Spoilers ahead for those who have not seen Tuesday’s Fosse/Verdon episode “Me and My Baby.”
As a teenager living in Los Angeles, the future Tony-winning entertainer wed a much-older journalist, quit her dancing career, and had a son. The marriage did not last—Verdon would later blame her ex-husband’s alcohol problem—and, after meeting famed choreographer Jack Cole, Verdon resumed dancing, eventually making the heart-wrenching decision to leave her son in her parents’ care.
Over a decade later, when Verdon married Bob Fosse, their relationship proved to be such a Broadway sensation and revolutionary creative force that Verdon’s starter marriage faded from public consciousness. Until now, that is.
FX’s Fosse/Verdon splits open Fosse and Verdon’s complicated relationship—spotlighting, for the first time, the contributions and personal sacrifices Verdon (and other women in Fosse’s life) made that went unnoticed. But why did Verdon stay so loyal to Fosse—through the affairs, addictions, and depression spirals—even going so far as to protect his legacy after the Tony-, Oscar-, and Emmy-winning filmmaker died? To give the relationship better context, Fosse/Verdon’s latest episode flashes back to Verdon’s first marriage—a traumatic and formative experience the dancer guarded so closely that it even escaped the attention of her biographers.
“There are these offhand mentions of her marriage when she was young,” said Debora Cahn, a Fosse/Verdon consulting producer who wrote Tuesday’s episode, “Me and My Baby.” Explaining what her research turned up, Cahn said, “The accounts are a little bit sanitized, but they have these odd turns of phrase that make you think, ‘What exactly happened there?’”
We know, for example, that, as a teenager, Verdon danced at Florentine Gardens—“a place where gorgeous and talented young showgirls came to make a name for themselves,” according to Burlesque in a Nutshell.
She was underage, but Verdon’s mother—who had been a dance teacher—helped her secure the gig by lying about her daughter’s birthday. “At sixteen Verdon was the specialty act ‘Girl in Gold,’”wrote Verdon biographer Peter Shelley.
“She quickly became this young woman with an incredible talent. And her mother created opportunities for her to dance wherever she could—and that included burlesque clubs when she was 14 or 15 years old.
Fortunately, Nicole Fosse, who is a co-executive producer on Fosse/Verdon, was available to answer some hard questions about her parents. (Vanity Fair reached out to Fosse, but she was not available for comment.
“Nicole filled in a little of this [backstory] for us,” said Cahn. “Kind of starting with the basic story that, when Gwen was about 16 years old, one of her parents’ friends got her pregnant and then her parents told her to marry him.
“He was a personal friend of the family. He was a theater critic and a little bit of a talent manager and then, shortly after, he was a married man with a serious drinking problem who couldn’t do his job.
[S]o he would wind up in Kansas City and not remember how he got there . .
The idea of Verdon’s parents forcing their teenage daughter to marry the family friend who impregnated her? “That is just a jaw-dropper,” said Cahn, still incredulous over the revelation. “It’s like, ‘What?!’ Why hasn’t there been a feature film about [Verdon] every 10 years? That story is crazy.
When asked how Nicole came to this realization about her mother’s first marriage, Cahn said, “It’s tricky talking to someone about their life and their parents’ life, and how she kind of put pieces together as she grew older. I have actually had a similar experience—my parents both passed away, and in the last few years, I have kind of been putting stories together that I heard as a child.
Looking at them from the perspective of an adult, thinking, Oh, that’s what that meant. That’s what that was a euphemism for .
“I think there were a lot of pieces that she started to piece together as she looked back at this as an adult, and as a parent,” explained Cahn. “Little scraps that she heard from her parents or their friends over the years and kind of put together into a more complete picture of what happened in her mother’s young life.
Before returning to dance, Verdon picked up a few jobs reviewing movies and nightclub acts (under a pseudonym, because she was underage) through friends of her ex-husband. On one assignment, to review the opening of a nightclub show starring Jack Cole’s dance troupe, Verdon sneaked backstage and introduced herself to the choreographer.
Within a year of giving birth, Verdon was working as Cole’s assistant—helping coach stars like Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe on how to move sexily on-screen. Wanting to support her son, she picked up as many additional jobs as she could.
I sang a song about prunes once. I would dub in the sound of footsteps in movies.
(After Verdon died in 2000, her son told People that, in spite of his chaotic upbringing, Verdon “strived to keep a sense of normalcy in our lives . .
. It was different from a normal childhood.
But it was normal for me.”)
Cahn felt “a certain pressure” to include as much from this chapter of Verdon’s life in “Me and My Baby” as she could because “it shows the amount of trauma she went through as a teenager.
I felt an obligation to portray it emotionally accurately and in a way that can communicate what was years of her life in 46 minutes on-screen.”
“She stayed with him and with his work and continued to feed it with her own,” said Cahn. “She had a baby she could not support.
She was not ever going to put herself in a situation where she did not have money coming in. If that meant standing in the wings, out of the spotlight, what the fuck did it matter?”
It wasn’t learning about Verdon’s quiet strength or perseverance, however, that most moved Cahn.
“The thing that always comes to my mind is the look on her face that we all remember—of light and joy and optimism and a kind of quirky, can-do spirit,” explained Cahn. “And learning that, behind it, was physical abuse, sexual abuse, betrayal by her parents, tenuous inability to feed her kid.
The way that she managed to build a career out of light when she had a history, from a pretty young age, of a lot of darkness, is an accomplishment.”