Brow Beat

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Fosse/Verdon Episode 5

Was Verdon really responsible for Chicago? Was Fosse really abused by strippers? We break it all down.

Bob Fosse rehearsing a dance, and Sam Rockwell in costume as Bob Fosse.
Bob Fosse on the set of Sweet Charity, and Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse in FX’s Fosse/Verdon.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Universal Pictures and Michael Parmelee/FX.

Ironically, considering it deals with Bob Fosse being more excited about directing a film than a stage musical to provide a vehicle for ex-wife Gwen Verdon, Episode 5 of Fosse/Verdon is built around a very theatrical concept: seven individuals cooped up in a Quogue, New York, beach house, allowing grievances to be aired, pasts to be explored, and alliances to shift. As exes Bob and Gwen are both accompanied by new, younger partners (plus daughter Nicole), with the group filled out by resident grump Paddy Chayefsky and grieving widower Neil Simon, there is plenty of potential for dinner party passive aggression. But how much of this really happened, and how much was invented for the series? As we’ve done for each of the first four episodes, we break it all down below.

Gwen’s Push for Chicago

Gwen Verdon and Michelle Williams.
Gwen Verdon and Michelle Williams.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Murray Korman/Bureau of Industrial Service via Wikipedia and Craig Blankenhorn/FX.

We’ve heard in previous episodes that Gwen is struggling to get the rights to Chicago. The project in question was originally a 1926 play of the same name written by a Chicago Tribune reporter named Maurine Dallas Watkins. Watkins based the play on articles she wrote covering the murder trials of two attractive women dubbed the “jazz babies,” Beulah Annan (who inspired Roxie Hart) and Belva Gaertner (the model for Velma Kelly). The play was a Broadway success and was adapted into first a silent film in 1927 and then a 1942 remake called Roxie Hart that starred Ginger Rogers.

Verdon first had the idea of adapting the play into a musical after she read it in the 1960s (some accounts have her wanting to do it since seeing Roxie Hart on television in the ’50s), recognizing that the story’s combination of tawdry glamour and deep cynicism with characters from the seedier side of showbiz was perfect for Fosse, while she, already in her 40s, knew a great part when she saw one. But she hit an immovable object in the form of Watkins, who by then had become a born-again Christian and refused to sell Verdon the rights because she believed the play glorified a sinful lifestyle. However, after Watkins’ death in 1969, the couple (and producer Richard Fryer) were finally able to buy the rights from Watkins’ estate, and got to work with the Cabaret musical team of John Kander and Fred Ebb.

In the episode, Bob is keen to direct Lenny, a biopic of the late comic Lenny Bruce, because he wants to prove that he “can do a movie with no tricks, no dancing, no singing” and feels a certain urgency because Dustin Hoffman has agreed to do it and is available. But Gwen, who has booked a Broadway theater for Chicago and whose dancing career is coming to an end sooner rather than later, pushes him to do Chicago first, with the result that he decides to do both at once, whatever the cost to his health. It is certain that Fosse juggled the two projects, and as reflected in Fosse’s autobiographical film All That Jazz, this was down to his struggle between his own desires and the loyalty he felt toward Verdon.

Bob’s Payne Whitney Stay

Ann Reinking and Margaret Qualley.
Ann Reinking and Margaret Qualley.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images and Michael Parmelee/FX.

The episode starts with Gwen and Nicole trying to cheer up a hollow-eyed, silent Bob who is sitting in the day room of a psych ward, wearing a hospital gown. Months later, at the Quogue house, Bob says he checked himself out after six days, while his new girlfriend, Ann Reinking, tells Gwen he has stopped taking the lithium his doctors prescribed for his manic depression. She also mentions that the doctors want Bob to take a year off work.

After his suicide attempt, Fosse did check himself into the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic, part of New York Hospital, beset by what today would be called “impostor syndrome” (though in 1973 it was as yet unidentified). He was convinced that he was a fraud with no work of any significance, and now that he had been raised up so high, he was bound to be found out and have a long fall down. Fosse himself said, “I dream that somebody is going to knock on the door one day and announce, ‘We’re taking all of those awards back. You didn’t really deserve them.’ ”

It’s also true, according to Fosse biographer Sam Wasson, that Fosse left the hospital after a few days and stopped taking his lithium. “More than his depression,” Wasson wrote, “Fosse hated the lithium they prescribed to combat it; the drug flatlined him, killing his sex drive, and he was happier to be unhappy and fucking than not unhappy, dull-witted, and not fucking.”

Bob’s Abuse by Strippers

Neil Simon and Nate Corddry.
Neil Simon and Nate Corddry.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Solters/Sabinson/Roskin agency and Michael Parmelee/FX.

In the episode, when the guys (Chayefsky, Simon, Fosse, and Ron, Gwen’s new boyfriend) are sitting around talking about their first times, Bob reveals that his first time was as a young teenager backstage at a burlesque house with a couple of strippers. The other guys are envious, but a flashback reveals the experience to have been more frightening than erotic. This pivotal experience has been hinted at in previous episodes, but this is the first time Bob has actually confirmed it.

This would seem to be based on Fosse’s actual experience. At 9, he was enrolled in a Chicago show business academy run by a vaudeville enthusiast named Frederic Weaver. Weaver put Fosse in a tap act with another boy and got them bookings in the Chicago area, mostly in down-market vaudeville and burlesque houses.

Some of the dancers thought it was funny to rub up against the 13-year-old boy and get him excited right before he had to go out on stage. Then they went further. On the one hand, this gave the young Fosse bragging rights. “I could go back to school,” he told Rolling Stone in 1984, “and tell the guys stories that were at least 75 percent true. It gave me an edge. I had mixed feelings about it, though. I was very excited, but I wasn’t ready for sex.” Five years earlier he had been even more willing to acknowledge his vulnerability, saying, “I can romanticize it, but it was an awful life. I was very lonely, very scared. You know, hotel rooms in strange towns, and I was all alone, 13 or 14, too shy to talk to anyone, not really knowing what it was all about, and among—not the best people. I think it’s done me a lot of harm, being exposed to things that early that I shouldn’t have been exposed to… It left some scar that I have not quite been able to figure out.” It was this abuse, Fosse’s biographer Wasson hypothesized, that led to his depression.

Bob and Gwen Rekindle Their Passion

Bob Fosse and Sam Rockwell.
Bob Fosse and Sam Rockwell.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Universal Pictures and Michael Parmelee/FX.

History does not record.