In the 1930s, Rita Hayworth (1918-1987) was confined to leads in "B" pictures, but through much of the 1940s she became the undisputed sex goddess of Hollywood films and the hottest star at Columbia Studios.
Whether illuminating the screen with a song and dance or beaming from a magazine photo, Rita Hayworth was an unforgettable sight. Capitalizing on her inherited beauty and talent to become a legendary motion picture star, Hayworth captured the hearts of countless American servicemen during the 1940s. At her peak, she epitomized American beauty, and her career produced several memorable moments: dance routines with Fred Astaire in You'll Never Get Rich (1941); a glamorous photo in Life magazine; a scandalous striptease in Gilda (1946); and mature sophistication in The Lady From Shanghai (1949). While Hayworth's death in 1987 saddened America, it alerted the nation to the plight of those threatened by Alzheimer's disease, the illness that slowly killed her.
Born Margarita Carmen Cansino to Eduardo and Volga Haworth Cansino on October 17, 1918, in New York City, Rita Hayworth was no stranger to show business. Her father, a headliner on vaudeville, was descended from a line of famous Spanish dancers, and her mother, a Ziegfeld showgirl, came from a family of English actors. When the girl was nine years old, the family moved to Los Angeles, California, where the motion picture industry was rapidly growing. There, Eduardo taught dancing and directed dance scenes for various studios. She began her education at the Carthay School and later spent her first and only year of high school at Hamilton High. Throughout her school years, she continued family tradition by taking acting and dancing lessons.
At eleven, the girl found her first acting role in a school play, and by 1932, she had made her professional debut. She appeared in a stage prologue for the movie Back Street at Carthay Circle Theater. At this point, Eduardo Cansino decided that his attractive twelve-year-old daughter was ready for work. The perfect dance partner, she was introduced as Eduardo's wife when they danced at the Foreign Club in Tijuana, Mexico, for a year and a half, and then later on a gambling boat off California's coast. The "Dancing Cansinos" performed twenty times per week.
Makes Film Debut in Dante's Inferno
Rita Cansino, as she was called during this time, received her first big break when she was noticed dancing with her father in Agua Caliente, Mexico. Winfield R. Sheehan of the Fox Film Corporation hired the young woman, then sixteen, for a role in a movie starring Spencer Tracy entitled Dante's Inferno (1935). Though the film was not successful, Rita Cansino was given a year-long contract with Fox. During this year she held minor, ethnic roles in the motion pictures Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935), Under the Pampas Moon (1935), Paddy O'Day (1935), and Human Cargo (1936), in which she played Egyptian, Argentinean, Irish, and Russian dancers respectively. When her contract expired and was not renewed, the actress spent a year playing Mexican and Indian girls; she earned $100 for each role.
When Rita Cansino was 18, she married Edward C. Judson, a car salesman, oil man, and businessman who became her manager. According to the New York Times, Judson "transformed" the actress "from a raven-haired Latin to an auburn-haired cosmopolitan" by altering Rita's hairline and eyebrows with electrolysis and changing her professional name. Rita Cansino took her mother's maiden name, added a "y" to ensure its proper pronunciation, and became Rita Hayworth. Magazines and newspapers captured the image of the new Rita, who won the favor of Harry Cohn and a seven-year contract with his Columbia Pictures.
After fourteen low-budget movies, Hayworth was finally given a leading role. She was hired by Howard W. Hawks to portray an unfaithful wife in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), which starred Cary Grant. Good reviews of her performance attracted attention: she was borrowed from Columbia by Warner Brothers Pictures for the film Strawberry Blonde (1941) with James Cagney, and in that same year, she made Blood and Sand (1941) with Fox. Hayworth began to shine. According to Time, "something magical happened when the cameras began to roll"; the woman who was "shy" and "unassuming" offstage "warmed the set." The New York Times wrote that Hayworth "rapidly developed into one of Hollywood's most glamorous stars."
Hayworth achieved celebrity status when she starred as Fred Astaire's dance partner in You'll Never Get Rich (1941) for Columbia. She appeared on the cover of Time and was dubbed "The Great American Love Goddess" by Winthrop Sargent in Life. In 1942, she made three hit movies: My Gal Sal, Tales of Manhattan and You Were Never Lovelier, with Fred Astaire. As her career skyrocketed, however, Hayworth's marriage failed; she divorced Edward Judson that same year.
Marries Orson Welles
During the early forties, Hayworth's personal life improved and she established her professional allure. She married Orson Welles, the famous actor, director, and screenwriter, in 1943; they had a daughter, Rebecca, two years later. Hayworth was earning more than $6,000 a week as Columbia's leading actress. After she starred in Cover Girl (1944) with Gene Kelly, Life presented a seductive photograph of the actress wearing black lace which, according to the New York Times, "became famous around the world as an American serviceman's pinup." The Times also noted that, in what was "intended … as the ultimate compliment, the picture was even pasted to a test atomic bomb that was dropped on Bikini atoll in 1946."
Hayworth's fame continued to grow after she made Tonight and Every Night (1945) and Gilda (1946). Of these films, critics contend that Gilda is the most memorable. A scene in which Hayworth sang "Put the Blame on Mame" and stripped off her long, black gloves scandalized conservative viewers. It was testimony to her popularity that her 1947 film, Down to Earth, was included in a twentieth-century time capsule despite the fact that the film itself received some bad reviews.
Hayworth did not mind the attention she garnered. "I like having my picture taken and being a glamorous person," she was quoted as saying in the New York Times. "Sometimes when I find myself getting impatient, I just remember the times I cried my eyes out because nobody wanted to take my picture at the Trocadero." Hayworth's daughter Yasmin Aga Khan confirmed this in People: "Mother was very good with her fans, very giving and patient."
While Hayworth starred as a sophisticated short-haired blonde in The Lady From Shanghai (1948) with her husband Orson Welles—who also directed the movie—she was in the process of divorcing him. She was later quoted in People as saying, "I just can't take his genius anymore," and in Time, she noted, "I'm tired of being a 25-percent wife." After making The Loves of Carmen (1948), she married Prince Aly Kahn, with whom she had been having an affair, in 1949. This was an off-screen scandal, for Hayworth was already pregnant with their daughter, the Princess Yasmin Aga Kahn. Although she was quoted in Time as saying, "The world was magical when you were with him," this marriage did not last as long as her second; the couple divorced in 1953.
Hayworth's career began to wane. After making the movies Affair in Trinidad (1952), Salome (1953), and Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), she once again entered a marriage (1953-1955) that would prove to be unsuccessful as well as destructive. This fourth husband, the singer Dick Haymes, "beat her and tried to capitalize on her fame in an attempt to revive his own failing career," said Barbara Leaming, a Hayworth biographer, in People. While Hayworth came out of her temporary retirement after her divorce to make Fire Down Below (1957), which met with some positive reviews, she had only a supporting role in the film Pal Joey (1957). Failing to maintain her glamour, this movie was Hayworth's final appearance as a contracted actress.
At this point in the actress's life, Hayworth's personal life seemed to parallel her professional career. She married producer James Hill in 1958 and divorced him in 1961. People reported that Hill had wanted Rita to continue to make movies instead of "play golf, paint, tell jokes and have a home." After the failure of this fifth and final marriage, it was apparent that Hayworth did not have good luck with the men in her life. While Hayworth was quoted in People as saying, "Most men fell in love with Gilda but they woke up with me," biographer Barbara Leaming asserted that these "doomed" relationships were due to Hayworth's abusive father, Eduardo Cansino. Leaming told People, "Eduardo raped her [Hayworth] in the afternoons and danced with her at night." In her biography of Hayworth, If This Was Happiness, Leaming elaborates on this revelation, which she says was given to her by Orson Welles.
Develops Alzheimer's Disease
While critics agreed that Hayworth gave one of her best performances as a traitorous American in They Came to Cordura (1959), they also noted that her trademark beauty was fading. As a free-lance actress, Hayworth found fewer roles. The Story on Page One (1960), The Poppy Is Also a Flower (1967), and The Wrath of God (1972) were some of her last films. Hayworth's 1971 attempt to perform on stage was aborted; the actress could not remember her lines.
Biographers, relatives, and friends now believe that the first stages of Alzheimer's disease were responsible for Hayworth's memory lapses, alcoholism, lack of coordination, and poor eyesight during the last three decades of her life. Although Alzheimer's, a disease which was relatively unknown at the time, was not diagnosed as the source of Hayworth's problems, it was obvious that Hayworth was ill. In 1981 she was legally declared unable to care for herself. Her daughter, Princess Yasmin Aga Kahn provided shelter, care, and love for her mother, and sought to enlighten the public to the symptoms of the obscure neurological disease by helping to organize Alzheimer's Disease International and serving as its president.
Hayworth's mind slowly began to deteriorate. When she died in her New York apartment on May 14, 1987, she did not even know her own family. Nevertheless, the "All-American Love Goddess," as Time called her, was not forgotten by her fans. The New York Times reported at the time of her death that President Ronald Reagan, a former actor, stated: "Rita Hayworth was one of our country's most beloved stars. Glamorous and talented, she gave us many wonderful moments … and delighted audiences from the time she was a young girl. [First Lady] Nancy and I are saddened by Rita's death. She was a friend whom we will miss."
Further Reading on Rita Hayworth
Leaming, Barbara, If This Was Happiness, Viking, 1989.
American Film, July, 1986, pp. 69-72.
Good Housekeeping, August, 1983, pp. 118-27; September, 1983, pp. 74-82.
Harper's Bazaar, November, 1989, pp. 156-59.
Ladies' Home Journal, January, 1983, pp. 84-89.
Ms., January, 1991, pp. 35-38.
New York Times, May 16, 1987.
People, November 7, 1983, pp. 112-17; June 1, 1987, pp. 72-79; November 13, 1989, pp. 129-32.
Time, May 25, 1987, p. 76.
Variety, May 20, 1987, pp. 4-6.