to chant her name until she returned for a bow, although she did so in a rather less-sexy bathrobe.

The Straight Play

The episode shows Gwen thrilled to be cast in a straight non-musical role, though over the objections of the director, who gives her a hard time, undermining her confidence and sending her back to Fosse for reassurance and tips.

Verdon did appear in a straight role in the little-remembered 1972 Broadway drama Children! Children! as a babysitter whose three evil charges terrorize her. It ran for only one performance after universally negative reviews. The play was “clanky, unconvincing, and lacking in a satisfying conclusion. It was quite obvious from the preview I attended that the play would never make it and that Verdon had gotten about as trapped as her character,” as one observer recalled.