BOOK REVIEW: “If This Was Happiness” by Barbara Leaming

Many years ago, I was flipping through  a magazine of my mother’s when I came across a familiar face in the “editorials” section. It was the face of Rita Hayworth, who always fascinated me and in whose life I was pretty versed. Daughter of a Spanish dancer, married Orson Welles and Prince Aly Khan, had two daughters…but what I saw in this editorial really shocked me. It said something to the effect of: “How courageous Rita Hayworth was! After the horror she went through, she remained strong.”

This confused me. I had never heard of any unusual problems in Rita Hayworth’s life…and I couldn’t imagine what they were talking about. So I promptly ordered this biography, If This Was Happiness, by Barbara Leaming, began reading…and promptly found out.

Let me first give you my impression of the book, because it would be very hard not to get carried away with discussing the revelations therein.

The book is very well-written and well-researched. It’s clear that Leaming has done her homework, and having written a previous book on Orson Welles (drawing on interviews she had with him), Leaming certainly had material to work with. She uses testimony from everyone from Orson Welles to Rita’s secretary Shifra Haran, to her elementary school teacher in New York. It is quote-heavy, and Leaming carefully analyzes all the assertions she puts forth–questioning herself, dissecting quotes, and giving credit and doubt where they are due. Overall, it’s a well-crafted biography.

I intentionally steered clear of this when I outlined Rita Hayworth’s life for the Star of the Week post, because it’s slippery territory, but Leaming’s book reveals some very shocking and disturbing details about Rita Hayworth’s childhood, particularly surrounding her father. Barbara Leaming had previously written a book about Orson Welles, whom she had the privilege to interview, and Rita’s traumas came up while Leaming was talking to him. These issues are serious and certainly affected Rita’s entire life, and we finally have an answer as to perhaps why certain aspects of her life turned out the way they did.

However, my one complaint about this book is that she places what I consider to be too much emphasis on it. Obviously, a revelation like this is a major selling point, and Leaming probably knew that. It seems that on every page there is some reference to her father’s abuses, and a psychological evaluation as to why she may have acted that way and how it is a victim’s behavior. Though I think she may be right in a good deal of her assertions, I think it’s way too easy to blame everything in her life on the traumas of her past.

Leaming gives a very positive characterization of Rita, painting her as a gentle, kind soul who, despite having essentially no education, had more street smarts than many of the big shots in Hollywood. She was very sensitive about her lack of education–at one point during her marriage to the intellectual Welles, she was caught reading Ivanhoe, and was terrified of being made fun of.  Leaming makes it a point to say that though many of her contemporaries thought little of her intellect (she and Welles were dubbed “The Beauty and the Brain,” a probably well-intentioned but hurtful moniker that made Rita uncomfortable), had she had a better education, she probably would have been one smart cookie. She includes an anecdote from Fred Astaire, claiming that Rita could be shown a long and complex piece of choreography before lunch, and after lunch she would have the dance completely memorized. That is really something.

All in all, this is a fascinating read. It’s cheap on Amazon, and I’ve seen it at a few used bookstores too. I recommend it, it’s a nicely written biography of one of our most interesting stars.

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5 responses to “BOOK REVIEW: “If This Was Happiness” by Barbara Leaming

  1. I’m sure I read this book many years ago, too, and though the details escape me, the revelations in general don’t. I have the sense that many movie icons of various eras, nubile in their youth, experienced something similarly traumatic and far-reaching (Marilyn Monroe and Sandra Dee also come to mind, though I’m sure there are many other examples). Rita’s life becomes even more heart-wrenching in retrospect considering the early onset of Alzheimer’s she suffered. Hopefully, the magic she committed to film transcends the pain of her personal life…

  2. Sadly, I think you’re right. Marilyn Monroe’s childhood was similarly traumatic, and though I don’t really know too much about Sandra Dee, I can only imagine. It’s a sad theme in many Hollywood lives.

  3. I read Chris Welles’ memoir of her father Orson Welles not too long ago and she had some very nice memories of Rita Hayworth. She only knew her for a short time but in her eyes, Rita was the kind of stepmother any girl would dream of having. Beautiful, fun, affectionate, and always willing to splash about in the pool and clown around,

    The image of Rita Hayworth trying to read Ivanhoe on the sly is so sad. But Leaming’s right, anybody who can learn choreography like that is no dummy.

  4. That’s really nice to hear. I have literally never heard a bad thing about Rita as a person, she was loved by everyone who met her. And yes, anyone who can learn choreography after hearing the steps just once is a pretty phenomenal brain. I wish people had appreciated her intelligence more, I think it would have prevented a lot of conflict within herself.

  5. Am reading it ,it’s so touching.

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