Born Suzanne Lorraine Burce; April 1, 1929, the only child of Paul E. Burce (a Wonder Bread employee) and Eileen Baker Burce (a housewife) in Portland, Oregon, Powell began dance lessons at the age of two. Powell was born a brunette, with straight hair. In an attempt to liken her appearance to Shirley Temple, Powell's mother took her to get her first perm the same year she began dance lessons. It wasn't until she starred in Technicolor pictures that she became a blonde.
At five, she appeared on the children's radio program Stars of Tomorrow. She also took dance lessons with Agnes Peters, and it was there that the Burce family met Scotty Weston, a talent scout and dance instructor. He convinced the family to move to Oakland for Powell to take dance lessons, in hopes of her being discovered. However, Weston's lessons were held in a large, dark, damp ballroom packed full of other starlet hopefuls, and after three months of living in a hotel room and eating meals cooked on a hot plate, the family moved back to Portland. Paul Burce had quit his job of 14 years to move to Oakland, and was unable to get it back when they returned. The family moved into an apartment building owned by friends, and Paul soon became the manager after the friends left. While there, and while helping her father take the garbage out, Powell would sing. Tenants insisted that Powell should take lessons, and after saving their money, began singing lessons for her.
At 12, Powell had her career taken over by a local promoter, Carl Werner, who helped her get selected as the Oregon Victory Girl. She traveled around the state for two years, singing and selling victory bonds. It was during this time that she first met Lana Turner. Powell presented her with flowers and sang for her. Years later, when they met again at MGM, Turner did not remember her. According to Powell, even after meeting her many times, Turner never remembered who she was.
During her time as the Oregon Victory Girl, Powell had two weekly radio shows. During the first, she sang with an organ accompaniment, and during the second, she sang with an orchestra and other performers. She had attended Beaumont Grade School in Portland and Grant High School.
During the summer of 1943, Paul and Eileen Burce took their daughter on vacation to Hollywood. There, she appeared on Janet Gaynor's radio show Hollywood Showcase: Stars over Hollywood. The show was a talent competition, and among the other contestants were Kathie Lee Gifford's mother, Joan Epstein. Powell won the competition, and soon auditioned with Louis B. Mayer at MGM as well as David O. Selznick. Without even taking a screen test, Powell was then signed to a seven-year contract with MGM. Within two months, Powell had been loaned out to United Artists for her first film, Song of the Open Road.
Powell's character in Song of the Open Road was named Jane Powell, and it was from this that her stage name was taken.
In 1945, Powell sang Because at the wedding of Esther Williams and Ben Gage.
Powell lives in Manhattan and (since 1985), in Wilton, Connecticut, with her fifth husband, former child actor Dick Moore. They met when Moore interviewed Powell for a book on child actors. She is a member of the Board of Trustees for the Actors' Fund of America, and still acts and performs to the present day, most recently in a 2002 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
In 2003, she made a return to the stage as Mama Mizner in the Stephen Sondheim musical Bounce. Despite Powell's great reviews in the part, Bounce was not critically successful and did not move to Broadway.
For one evening, she returned to her hometown, Portland, Oregon, narrating Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf with Pink Martini on December 31, 2007. She also appeared on March 9, 2008, with Pink Martini at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City; she sang a duet of "Aba Daba Honeymoon" with lead singer China Forbes. In March 2009 she appeared and sang "Love is Where You Find It" in a show in which Michael Feinstein celebrated Movie Musicals and MGM Musicals in particular. She performed again with Pink Martini at the Hollywood Bowl on September 10, 2010.
Jane filled in as "guest host" on Turner Classic Movies for Robert Osborne while he was on medical leave July 17–23, 2011.
She has three children from her first two marriages, and has been married five times in total.
Her first marriage was to former figure skater Gearhardt "Geary" Anthony Steffen. He was a former skating partner to Sonja Henie, turned insurance broker. They married on November 5, 1949, and divorced on August 6, 1953. They had two children, Gearhardt Anthony "G.A." (pronounced Jay) Steffen III (born July 21, 1951) and Suzanne "Sissy" Ilene Steffen (born November 21, 1952). Friend and fellow actress Elizabeth Taylor served as one of her bridesmaids, with Powell returning the favor during Taylor's 1950 wedding to Conrad "Nicky" Hilton.
On November 8, 1954, Powell married Patrick W. Nerney, an automobile executive nine years her senior, in Ojai, California. Nerney had previously been married to actress Mona Freeman, with whom he had a daughter, also named Mona. Daughter Lindsey Averill Nerney (Powell states she named her for the California-based olive processor) was born from the union on February 1, 1956. The couple divorced in 1963.
A Republican, she sang the National Anthem at the 1956 Republican National Convention.
Powell's fifth marriage, to former child star Dickie Moore, has been her longest. Powell and Moore have been married since 1988, when they met while Moore was researching for his own autobiography, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, But Don't Have Sex or Take the Car."
Her autobiography was published in 1988.
For her 80th birthday, her husband and Robert Osborne, a film historian and host of Turner Classic Movies, organized a party at a New York hotel for forty-five of Powell's friends and family members.