American Artists Appreciation Month!
I decided to do something a little different for my newsletter this month, and highlight one of my heroes and biggest inspirations: Ms Gwen Verdon. Ms Verdon lived most of her life on the Upper West Side at 91 Central Park West. Here, in the words of E.L. Danvers, is a brief insight into her life, and living on the Upper West Side.
Gwen Verdon was born Gwyneth Evelyn Verdon on January 13, 1925, in Culver City, California. A series of debilitating childhood illnesses led doctors to recommend that her “legs be broken so that they could be reset and straightened,” Verdon's mother opted for a different approach: dance. It worked, despite having to wear “ugly high-topped corrective shoes laced up to her knees and rigid leg braces” for nearly ten years.
Bob Fosse is undoubtedly a legend. He changed the framework of Broadway. His choreography is world renowned, his style often instantly recognizable. He gave the world decades of artistic brilliance, an inspiration that lives on with no end in sight.
But none of this would have been possible without Gwen Verdon. Let me rephrase. Aside from Fosse's 1955 Tony Award for best choreography for The Pajama Game, Bob Fosse, as his genius is known today, would not have been possible without Gwen Verdon.
“She was influenced by Charlie Chaplin. Then she met my dad. And then you can see his work being influenced by her. His work changes. When they meet, his work changes,” said Nicole Fosse, the daughter of Verdon and Fosse. “There is no Bob Fosse story without a tandem Gwen Verdon story.”
Verdon and Fosse's Upper West Side story began in a dance studio on West 64th Street and Broadway in 1955 when Verdon auditioned for the role of Lola in Damn Yankees. Verdon got the role and went on to win the 1956 Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical. Fosse won for best choreography.
In April 1957, Verdon lived on Lexington Avenue and East 68th Street and Fosse was in Midtown West. But the formidable team became inseparable and bought a place at 91 Central Park West.
“It was two apartments. The elevator came up to a foyer with two apartments. They purchased one. When they found out they were pregnant with me, it's my understanding, they purchased the one next door on the same foyer.” Nicole believes the first purchase occurred in the 1950s.
Using their Upper West Side penthouse as their creative base, Broadway's powerhouse duo brought Sweet Charity to the Stage in 1966. Verdon earned another Tony nomination for her leading role and Fosse earned his fifth Tony for best choreography and a second nomination for best direction.
Indulge my tangent for a moment whilst I describe the building…
“91 Central Park West is a premier, full-service pre-war Upper West Side cooperative situated on the northwest corner of West 69th Street and sits directly across from a coveted pedestrian entrance to Central Park. Designed by renowned architectural firm Schwartz & Gross (whose other notable works include The Mark Hotel and many prestigious residential buildings along Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue and Central Park West) and completed in 1929, this 16-story, 94 residence building features a stately brick, stone and terra cotta façade. Crafted in the Neo-Renaissance style with Beaux-Arts elements, the building is replete with amenities and features two beautifully restored passenger elevators, adorned with marquetry, brass and crown molding.”
A few years after Sweet Charity, Verdon broke it off with Fosse. “They separated during the filming of Cabaret,” Nicole recalled. “When he came back from Germany, he didn't move into Central Park West again.”
Mother and daughter continued living at the family's Upper West Side apartment for the next five years before Nicole went to boarding school at the North Carolina School of the Arts.
Nicole returned regularly to Verdon and Central Park West during school breaks and summers, often finding her home filled with “orphans” for Thanksgiving and Christmas. She explained that the “orphans” were not orphans at all, but adult dancers who could not get home for the holidays because they had shows to do. “My mom created this whole family feeling for everybody. It was always, 'you go to Gwen's house.'”
Gwen's House / Grandma's House, as Nicole described it, was gorgeous, remembering that her mother loved the terraces in particular. “We grew things out there, a lot of things, like organic vegetables. We had a box of lady bugs delivered to us once because they eat the bad bugs. My mom was growing organic so you had to have lady bugs. We opened the box in the house so I could peek inside and then we were going to take it out to the terrace. And I tripped with the box and we had about a thousand lady bugs in the house for a while. My mom loved it. That's when the kid in her came out.”
Verdon most enjoyed the Upper West Side's diversity, culture, and, as a regular MTA bus rider, its accessibility to and from the Theater District. She sold the penthouse sometime between 1992 to 1994
Gwen Verdon passed away peacefully in her sleep at the age of 75.
Broadway dimmed its lights in her memory of Verdon on October 19, 2000. Reinking organized a memorial for her in February 2001 at the Broadhurst Theater. Thousands attended. Crowds lined 44th Street hours before the ceremony began, many “were children, or were not even born, when Verdon last appeared in 1975 in Chicago. Yet she touched their spirit, some of them said, reaffirming the ageless truth that young people were often molded by forces far removed from their lives,” wrote Peter Shelley.
Bob Fosse may have said it best. In June 1987, just a few short months before he passed away, he and Verdon presented the Tony Award for Best Choreography. He introduced Verdon, saying “It's been said that the art of choreography is only about fifty percent conception and that the real test of your talent is getting five or six or however number of people in the room who are just a little crazier than you are and who can try to live out that thing in your head. Sometimes, if you're very lucky, you can find someone who dances it better than you ever dreamed it. … For me that someone is Ms. Verdon.”