Thursday, May 31, 2018

Rita Hayworth, Pin-Up Legend

Rita Hayworth
Rita Hayworth.

Our topic here is one of the top Divas of the Golden Age of Hollywood. She was a top dancer and actress, someone who stayed in the tabloids for decades and never really got the recognition she (felt she) deserved. She danced with Fred Astaire in classic pictures, is known in particular for one popular film whose title featured her character's name, and lived into the Reagan years. Well, we've already discussed Ginger Rogers, so that leaves ... the fabulous Rita Hayworth!

Rita Hayworth on the cover of the 11 August 1941 issue of Life magazine,
A memorable August 11, 1941 issue of Life magazine featured Rita Hayworth. 

Rita was born Margarita Carmen Cansino in Brooklyn, New York on October 17, 1918. Her parents, Eduardo Cansino and Volga Hayworth, were of Spanish and Irish-English descent, respectively. Most significantly for Rita's future, they were both dancers and encouraged her interest in that from her earliest years. Her maternal uncle was an actor, and mama Volga encouraged that talent as well, and her paternal grandfather was a famous Spanish dancer. If you want to incubate a future dancer and actress, that's not a bad way to start.

Rita Hayworth in her pin-up from Life magazine,
Rita's classic pin-up from her 1941 Life magazine spread. It became the most requested pin-up of World War II until a Betty Grable photo of 1943.

Pushed by her parents, young Margarita studied dancing throughout her childhood at Carnegie Hall. Day after day, year after year, it was endless dance classes taught by uncle Angel. Her family brought her onstage with them the day that she turned five - on Broadway (in "The Greenwich Village Follies"). Not too shabby to start out on Broadway. In fact, she may be the only star in history whose first onstage appearance was on the Great White Way.

Rita Hayworth in her early years,
Young Margarita Cansino.

A few years later, at age eight, she nabbed a role in a short film for Warner Bros., "La Fiesta." Dancing was popular during the 1920s, so Margarita's dad moved the family to Hollywood to see if they could break into "the pictures." Nothing big happened right away, so Eduardo opened a dance studio. This got him - and little Margarita - access to up-and-coming stars like Jimmy Cagney and Jean Harlow. Eventually, Eduardo took Margarita across the border to dance in Tijuana, which didn't care how old employees were. She never finished school, but during the Great Depression, you had to make sacrifices.

Rita Hayworth when still Rita Cansino,
Rita during her time at Fox.

At age 16, Margarita started getting bit parts in Mexican films such as "Cruz Diablo" (1934) and "In Caliente" (1935). Nobody noticed young Margarita - well, except for a guy named Winfield Sheehan. He happened to see her dancing at a nightspot with her dad. There are lots of guys at nightclubs, but Winfield was not your average bear - he just so happened to be head of the Fox Film Corporation. He arranged a screen test which led to a short-term, six-month contract at Fox. Margarita shortened her name to Rita Cansino to make it a little more recognizable to northern audiences. There was no denying Rita's exotic beauty, though.

Rita Hayworth at the Roller Derby,
Rita Hayworth, Edward Judson, Doune McKay, and Gordon Oliver watching the Roller Derby at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium. Photograph dated July 23, 1938. (LEN WEISSMAN/LAPL HERALD-EXAMINER COLLECTION.)

At Fox, Rita spent her six months doing various bit parts in films that usually had some kind of foreign slant - "Under the Pampas Moon" (1935), "Charlie Chan in Egypt" (1935), "Paddy O'Day" (1935) - invariably appearing as the spicy little foreigner. While she did well and Winfield wanted to advance her career to leads, he lost control when Fox merged with 20th Century Fox. After losing her contract, Rita fell in love with a big fan, Edward C. Judson, and the two eloped in 1937 despite the fact that he was a mysterious character much older than her. Judson got Rita some freelance parts on poverty row, and the audience started noticing her.

Rita Hayworth and Harry Cohn,
While Rita Hayworth was married five times, it is reasonable to state that the dominant relationship of her life - in a platonic sense - was with studio boss Harry Cohn.

Based upon Rita's role in "Meet Nero Wolfe" (1936), Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn signed Rita to a standard seven-year studio contract. Cohn then told Judson that Rita needed a less Spanish last name to get parts written for non-foreign girls, so Judson prevailed upon Rita to take her mother's last name and become: Rita Hayworth.

Rita Hayworth and Harry Cohn in 1947,
Hayworth and Cohn on the set of 1947’s 'The Lady From Shanghai,' co-starring and directed by her then-husband, Orson Welles.

Those weren't the only changes that Cohn wanted. He pressured Rita to change her hair color to dark red, for instance. He also thought that she was a little too hairy, so she got electrolysis to raise her hairline. These were small prices to pay to become a star, so Rita made them. There are unproven innuendos, made only long after both were dead, that Cohn sexually harassed Hayworth. If he did, she never put it in those terms. Hayworth actually addressed the issue in the New York Times interview in 1970:
In front of people, Harry Cohn would say, 'I never put a hand on her.' Of course he hadn't put a hand on me — as if I'd let him!
However, the casting couch has always been a stereotype of Hollywood, and other actresses have had plenty to say about that.

Rita Hayworth and Cary Grant,
Rita Hayworth with Cary Grant in "Only Angels Have Wings."

Having shown that she was willing to "play ball," Rita soon reaped the benefits. After getting her feet wet in eight low-key films in 1937 and five in 1938, Rita landed the role of a seductress in "Only Angels Have Wings" (1939). Starring Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, "Wings" brought Rita to a whole new level of stardom. She started getting tons of fan mail pouring into the Columbia mail room. Cohn noticed, and started the Columbia publicity machine to raise her profile. While not yet a headliner, Rita began getting meaty supporting roles to stars like Joan Crawford in "Susan and God" (1940) and old friend James Cagney in "The Strawberry Blonde" (1941). By mid-1941, Rita Hayworth was one of the top female faces in Hollywood. Her iconic poses in the August 11, 1941 edition of Life magazine, which became standards on GI barracks around the world, cemented her stardom.

Rita Hayworth and Fred Astaire,
Rita with Fred Astaire.

Rita's films with Fred Astaire, beginning with Columbia's "You'll Never Get Rich" (1941), made Rita Hayworth a true headliner. Astaire later conceded that Rita Hayworth was his favorite dance partner, saying, "All right, I'll give you a name, but if you ever let it out, I'll swear I lied: it was Rita Hayworth." Astaire, incidentally, often had decidedly mixed things to say about Ginger Rogers, who he thought didn't work hard enough at her dancing and simply wanted to bluff her way through dance numbers, but he never seemed to say anything negative about Hayworth's dancing.

Rita Hayworth in Gilda,

By this point, Rita Hayworth was an established star. Other films with Astaire followed, such as "You Were Never Lovelier" (1942), but she also branched out in new directions. She considered "Cover Girl" (1944) with Gene Kelly to be a career highlight. Rita hit her peak in the public mind with King Vidor's "Gilda" (1946), a film that barely got by the censors due to Rita's sensuous portrayal that included a one-glove striptease, "Put the Blame on Mame."

Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai,
Rita Hayworth in Orson Welles's "The Lady From Shanghai" (1947).

During World War II, Rita Hayworth reached a degree of fame which other top actresses could only dream about. However, in her personal life, she admitted that she was "very shy" and had an "inferiority complex." However, she always was drawn to "bad boys" - who also had the ability to help her career. In 1942, she divorced Judson amidst her claims that he "helped himself to my money," then turned around and married the enfant terrible of Hollywood, Orson Welles. The two basically eloped, and the two had daughter Rebecca on 17 December 1944. They divorced in 1947, with Rita claiming that he "showed no interest in establishing a home" - which certainly seems likely, given Welles' predilection for gallivanting around Europe on various film endeavors.

Rita Hayworth and Aly Khan
Rita Hayworth and...
Rita Hayworth and Aly Khan
Aly Khan.

Rita thought she finally had found a relationship worth giving up her career for when she married Prince Aly Kahn, the son of the leader of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam in 1949. They had a daughter, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, on 28 December 1949. However, Aly turned out to be a bit of a player, and Rita apparently did not want to convert to Islam and did not want Yasmin to be Muslim, either. He also did not have the money that she thought he did - his dad kept him on an allowance - and she wound up running down her own finances. Thus, the pair divorced in Nevada in 1953.

Rita Hayworth in Gilda,
Rita didn't sing on film, as shown here in "Gilda," and that fact rankled her.

Rita resumed her career with "Affair in Trinidad" (1952), and audiences still loved her despite the fact it was a mediocre movie. Cohn still supported her, but Rita started to become a problem for Columbia. Rita walked out on a film in 1951, something that she also had done in 1943, and in 1952 refused to report to a film because she found the script lacking. She sued Columbia in 1953 to be released from her contract. Among Rita's other grievances was that Columbia had not developed her singing talents - which she had never demonstrated. In fact, Rita never sang onscreen, and if it appears that she did, it was dubbed. This became a major irritant for her when audiences at USO shows and other personal appearances asked her to sing - not knowing that she couldn't.

Rita Hayworth in vibrant color,
Lovely Rita, movie star, may I inquire discreetly when are you free to take some tea with me?

With her career in limbo, Rita married singer Dick Haymes in 1953. The marriage was rocky because Haymes - born in Argentina - was subject to deportation. He also owed the IRS more than he could pay, $100,000, which dwarfed his salary. Haymes also owed money to ex-wives, while Aly Khan was not paying Rita alimony and was contesting custody of Yasmin. There were allegations of abuse against Rita. It all proved too be too much, and the pair separated forever in 1955.

Rita Hayworth in Separate Tables,
Rita Hayworth in "Separate Tables," her last big hit.

Rita's next marriage was to producer James Hill in 1958. He arranged for another comeback for Rita, in "Separate Tables" (1958). The film made good money, but the marriage soon deteriorated amidst claims of abusive behavior by Hill (Charlton Heston personally recounted observing this), and the pair divorced in 1961.

Glamorous Rita Hayworth,
Rita Hayworth's outrageous glamor hid a serious drinking problem.

It is easy to pin Hayworth's difficulties during the 1950s and thereafter on others, but, in fact, Rita had issues of her own. By the early 1940s, Rita had a drinking problem. This aggravated her tendency to fly into angry tirades at those close to her, particularly her family and Harry Cohn. Orson Welles recalled later that she would "break all the furniture and she'd get in a car and I'd have to get in the car and try to control her." Daughter Yasmin had similar recollections. Still, despite her issues, Hayworth persevered with her career, which continued into the 1970s.

Rita Hayworth in 1976,
Photographs of Rita Hayworth taken in Heathrow Airport in 1976 stunned just about everyone that saw them.

By 1973, Rita's health was deteriorating for mysterious reasons. She couldn't remember her lines, which led to her retirement, and the deaths of her brothers in March 1974 sent her into a period of especially heavy drinking. A January 1976 incident on a TWA flight got her thrown off the plane and generated negative publicity worldwide. Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease popped up, and in July 1981, a Los Angeles judge put her under the care of Princess Yasmin. Rita lingered on, but all the life was gone. Rita Hayworth passed away peacefully on 14 May 1987 in New York City.

Rita Hayworth in 1976,

Rita Hayworth is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery, Ladera Heights, CA. She is in Grave No. 15, immediately to the right (east) of the grotto, underneath the statue of a praying angel. It is in a very accessible spot near the road and a pathway.

Rita Hayworth and Princess Yasmin,
Princess Yasmin looked after her mom in her declining years.

When you compare the career of Rita Hayworth to other stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, she shines brighter than virtually everyone else. She remained popular as a film star longer than the others, she never had to resort to television shows to make a living, and she sets the terms of her own life. She brought the first real publicity to Alzheimer's Disease, perhaps her greatest service to the public. Unfortunately overlooked by many due to her later struggles, Rita Hayworth must be included in the very top rank of all Hollywood stars, the very uppermost row.

Rita Hayworth Rita Hayworth


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