A star was born January 13, 1925 in Culver City, California. Her name was Gwyneth Evelyn Verdon, and she was the only Broadway star who had the capability of outshining greats, such as Ethel Merman. Her parents were English emigrants, Joseph William and Gertrude Verdon and she had one brother, William. Joseph was an electrician at MGM and Gertrude was a former dancer and vaudeville veteran. When she was a child, Gwen was afflicted with rickets, a disease that left her legs so badly misshapen that she was called "Gimpy" by other children and had to wear orthopedic boots and stiff braces. Gertrude placed her daughter in dance classes at the age of 3 in hopes of strengthening her legs and improving her carriage.
By the age of 6, Gwen was studying many dance forms (ballroom, Balinese, tap, jazz, juggling, flamenco). She attended Hamilton High School in LA, where she was cast in a revival of "Show Boat." However, she shocked her parents and instructors by abandoning her budding career to elope with tabloid reporter James Henagham. The marriage last 5 years and left Gwen 22 years old, divorced and with a son, Jimmy. She trusted Jimmy to the care of her parents and went to work as temperamental Jack Cole's assistant choreographer, where she helped him with shows like "Magdalena" and "Alive and Kicking".
Although she landed a few small film roles as a 'specialty dancer', Gwen was more often delegated to instruct actresses such as Jane Russell, Lana Turner, Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe. Cole cast Gwen in his show "Alive and Kicking", but the show was a bitter disappointment to both Cole and Gwen and closed quickly. Ms. Verdon returned to Hollywood to raise her son and teach dance. However, 1953 brought 28 year old Gwen a big break in the Cole Porter muscal "Can Can" which was choreographed by Michael Kidd. Her role as Claudine in Can Can brought Gwen a Tony. At the conclusion of the "Garden of Eden" number, the house went wild. Verdon left the stage, went to her dressing room and changed into her bathrobe. The audience would not stop applauding until she took another bow... which she did--dressed in her bathrobe.
Her next role was as Lola, the sexy, volatile seductress and assistant to the Devil in "Damn Yankees", a role choreographed by Bob Fosse (she also played the part in the film version). Gwen won her second Tony for this role. Fosse chose Verdon over Marilyn Monroe. Fosse and Verdon collaborated on "New Girl In Town" and "Redhead", bringing her her third and fourth Tony's. Fosse and Gwen were married in 1960. Ms. Verdon took a six year hiatus to have daughter Nicole Fosse. In 1966, she returned to the stage to portray the role of Charity Hope Valentine in "Sweet Charity", with a Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields score, book by Neil Simon book and choreography by none other than Fosse himself. It ran over 600 performances. This musical was turned into a movie in 1969 with Shirley MacLaine in the lead. Gwen coached MacLaine throughout.
Gwen and Bob legally separated in 1971 due to Fosse's extramarital affairs, but never actually divorced. They remained close friends and worked together on "Chicago" where Gwen played Roxie Hart, the musical "Dancin'" and Fosse's autobiographical film "All That Jazz." In recent years, Gwen and daughter Nicole collaborated to create the Broadway show "Fosse", about Bob. Along with her two children, Verdon had four grandchildren and one great grandchild. Gwen continued to instruct dance and musical theatre up until 1999. (Below is a photo of Gwen with the Clinton's at an award ceremony in 1998)
Best known for her verve, sass and vivacity, Gwen was not only perhaps the best dancer this world has ever seen, but she could act and sing, a triple-threat. Her voice had a rough-hewn, grainy quality and yet... it was still very feminine and beautiful.
A 1956 recording of "The Lady Is A Tramp" taken from above LP (original source was the fabulous "Singin' & Swingin' blog, a few years ago which alas is sadly missed.)
Unfortunately, while at the home of her daughter, Gwen passed away on October 18, 2000 in Woodstock, Vermont due to natural causes. The same day, the lights on Broadway were dimmed in honor of the passing of one of its brightest stars.
(info from IMDB)
Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees - Who's Got the Pain (1958)