You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
The earrings were a treasured gift from Verdon's hard-bitten mentor and boss Jack Cole. They arrived at an important juncture of her life and career. She was transitioning from six years as a Cole dancer. When she burst forth on Broadway, her Jack Cole pedigree and pizazz served her well. Triumphing in a second-lead role in Can-Can (she initially deprecated the show's choreographer Michael Kidd as not Cole's equal), Verdon began her long reign as Broadway's queen of musical-theater. Although she returned to Los Angeles to again work with Cole, New York did not easily forget. Soon came Damn Yankees—and a new choreographer, Bob Fosse.
Cole had been nearly flippant in encouraging Verdon to audition for Can-Can. "Go ahead," he told her, releasing her from duties at 20th Century Fox in the midst of a high-stakes project (for him), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. "You'll get a free weekend in New York."
Verdon got more than a weekend. To the shock of all, especially Cole, she got the job.
Cole and Verdon had worked hand-in-glove on a roster of films, not as equals but as master and protégée, first at Columbia Pictures in Cole's legendary resident dance company. Replacing Carol Haney, Verdon became a vital member of The Jack Cole Dancers traveling the nation in 1947 in Cole's sizzling, sexy nightclub act. Then, at 20th Century Fox, Verdon danced for Cole, and assisted him, in On the Riviera, David and Bathsheba, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Farmer Takes a Wife, How to Marry a Millionaire and Gentlemen Marry Brunettes.
For Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Cole had relied heavily on Verdon to coach Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, both non-dancers, in the rigors of his beat-by-beat musical stagings. Verdon was Monroe's 'dance-in' (an unconfirmed rumor has Verdon's pert derriere doubling for Monroe's large-ish one in "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend"). Finally, Verdon herself danced in Cole's lengthy "Four French Dances," a Folies Bergère-style number that heartbreakingly was cut. In it, ironically, Verdon danced a can-can.
Given this background, it is unsurprising that after Verdon's casting in Can-Can, Cole greeted her with a punch. He pulled that punch by attending Verdon's opening night, May 7, 1953—and sending a small gift box backstage.
In it was Cole's handwritten note to his muse: "You really know how to do it. And you did it."
The earrings remained in Verdon's life both off and on-stage, as a cherished memento. She incorporated the very '50s black dangles into her brand, along with her flaming red hair.
"I wear them on the cover of Time magazine. I wear them on the cover of Life magazine," Verdon is quoted in 1985's "Only the Best: A Celebration of Gift Giving in America."
"When she was being Gwen Verdon—at dinner or awards function, a benefit or on stage—she wore them," remembers Nicole Fosse. "When she was being herself—Gwen the friend, Gwen the mom, or Gwen the dancer, sweating with other dancers—she didn't wear them."
Hollywood never gave Verdon the love she got on Broadway. She became an inveterate New Yorker, never looking back. The earrings marked this turning point, as well as her complex feelings about Cole. While the eight-episode "Fosse/Verdon" seeks to clarify Verdon's influence on her husband Bob Fosse's hugely successful career, the earrings represent another layer of influence hiding in plain sight, that of Jack Cole on Verdon—and via Verdon on Fosse.
(Jack Cole is present in "Fosse/Verdon" episode three, airing tonight, in a brief cameo role played by Christopher Tocco. The episode also includes a Cole-style jazz number smartly choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler.)
Upon the death of her mother in 2000, Fosse inherited the earrings. She brought them to the attention of FX's costumer Melissa Toth, who had them replicated for Williams to wear in the television series. The replications are markedly lighter, says Fosse. "The original ones are quite heavy. They really pull on your ear."
It would be difficult to dance while wearing them. But that tug at the ear—and possibly at her heartstrings—was a bittersweet weight Gwen Verdon clearly was ready to bear.