As a child, Gwen was afflicted with rickets, leaving her legs so badly misshapen she was called "Gimpy" by other children and spent her early years in orthopedic boots and rigid leg braces. Her mother put three-year-old Gwen in dance classes; ballet training strengthened her legs and improved her carriage.
By age six, the redheaded Gwen was performing on stage as a tap dancer. She went on to study multiple dance forms, ranging from tap, jazz, ballroom and flamenco, to Balinese and juggling. At age 11, she appeared as a solo ballerina in the musical romance film The King Steps Out (1936), directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Grace Moore and Franchot Tone. She attended Hamilton High School in Los Angeles and also studied under the renowned ballet master, Ernest Belcher. While in high school, she was cast in a revival of Show Boat.
Verdon shocked her parents and instructors when she abandoned her budding career at age 17 to elope with her first husband in 1942. In 1945, she appeared as a dancer in the movie musical The Blonde From Brooklyn. After her divorce, she entrusted her young son, Jimmy, to the care of her parents.
Verdon started out on Broadway as a "gypsy", going from one chorus line to another. Her breakthrough role finally came when she was cast by choreographer Michael Kidd as the second female lead in Cole Porter's musical Can-Can (1953), which starred French prima donna Lilo. Out-of-town reviewers hailed Verdon's interpretation of Eve in the Garden of Eden ballet as a performance that upstaged the show's star, who jealously demanded Verdon's role be cut to only two featured dance numbers. With her role reduced to little more than an ensemble part, Verdon formally announced her intention to quit by the time the show premiered on Broadway. But her opening night Garden of Eden performance was so well-received, the audience screamed her name until the startled actress was brought out of her dressing room in her bathrobe to take a curtain call. Verdon received a pay increase and her first Tony Award for her triumphant performance.
With flaming red hair and an irreverent attitude, Verdon was considered the best dancer on Broadway in the 1950s and 1960s. She would forever be identified with her role as the vampish "Lola" in Bob Fosse's Damn Yankees (1955), which is based on the novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. In the play, Verdon played a Devil's disciple who entices a baseball aficionado to sell his soul to play for the Washington Senators. The musical ran for 1,019 performances. She won another Tony and went to Hollywood to repeat her role in the 1958 movie version, Damn Yankees, singing the memorable lyrics, "Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets."
In 1966, Verdon returned to the stage in the role of Charity in Sweet Charity, which like many of her earlier Broadway triumphs was choreographed by longtime husband Bob Fosse. The show became a Broadway cult classic and was followed by a movie version starring Shirley MacLaine, Ricardo Montalban, Sammy Davis Jr. and Chita Rivera. Verdon helped choreograph the numbers, which included the legendary "Big Spender", the fast-paced "Rhythm of Life" and the show-stopping "If My Friends Could See Me Now".
She and estranged husband Bob Fosse collaborated on projects like Chicago (1975) (in which she played murderess Roxie Hart) and the musical Dancin' (1978), as well as Fosse's autobiographical movie, All That Jazz (1979). She developed a close working relationship with Fosse's domestic companion, actress Ann Reinking, and instructed for Reinking's musical theatre classes.
After playing Roxie Hart in Chicago, Verdon focused on acting, playing character roles in movies such as The Cotton Club (1984), Cocoon (1985) and Cocoon: The Return (1988). She continued to instruct dance and musical theatre and to act, including receiving three Emmy Award nominations for appearances on Magnum PI (1988), Dream On (1993) and Homicide (1993). Verdon appeared as the Alice's mother in the Woody Allen movie Alice (1990) and as Ruth in Marvin's Room (1996), co-starring Meryl Streep and Hume Cronyn. In 1999, Verdon served as artistic consultant on the stage biography of her late husband's life in theatre, the current stage musical Fosse, and her daughter Nicole received a "special thanks" credit. The show received a Tony for best musical.
Verdon received a total of four Tonys, for Can-Can (1953), Damn Yankees (1955), New Girl in Town (1957) and Redhead (1959), a murder-mystery musical. She also won a Grammy Award for the cast recording of Redhead.
In 1971, Verdon filed a legal separation from Fosse (but never divorced) because of his extramarital affairs. Verdon was accompanying Fosse to the 1987 revival of Sweet Charity starring Donna McKechnie in Washington and held him in her arms when he suffered a fatal heart attack on the walk outside the theatre.
Verdon died quietly in her sleep in 2000 of a heart attack at the home of her daughter, Nicole, in Woodstock, Vermont, at the age of 75. At 8 p.m. on the night she died, all marquee lights on Broadway were dimmed in tribute to one of its greatest and brightest stars.