by John F. Karr
You would expect a biography of four-time Tony Award-winning Broadway star Gwen Verdon to provide lively reading. You would have expected wrongly in the case of Gwen Verdon – A Life on Stage and Screen (McFarland & Co., $35.96).
This first bio of the famed dancer is by Peter Shelley, an Australian playwright who has previously published six film-oriented biographies. I wonder if they're as ham-fisted as this one. It's not just the clumsy syntax, paragraphing, and punctuation. And it's not the lack of proper editing and fact-checking. Verdon's height is listed as both 5'3" and 5'4", and it is simply not possible that the Original Cast Album for Sweet Charity was released the day after it was recorded. Impossible. No, it's that Shelley's flat-footed writing turns an exciting, complex life into a fairly dull recitation of facts.
Biographies of Jack Cole and Bob Fosse have previously brought us much of this book's content. To Shelley's credit, he brings forth a great deal of information that even I, a well-informed reader of Broadway-associated material, found new. Yet he doesn't reveal which interviews he conducted himself, and which he's pulled from the archives. There are no footnotes. There's barely a direct quote anywhere. Throughout the book, it's "It is claimed," or "Some sources say."
The book chronicles Verdon's route from overcoming a severe leg deformity that was psychologically as well as physically crippling, to her film debut at 11 as a solo ballerina. She evolved from an accomplished dancer into a charismatic triple-threat performer, winning four Best Performer Tony Awards in an amazingly tight five-year period (1954-59), then originating her two most famed roles, Charity Hope Valentine and Roxie Hart, before retiring from the stage and undertaking acclaimed film roles. Along the way, she appeared in at least 109 television shows, each of which Shelley enumerates in high (nearly numbing) detail before listing them in a presumably complete Appendix of Performances on Stage, Film, Television and Record. Good if not acute attention is paid to her complicated relationship with choreographer and director Fosse, whose various mistresses she endured for the sake of retaining his artistic collaboration. She died, still working, at 75, in 2000. Shelley offers the full life, in detail, but finds no joy in the telling.
Then there's Charlotte Rae, dynamite singer, character actress, and inimitable comedienne. You remember her playing Edna Garrett on the hit television series Diff'rent Strokes and The Facts of Life. I first encountered Rae on the Off-Broadway Cast Album of The Threepenny Opera revival, where she was a gusty Mrs. Peachum. Although she wanted to play Shakespeare, Shaw, and Ionesco, she was the rollicking Mammy Yokum when L'il Abner hit Broadway.
Are you ready for Full Disclosure? Charlotte Rae was my babysitter. How'zat? My childhood friend was Doug Lubotsky, and it must have been somewhere in-between Mrs. Peachum and Mammy Yokum that Doug's aunt, Charlotte Rae Lubotsky, watched over us one evening. It was many years before I figured out the connection between babysitter and Broadway star, and in the meantime I'd been a great fan of Ms. Rae. Her new autobiography, The Facts of My Life , written with Larry Strauss (BearManor Media, $34.95), is just about as riotous and rollicking as the roles she played. There are poignant moments, too. She doesn't hold back from relating the trials of her son's autism and her own alcoholism, long conquered.
Of special interest are Rae's adventures during TV's Golden Age, and as a mainstay of the New York cabaret scene and manifold Off-Broadway revues of the late 1940s and early 50s. There's full attention paid to her subsequent successes in film (as The Lady in the Pink Dress, dancing on a table in the movie of Hair) and on so many hit TV shows. In my book, she was a hit throughout her 70-year career, and her memoir is a fine souvenir.