STAR OF THE WEEK: Rita Hayworth

I was all prepared to do a Star of the Week post on Carole Lombard (after getting a request for a profile of that divinely funny actress on Twitter), when I realized that today, October 17, is the birthday of the magnificent Rita Hayworth. Along with being one of classic Hollywood’s greatest beauties, Hayworth gets far too little credit for her extraordinary abilities as an actress and dancer, and she is very deserving of a celebration this week in honor of what would have been her 93rd birthday.

To most audiences, Rita Hayworth is known for playing the seductive title role in the classic film noir Gilda (1946), characterizing the epitome of the femme fatale capable of destroying men with a single glance. She played the role with such aplomb that audiences began to believe that the real Rita Hayworth was just like Gilda, an assumption that couldn’t have been further from the truth and became the source of much frustration in her personal life. She is said to have complained to a friend: “Men go to bed with Gilda and wake up with me.”

In reality, Hayworth was a quiet, almost pathologically withdrawn woman who almost always declined interviews due to her shyness. As a result of this, we have very few insights from Hayworth herself about her life, much of it being related second-hand by her family and friends.

She was born Margarita Carmen Cansino on October 17, 1918 in Brooklyn, New York, the eldest of 3 children born to Spanish dancer Eduardo Cansino and his wife Volga (nee Haworth). Her father was born in Seville, Spain, and was of Roma (Gypsy) origin, while her mother was an American of Irish and English descent who had been a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies. The Cansino family soon left New York to settle in Chula Vista, CA, just outside of San Diego, where Eduardo could commute back and forth to Tijuana for dancing gigs. When Margarita was about 10 and already a seasoned dancer (having been coached by her father almost as soon as she could walk), Eduardo began bringing her along as his dancing partner.

In the early 1930’s, she was discovered by an executive from 20th Century Fox at one of the nightclubs where she and her father were performing. This led to her debut in Under the Pampas Moon (1935), followed by a series of small films where she was billed as “Rita Cansino.” After seeing that her future at Fox was rather slim, the studio dropped her contract and soon after it was picked up by Columbia Pictures, the studio with which she would be affiliated for the vast majority of her career. At Columbia, studio head Harry Cohn made a number of significant changes to her persona–including prescribing painful electrolysis to make her look “less Mediterranean” by lifting her hairline, and giving her a new name–Rita Hayworth.

Publicity photo for "Only Angels Have Wings" (1939)

Cohn began by casting Hayworth in a series of small roles, including “Only Angels Have Wings” and “Music in My Heart,” continuing to mold her appearance to shape what Columbia wanted for her persona. She starred in numerous films that showcased her phenomenal dancing ability, including You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) and You Were Never Lovelier (1942) with Fred Astaire, and Cover Girl (1944) with Gene Kelly. By dancing with both these dancers, she became he first star to pair with both Astaire and Kelly.

With Fred Astaire in You’ll Never Get Rich, 1941.

You Were Never Lovelier, 1942.

With Gene Kelly in Cover Girl, 1944.

By 1944, her career had skyrocketed to the point of being the top box office star for 3 consecutive years, and she also became known as one of the most popular pin-up girls with the soldiers fighting in World War II.

At the height of her career in 1943, Hayworth met and married cinematic legend Orson Welles, with whom she soon had a daughter, Rebecca, in 1944. Two years later, Hayworth filmed the iconic Gilda, with which she would be forever associated.  So powerful was her “bombshell” performance as Gilda, that it is said that the first postwar nuclear bomb tested, sent off in the Bikini Atoll, had Hayworth’s picture on it, causing her great distress.

After Gilda, Hayworth’s film career slowed so she could concentrate on motherhood. A significant film was made in 1947 with The Lady From Shanghai, co-starring (now ex-) husband Orson Welles, who also directed. Hayworth and Welles had stayed on amicable, friendly terms, each one declaring throughout their lives that the other was the love of their life. The Lady From Shanghai is a real triumph, and the famous “hall of mirrors” scene is often studied in film classes today.

In 1949, Hayworth married Prince Aly Aga Khan, thereby becoming Hollywood’s first princess–7 years before Grace Kelly’s wedding to Prince Rainier. Their daughter, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, was born in December, but by the time the child was 4, her parents were divorced and a bitter, high profile custody battle ensued. Hayworth ended up with custody of Yasmin, and raising her daughters became the primary focus of her life.

With daughters Yasmin (left) and Rebecca, at home.

By the 1950’s, Hayworth’s roles were getting fewer and more far-between. With the possible exception of Salome (1953) and Separate Tables (1958), the roles were in mostly insignificant films, and it was becoming clear to many people that there was something wrong in her life. She often appeared looking disheveled or confused, and though most people blamed it on alcohol (of which she often partook), what it was ultimately deemed to be was early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The disease made it impossible for her to continue to work, and it plagued her for the rest of her life, until her early death in 1987. She spent her last years at home, cared for by Yasmin, and apparently though she ultimately could not speak, she would tap her feet to music, in what Yasmin called a “memory of her days as a dancer.”

In her memory, Yasmin has set up the Rita Hayworth Alzheimer’s Gala, to benefit the Alzheimer’s Association, and was a primary contributor to the documentary I Remember Better When I Paint, documenting art by Alzheimer’s patients, in 2009.

Here is one of the few interviews Rita Hayworth ever did, in 1970. Thanks for reading, and happy birthday Rita!

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One response to “STAR OF THE WEEK: Rita Hayworth

  1. Lovely piece on Rita. So sad that she led such a glamorous life and in the end couldn’t remember any of it.

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