|This reportedly was Ginger Rogers' favorite photo of herself.|
Ginger Rogers - everybody knows the name. Pair it with Fred Astaire's name and you get instant recognition: Fred & Ginger, the most famous dance pair in history.
Well, all well and good, but Ginger Rogers had a life beyond simply pairing up with the greatest of dancers. Let's take a peek back in time and get an overview of the fabulous life of Ginger Rogers.
The first thing to learn is that Ginger Rogers was only a stage name. She was born on 16 July 1911 as Virginia Katherine McMath in Independence, Missouri. The family later moved to Kansas City, and then Fort Worth. Ginger apparently was a corruption of "Virginia" by her little cousin. Rogers was Ginger's mother's last name, and the two remained quite close throughout their lives, even starring in films together.
Ginger's mother, Lela McMath, became a scriptwriter in 1915, making the audacious decision to travel all the way to Hollywood to peddle a script - successfully. That may have sparked young Ginger's interest in performing, but it wasn't her "big break." That happened when Eddie Foy, a top vaudeville actor who was famous enough to have his life portrayed by Bob Hope in "The Seven Little Foys" (1955), came to Fort Worth in 1926. Foy needed a last-minute stand, and Ginger won a Charleston dance contest. This got her a spot in Foy's troupe.
A couple of years later, Ginger married Jack Culpepper, so her name technically became Virginia Culpepper. Culpepper was a childhood friend who had become successful as an entertainer under the name Jack Pepper. They formed an act, "Ginger and Pepper," but the two broke up quickly - both the act and for real - and Ginger started touring with her mother.
Ginger's next big break was in 1929, when she was cast in a small role in a Broadway show, "Top Speed." George and Ira Gershwin saw her only two weeks into its run and hired her away to star in their own Broadway show, "Girl Crazy." The choreographer for "Girl Crazy" was... Fred Astaire.
"Girl Crazy" was a huge hit, and Ginger began getting film roles. After making three films independently in 1929, Paramount Pictures signed Ginger to a standard seven-year contract in 1930. However, talented young actors often don't like those kinds of deals because they feel they can get better parts on their own, and Ginger got out of the contract after only five films. The decision worked out for Ginger (it doesn't for everyone), and soon she was starring in films for all the major studios.
Ginger's next big breakthrough was a starring role as Anytime Annie in "42nd Street," the iconic 1930s film which spawned a veritable cottage industry of similarly themed films and stage shows. Ginger herself shone even brighter in Busby Berkeley's (choreographed) "Gold Diggers of 1933," in which she does a memorable "Pig Latin" version (where you take the first syllable of the word and put it at the end) of "We're In The Money." It didn't hurt that she was in a 1930s version of a bikini, either. The story goes that Ginger was just fooling around with the song on her own time, and somebody - probably Busby or director Mervyn LeRoy - heard it and got it put into the film. The scene also features the kind of extreme close-ups that give actors nightmares when their acne breaks out or they start sweating.
At this point, Ginger's career was rolling along indeed. That year, she began a string of films at RKO appearing with her old dance choreographer, Fred Astaire, in "Flying Down to Rio." This string of films lasted throughout the 1930s, and many consider them the greatest dance-centered films of all time. They also were successful, at least until the last couple, "Carefree" and "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle," which also were great films but just proved that, no matter how strong the cow, you can still milk it too much.
Ginger was a great dancer, but the key to Fred & Ginger's success was that Ginger could combine dance with excellent acting and her natural beauty. Together, Fred & Ginger did 33 partnered dances, about 3 or 4 per film. Ginger was extremely busy during this period, as everyone wanted a pretty girl in their productions who also oozed talent from every pore. Some of Ginger's top roles without Fred during the '30s were "Stage Door" (1937) with Katharine Hepburn, "Vivacious Lady" (1938) with James Stewart, and "Bachelor Mother" (1939) with David Niven.
In 1940, Ginger cemented her reputation as a top actress with "Kitty Foyle." This earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1941. She continued working with RKO, although she was upset with the studio for paying others more (including Astaire, who to be fair choreographed all the dances and spent endless hours on rehearsals for each film and thus did far fewer films than Rogers). Ginger acquired a bit of a chip on her shoulder around this time, one which never really left even decades later.
|Ginger on the cover of the 9 December 1940 "Life" Magazine.|
Ginger remained a top star throughout the war years, including starring in Billy Wilder's acclaimed first Hollywood feature film, "The Major and the Minor (1942). That film was particularly special for Ginger because her mother, Lela, portrayed her mother in the film as well.
Ginger got married again in 1943, this time to Jack Briggs, a US Marine. Once the war ended, though, things changed between them and they were divorced in 1949.
As the 1940s wore on, Ginger's star began to fade a bit. It wasn't that her talent dwindled, but times changed and new crop of young ingenues appeared. The life of an actress gets more difficult as she enter her 30s, and Ginger was known for youthful roles with lots of spontaneity and vigor (in "The Major and the Minor," she played a woman masquerading as a 12-year-old at the age of 30!). A last pairing with Fred came in 1949's "The Barkleys of Broadway," when Judy Garland had to drop out due to health issues. The story goes that the studio was hesitant about hiring Ginger, but Fred - himself now one of the top stars in Hollywood - wanted her. The two never had any personal issues, and Ginger presented him with his own (special) Academy Award in 1950.
Ginger continued to star in films during the 1950s, with some of her most memorable turns coming in "Monkey Business" (1952) with Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe (for which she won a Golden Globe), and "We're Not Married" (1952) also starring Monroe. The rise of Marilyn Monroe shows just how tough it was for "pretty girls" to stay on top in Hollywood, but Ginger continued to get good roles because she wasn't just pretty, but also extremely talented as an actress.
While travelling Paris in 1953, Ginger met Jacques Bergerac, a French actor and lawyer. They quickly married, and Bergerac made the extra effort by moving to Hollywood to be with her, but this marriage also ended fairly quickly. The two divorced in 1957.
Many former leading ladies began appearing on television in the 1950s, and Ginger joined the crowd. By the 1960s and 1970s, she was mainly appearing on television, including a memorable appearance as herself on "Here's Lucy" in 1971.
Ginger and her fifth and final husband, William Marshall, formed a joint film production company in Jamaica. However, it was unsuccessful, and its financial collapse hurt Ginger's finances and contributed to the failure of the marriage. The culture was changing, and it was very difficult in the '60s and early '70s to meld old school talent with the burgeoning youth culture. Many actresses from the '40s and '50s would have done better to just skip the '60s and '70s and head straight to the '80s, when the grande dames of cinema became appreciated again.
Ginger continued making occasional television appearances until the late 1980s. She remained a top draw on stage, including a well-received turn as the lead in "Mame" in 1969. Ginger made a grand entrance to London, where the play was being staged, arriving on the QE2. She set the record for highest salary on the West End. The play ran for 14 months, and a highlight was a command performance for QE2 herself, Queen Elizabeth II.
Ginger always wanted to direct - what actor doesn't? - and in 1985 directed an off-Broadway production of "Babes in Arms" in Tarrytown, New York.
Ginger earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. It is located at 6772 Hollywood Boulevard.
Ginger was very interested in promoting other women in film. She was a long-time friend of Lucille Ball, as attested to her appearance on Lucy's television show, and starred in an early film co-directed and co-scripted by a woman, "Finishing School" (1934).
Ginger had the rare honor of having a Broadway musical about her own life set to appear on Broadway during her own lifetime. Called "Ginger The Musical," it was written by Robert Kennedy and Paul Becker. Ginger was excited about directing it herself. However, Ginger passed away at her home in Rancho Mirage from a heart attack in 1995 before the play could be produced. While it has appeared elsewhere, "Ginger The Musical" never has been on Broadway (at least not yet, though there are always rumors that it right on the verge of getting there). Another musical about Ginger, "Backwards in High Heels," also has been produced, in Florida.
Before her death, Ginger completed her autobiography, "Ginger My Story" (New York: Harper Collins, 1991). It is full of personal reminiscences, including tales about her dancing days with Fred and her feelings about being mistreated by the studios in the 1930s.
There has been some debate over the years about who was Fred Astaire's best dancing partner, and whether Fred and Ginger actually got along as well together as the legend would have it - or maybe even a bit better than legend would have it. There is varying evidence on that.
On the one hand, Fred is on the record as having said some very gracious things about Ginger Rogers. For instance, during an interview on British chat show "Parkinson" in 1976, Astaire said:
Excuse me, I must say Ginger was certainly the one. You know, the most effective partner I had. Everyone knows. That was a whole other thing what we did...I just want to pay a tribute to Ginger because we did so many pictures together and believe me it was a value to have that girl...she had it! She was just great!Similarly, in "Ginger: Salute to a Star," author Dick Richards quotes Astaire as having said:
Ginger was brilliantly effective. She made everything work for her. Actually she made things very fine for both of us and she deserves most of the credit for our success.Taking those two quotes purely at face value, there seems no question that not only was Ginger Rogers Fred's best partner, but she more than held her own with him. In fact, they were tight friends in that showbizzy kind of way.
So, for those who want the "official story," that's it. Stop reading now, and thanks for stopping by.
However, when you dig a bit deeper in areas where the official Ginger Rogers website might not tread, there are other indications that Fred may just have been being gracious with all of his late-in-life, oh-don't-we-all-just-love-each-other-so-much showbizzy kind words about Ginger. Astaire once said:
Ginger had never danced with a partner before. She faked it an awful lot. She couldn't tap and she couldn't do this and that ... but Ginger had style and talent and improved as she went along. She got so that after a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong.Again, that also is very complimentary in a decidedly backhanded kind of way, but it also sounds a bit closer to the truth. Fred had been a professional choreographer when Ginger was still just starting out. It is no slight to infer that she still had a lot to learn when she began dancing with the great Fred Astaire. It is only to her credit that Ginger was a quick learner and, by the end of their collaboration, was holding her own with the man who basically had taught her how to dance. It also is not unfair to say that Ginger Rogers was a top actress who danced, while Fred Astaire was a dancer - the best dancer - who also acted and sang a little bit.
Dig even deeper, and more tidbits come out. Research suggests that Fred and Ginger dated after they met in New York. That is not a big secret - it's in all the biographies - but many of those biographies gloss over the extent of that part of their relationship. By some accounts, their dating relationship lasted deep into the 1930s, and may even have continued after Ginger married Lew Ayres (husband No. 2) on 14 November 1934. There is no conclusive proof of this, of course, and the official story makes it sound as though the affair was over in a matter of days. By some accounts, Ginger was much more interested in Fred than the other way around, which may explain some of her petulance at times on set.
Then, there's the fact that Fred wasn't happy about Ginger's performance in "Flying Down to Rio," their first pairing. He wasn't happy at all. In fact, he didn't want to appear with Ginger in any more films. As he told his agent (where the rubber meets the road with actors) in a 1934 letter (as quoted in Kathleen Riley's "The Astaires: Fred & Adele"):
What's all this talk about me being teamed with Ginger Rogers? I will not have it Leland--I did not go into pictures to be teamed with her or anyone else, and if that is the program in mind for me I will not stand for it. I don't mind making another picture with her but as for this team idea, it's out.He added, "I've just managed to live down one partnership and I don't want to be bothered with any more." One can only imagine what he said verbally. These quotes sound somewhat more in keeping with Fred's quote above about how Ginger was "faking it" at first. However, to be fair, Astaire did star in another nine films with Ginger Rogers after sending that letter. That may only prove that money talks, but facts are facts. Dancing with Ginger was better than dancing alone, and at least she tried to get better.
There also are stories that Astaire could become quite cross with Rogers throughout their pairing, and not just during their first film together. Astaire's dancing was all about subtlety: it wasn't enough to do the dance and hit the marks, it was much more than that. Which was was the left foot pointing? How about your fingers? Was your knee bent, and if so, how much? Which way were you looking? Do you push your leg forward, or kind of slide it? Astaire was a taskmaster (which Rogers admitted in the '60s) who practiced every move repeatedly until he got it just right, with every part of his body fluidly expressing what he wished it to say. Dancing was Fred's main talent, the reason he was on the screen at all, and he knew it: their first film together was only Fred's second screen appearance, but Ginger's 20th. As the old acting pro, she took things a bit more casually at times. Rogers always was just dropping in from other productions to learn her steps at the last minute (in Fred's opinion), and this did not sit well with Fred. Not at all.
Then, there was the infamous "ostrich feather dress" incident. While filming "Top Hat" (1935), Ginger was determined to wear an elaborate blue dress into which was sewn ostrich feathers. Why she decided to make a stand on such a silly topic is unknown, but often problems in one area of a relationship manifest themselves in such silly, pointless confrontations (and, by some accounts, this was right around when they were breaking up behind the scenes). The feathers obviously would interfere with the dance, so Fred and director Mark Sandrich nixed the dress. Out of the question! Rogers stormed off the set - over an ostrich feather dress! - and only came back when Sandrich relented and let her wear it. Rogers, in fact, wore the dress for the very first time while dancing when they actually filmed the scene - and, as the men feared, feathers went flying everywhere. Due to very judicious editing, most of the feather-flying can't be viewed in the final cut, but you can still view some going airborne here and there. Astaire later laughed it off - supposedly - and gave Rogers a charm for her charm bracelet - a golden feather. People behind the scenes took to calling Rogers "feathers," which Rogers found amusing - supposedly. Astaire later got back at her by staging a comic version of the scene with Judy Garland in "Easter Parade" (1948). There is no way that Rogers would have missed the reference.
Whatever went on between the two behind the scenes - and some rumors suggest it was quite a bit more - it apparently left a bit of a sore spot in Ginger's psyche. The infamous quote, "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels," did not originate with Ginger herself (it apparently came from a 1982 Frank and Ernest cartoon written by Bob Thaves, though some do attribute it to Ginger, or to several other people). However, Ginger is on the record as having said:
There's nothing a man can do, that I can't do better and in heels.Which, when you come right down to it, is basically the same thing.