Rarely do I finish the last page of a book and then turn back to its first page and begin reading it all over again -- but that's what I'm doing with The Girl Who Fell Down, Lisa Jo Sagolla's excellent biography of Joan McCracken. As I detailed in my December 12 column, I was fascinated to read about this young dancer who made a splash in Oklahoma! and even bigger splashes in Bloomer Girl, Billion Dollar Baby, and Me and Juliet. Then she married Bob Fosse, who dumped her for Gwen Verdon, which broke her heart and was a factor in her dying extraordinarily young at 43.

Now that I'm re-reading, I'm impressed all over again. So I decided to give Sagolla a call, pay her a bouquet's worth of compliments, and ask her about the process of taking on such a difficult task. "I started [work on the book] when I was 33," says Sagolla, "and the way things were originally going, I used to joke that I hoped I'd finish before I was the age that Joan was when she died. Then I vowed that I would, but there were plenty of times along the way when I thought I'd just give up. Yet every time I was ready to forget the whole thing, something would happen to keep me going." For example, many of the people whom Sagolla contacted knew that McCracken had been married to Jack Dunphy and then Fosse but couldn't recall the name of the third significant man in her life. Says Sagolla, "He would have to represent a big chunk, no matter how long or short a time they were together. I felt, if I couldn't get to him, I'd never be able to finish the book."

Just as she was about to give up, she got in touch with Buzz Miller, who'd danced with McCracken in Me and Juliet and for Fosse in The Pajama Game. Says Sagolla, "When he mentioned to me the house that Joan and this man had had on Fire Island, I realized that was another place where she may have made out her will. I'd tried to find it in Manhattan where she'd lived and even in Pennsylvania, where she was from. But once Buzz mentioned the Fire Island house, I took a two-and-a half-hour trip to Suffolk County." Bingo! Not only was the will there but also the name of McCracken's beneficiary: Marc Adams. Sagolla was eventually able to track him down and it's he who provided information on their apartment, through memory and pictures, that the author has meticulously detailed.

Another time, Sagolla went to Pennsylvania to see if she could possibly find information on McCracken's sister-in-law. Alas, no luck. She returned to Langhorn, Pennsylvania, where her parents have a home and where she was staying. "At the train station," she says, "a little old lady approached me and asked if I'd sit with her friend Alice on the train. I agreed, and while we were talking, I told Alice about my book and how I wanted to find this woman. Lo and behold, she told me she thought she knew someone who knew the family. And when I got home, there was a message on my machine. Alice had called her friend David, who'd called Polly, who'd remembered the family." Soon, Sagolla got the information she was seeking.

Meanwhile, the years passed. Some stars, such as June Allyson, didn't respond to requests for an interview. There were other ominous signs, like Sagolla's noticing that Billion Dollar Baby would be done at the York Theatre's Musicals in Mufti series in September 1998 -- "but for one weekend only," she moans, "and a weekend on which I absolutely had to go out-of-town." Yet when the same troupe presented Me and Juliet in April, 2002, Sagolla was there.

April, 2002: She'd been working on the book for nine and half years! Would it ever be finished? There were the many trips to the Philadelphia Library, where she searched through microfilm. Sagolla was fast approaching 43 -- the age by which she promised herself she'd finish the book. Finally, her editor at Northeastern University Press gave her a set-in-stone deadline: the end of October, 2002. Everything absolutely, positively had to be in by then, including acknowledgments, footnotes, license agreements, and picture permissions -- along with notations of which photos could be cropped and which couldn't.

Lisa Jo Sagolla
Lisa Jo Sagolla
"I'm very much a person who meets deadlines," she says. "I plotted out the entire month and planned to finish on October 28, so I'd technically be early. And everything was going well the entire month, as the goal I'd planned for each day was always met. But I had to submit both hard copies and electronic copies, and on October 27, I was having a terrible time with the computer, what with italics and margins flush left and all that. Every one of my pages was coming out wrong, and though I had told my editor it'd all be sent on October 28, I had to ask for October 29."

The computer just wouldn't cooperate and the 29th led to the 30th, which led to the 31st -- the final day of the month and the ultimate deadline. "I JUST made it," Sagolla says, "and was there with everything for the final UPS pickup of the day." The exhausted author then went home and only then noticed the trick-or-treaters that were dotting Manhattan streets. "Yet," she says, "it wasn't until I got home that I realized that Halloween was the actual day that Joan McCracken died in 1961 -- and that I was now her age and did get it done just in time. I'm still astounded that it played out that way and that I made it just under the wire." Sagolla does feel that she missed a few deadlines in one sense: "Some people I talked to are now so aged that they don't even remember that they ever talked to me," she says sadly. "Others to whom I would have loved to have a given a copy of the book -- Gwen Verdon, Buzz Miller, and Dr. Dolger, who treated Joan for her diabetes -- died before I was finished."

Lisa Jo Sagolla, who has a doctorate in arts education, will next write a history of dance in Broadway musicals. "I hope it won't take 10 years," she moans. I hope the same thing, for I am already anxious to read whatever book this woman writes.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]