Husbands, wives and all that jazz

What would these three stars have done if it hadn't been for the men in their lives?
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Film Studies

Film Studies

Within three days in October three rhyming obituaries ran in the New York Times. The women were close in age: Gwen Verdon was 75; Julie London, 74; Jean Peters, 73. A dancer, a singer and an actress - put them together, and you might have had something? Not fair. They were distinct and memorable even if - and here was the rhyming - there was a wondering what might have been, if they hadn't found the guy who changed everything.

Gwen Verdon was 30 when she met Bob Fosse: he was the choreographer and she was Lola, as in "Whatever Lola Wants", in the musical Damn Yankees. As a child, she'd worn orthopaedic boots, yet she became a spectacular, tall redhead, almost alone in that she could execute Fosse's meticulous, tortuous moves. They married and had a child. But he moved on, tempted by younger dancers like Ann Reinking - and so many others that in All That Jazz, Jessica Lange was the Angel of Death and the summation of all Fosse's affairs.

Yet when Fosse had his fatal heart attack on the streets of New York in 1987, it was Verdon who was walking along beside him. I'm sure she caught him tenderly, for she never let him down, never took a divorce, and supervised shows like Fosse and Chicago after his death. She was the guardian angel to his joint-flexing, finger-snapping jazz. And she was pals with Reinking and Shirley MacLaine, who did the movie of Sweet Charity which Verdon had created on stage.

Julie Peck was born in Santa Rosa, California, the child of a song-and-dance team in radio and vaudeville. They moved to Hollywood, and she was noticed by an agent in her first job - operating the elevator in a department store. She had a few small movie parts - Nabonga (1944) and The Red House (1947) - but then she met and married actor Jack Webb, and he wanted her to be a wife and mother.

Webb shot ahead as Joe Friday in Dragnet, but Julie did five years at home. How did she manage that? For she was an amazing looker, with long, wavy auburn hair, blue eyes and maybe the best breasts of the 1950s. She and Webb divorced, and she met musician/ songwriter Bobby Troup. He heard the narrow torchy range of her voice. An old friend, Arthur Hamilton, wrote her a song - "Cry Me a River" - and Troup recorded her with just a guitar and bass backing. Julie Is Her Name was the album title, and on the sleeve there was a sultry evocation of nakedness.

The single and the album sold over three million copies, and in 1956 she sang the song in the movie The Girl Can't Help It. She married Troup and he guided her through a dozen albums that did nicely, even if nothing matched "Cry Me a River". But her singing got her movie work - The Fighting Chance (1955), very good as the mistress in The Great Man (1956), Drango (1957), Saddle the Wind (1958), The Wonderful Country (1959). She got herself in one really good film, Anthony Mann's Man of the West, opposite Gary Cooper and Lee J Cobb, where she was made to do a striptease.

The movies stopped in the early 1960s, but a decade later she and Troup did a TV series, Emergency, that ran five seasons. She was a nurse and he was a neurosurgeon in the story, and the show was executive produced by Jack Webb.

Jean Peters was in pictures just five years - she was Miss Ohio before that, and part of her prize was a screen test at Fox. She was good in three unusual pictures - as Brando's wife in Kazan's Viva Zapata!; as the floozy who falls for Widmark in Sam Fuller's Pick-up on South Street; and as Burt Lancaster's wife in Apache. There was more than promise in those pictures, but she caught the wrong eye - or was it the right one? She became friendly with Howard Hughes, and one day in 1957 he flew her to Tonopah, Nevada. Married her. Then, straightaway, they flew back.

She lived in LA in a Bel-Air mansion - he moved to Las Vegas. But it lasted until 1971 - that's 14 years in which she was Mrs Howard Hughes. The divorce included a clause that she was not to talk about him. She got a house and about $100,000 a year - not a lot for being retired and silenced. When you think about it, she must have seen something in him, something odd and touching, but she wasn't allowed to talk about that, either.

Jean Peters died of leukaemia; Julie London had a series of strokes; with Gwen Verdon no cause was given. Jean Peters had married again, to Stanley Hough, but he died in 1996. Bobby Troup died last year. Jean Peters fended off people by saying, "Who is Jean Peters?" Julie London reckoned she had only "a thimbleful of voice". Verdon said she'd been a great dancer all along, but Fosse really "created me". And if London had never met Troup it's likely she would never have sung. If Jean Peters hadn't yielded to Hughes, she might be acting still.

So why did she yield? Did she love him, or think he loved her? The three of them are so pliant, so accepting of the man's will. Could young women today drift off in their way? Or does showbiz nurse the legend that some people create others?