Who is Rita Hayworth?

Who is Rita Hayworth?

Born Margarita Carmen Cansino on October 17 1918, Rita Hayworth was born into a family of dancers in Brooklyn, New York. The world would worship her as a sex symbol and star of movies like Gilda, You were Never Lovelier, and Separate Tables. But what happened to her as a child would scar Rita Hayworth for the rest of her life. Rita Hayworth achieved fame in the 1940s as one of the top stars of the era – appearing in 61 films over 37 years. Rita Hayworth was a top glamour girl in the 1940s, a pin-up girl for the military servicemen and a beauty inspiration for women. She reportedly changed her hair colour eight times in eight movies and her lips were voted the best in the world by the Artists League of America in 1949 – this would lead to modelling contracts with Max Factor to promote Tru-Color lipsticks and Pan-Stik make up.

While Rita lit up the screen with her sensual beauty and trademark red hair, she, like many others, paid a high price to get there.

Men go to bed with Gilda, and wake up with me

Rita Hayworth

Early Childhood of Rita Hayworth

Rita Hayworth’s childhood wasn’t a happy one. Her Spanish dancer father, Eduardo Cansino, emigrated to New York in 1913 with Rita being born 5 years later. Eduardo moved the entire family to Los Angeles in the hope that Hollywood would restore the families fortunes after he lost his money during the depression.

By now Rita was 12, although she looked older. Her father took her out of school, dressed her in sultry, seductive clothing, added scarlet red lipstick and made her his dance partner. Touring seedy nightclubs and casinos in Mexico, Eduardo made out that his daughter was his wife – overstepping that boundary even when they weren’t on the dance floor.

Rita Hayworth as a young dancer
Rita Hayworth as a young dancer with her father

Hayworth would confide in future husband Orson Welles that her father began to sexually abuse her as a child when they were touring as the Dancing Cansinos. Her biographer Barbara Leaming wrote that her mother may have been the only person to know and slept in the same bed as her daughter in an attempt to protect her. Leaming would also write that this abuse Hayworth experienced would likely have contributed to her difficulties in adult relationships.

From the time I was 12 I was dancing for bread and butter, but in my heart I was always an actress.

Rita Hayworth on her childhood

Early Career of Rita Hayworth

Early shot of Rita Hayworth when she was working at Fox.
Early shot of Rita Hayworth when she was working at Fox

I could never have made the grade in Hollywood without him. I was just too backward. My whole career was his idea.

Rita Hayworth on Edward Judson

Following work in Tijuana with her father, she was spotted by a Fox film producer and had small parts in a string of films. This may have been the summit of her career if she hadn’t met 41-year old lounge lizard and car salesman, Edward Judson. In 1937 when she was aged just 18, she embarked on her first marriage to him when he was her manager. Judson was a shrewd businessman who was dom,ineering and controlling. “He helped me with my career,” Hayworth conceded after they divorced in 1942 “and helped himself to my money.” She alleged that Judson compelled her to transfer a considerable amount of her property to him, and promised to pay him $12,000 under threats he would do her “great bodily harm.”

I married him for love, he married me for investment. From the first he told me I couldn’t do anything for myself. My personality crawled deeper and deeper into a shell

Rita Hayworth on her first husband, Edward Judson
Rita with first husband Edward Judson
Rita with first husband Edward Judson

Judson may have worked hard and got her press attention and coverage but was as shady and unscrupulous as her father. Ordering her to sleep with men to further her career, Judson was essentially her pimp. One of these men was head of Columbia Pictures, the ruthless Harry Cohn, who expected sex with his female stars as part of their movie deals. Even though she was the mistress of Howard Hughes, she drew the line at Cohn. Nevertheless she was signed to Columbia as he could see her movie starlet potential.

Cohn would argue that Rita’s image was “too Mediterranean”, which ultimately limited her casting in “exotic” roles of which there were fewer available. He was heard to have said that her last name was too Spanish. Judson acted on his advice – Rita Cansino would become Rita Hayworth when she adopted her mother’s maiden name, much to the chagrin of her father. With the Hayworth name that emphasised her British-American ancestry, people were more likely to regard her as a classic “American” actress. This wasn’t the only change, with the encouragement from her manager/husband Judson and studio head Harry Cohn, Hayworth would dye her hair red and had painful electrolysis to raise her hairline and to broaden the appearance of her forehead.

Rita’s youthful exuberance meshed perfectly with Fred’s maturity and elegance.

Peter Levinson – Fred Astaire’s Biographer

During 1937, Hayworth would appear in five minor Columbia Pictures and three minor independent movies and appeared in five Columbia B movies the following year. Cohn would pressure director Howard Hanks to use Hayworth in a small, but nonetheless important role as a man-trap in the 1939 aviation drama Only Angels Have Wings where she would play opposite Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. Hayworth was built up by Cohn throughout 1940 in features such as Music in my Heart, The lady in Question and Angels over Broadway. That year, she was first featured in a Life magazine cover story. While on loan to Warner Bros, Hayworth would appear as the second female lead in The Strawberry Blonde (1941), opposite James cagney.

After returing in triumph to Columbia Pictures, Hayworth was cast in the 1941 You’ll Never Get Rich opposite Fred Astaire in one of the highest-budgeted films Columbia had ever made. This was so successful, the studio produced and released another Hayworth-Astaire picture the following year, You Were Never Lovelier.

Rita Hayworh and Fred Astaire
Rita Hayworth and Fred Astaire

Rita danced with trained perfection and individuality… She was better when she was ‘on’ than at rehearsal.

Fred Astaire

In 1941, Hayworth would pose for the now iconic Life photography in a black lace bodice negligee. Bob Landry’s photo made Rita Hayworth one of the top two pin-up girls of the World War II years – the other being Betty Grable. For two years that image was the most requested pin-up photograph in circulation.

The iconic Life cover which would result in Rita Hayworth becoming the most requested pin up

Rita Hayworth in a glamorous robe

Hayworth would be the one to file for divorce from Judson on 24th February 1942 under the complaint of cruelty. She noted to the press at the time that his work would frequently take him to Oklahoma and Texas and that she would live and work in Hollywood. Judson was as old as her father who was enraged by their relationship and marriage which caused a rift between Rita Hayworth and her parents until the divorce. Judson had also neglected to tell her that he was married twice previously before they wed. When she left him, she had no money and had to ask her friend Hermes Pan if she could eat at his home.

On 7th September 1943, during the run of The Mercury Wonder Show Rita Hayworth would marry Orson Welles. None of her colleagues knew of her planned nuptials before a judge until she announced it the day before. For the civil ceremony, Hayworth would wear a beige suit, ruffled white blouse and a veil. A few hours after they married, they returned to work at the studio. They did struggle in their marriage with Hayworth saying that Welles didn’t want to be tied down.

Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles on their wedding day
Rita Hayworth and her husband Orson Welles on the set of Lady of Shanghai

During the entire period of our marriage, he showed no interest in establishing a home. When I suggested purchasing a home, he told me he didn’t want the responsibility. Mr. Welles told me he should never married in the first place; that it interfered with his freedom in his way of life.

rita Hayworth on her marriage to Orson Welles

Rita Hayworth’s peak years at Columbia

I guess the only jewels of my life, were the pictures I made with Fred Astaire… And Cover Girl.

Rita Hayworth in 1970

Hayworth landed the top billing in one of her best-known films in 1944, the Technicolour musical Cover Girl. This firmly established her as one of Columbia’s top stars of the 40s and gave her the distinction of being the first of just six women to dance on screen with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Srarting in 1944, for three years, Hatworth was named as one of the top movie box-office attractions in the world. She was adept in ballet, tap, ballroom and Spanish routines. Cohn would cleverly continue to showcase her dance talents and Columbia would go on to feature her in the Technicolour folms Tonight and Every Night in 1945 alongside Lee Bowman, and Down to Earth in 1947 with Larry Parks.

Rita Hayworth in Gilda
Rita Hayworth in Gilda

Hayworth’s glamorous sex appeal was most noted in Charles Vidor’s film noir Gilda along with Glenn Ford in 1946. The role caused censors some consternation most notably for Hayworth as she performed a legendary one-glove striptease “Put the Blame on Mame” whilst dressed in black satin. This firmly rooted Rita Hayworth as a femme fatale. It was during the filming of Gilda in 1945 that the long-term on-and-off affair with Glenn Ford would begin and would also last for 40 years. Their relationship iss documented in the 2011 biography of Glenn Ford bt Peter Ford – his son. Peter revealed in this 2011 book that his father got Hayworth pregnany during the filming of The Loves of Carmen with her then travelling to France for an abortion. Ford would later move in next door to Hayworth in Beverley Hills in 1960 and they continued their relationship for many years until the early 1980s.

Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford
Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford on set for Gilda

Whilst Gilda was in release, it was widely reported that an atomic bomb scheduled to be tested at Bikini Atoll would be an homage to Hayworth and have her image featured on it in reference to her bombshell status. Although this gesture was meant as a compliment, she was deeply offended. Her then husband Orson Welles recalled her anger in an interview with biographer Barbara Leaming “Rita used to fly into terrible rages all the time, bur her worst was when she found out they had put her on the atom bomb. Rita almost went insane, she was so angry… She wanted to go to Washington to hold a press conference, but Harry Cohn wouldn’t let her because it would be unpatriotic.” Welles managed to convince Hayworth that the whole thing was not one of Cohn’s publicity stunts – it was simply a homage to her from the flight crew.

Orson Welles would also note Hayworth’s problem with alcohol during their marriage, but he never believed that the problem was alcoholism. In 1983 he recalled, “It certainly imitated alcoholism in every superficial way. She’d fly into these rages, never at me, never once, always at Harry Cohn or her father or mother or brother. She would break all of the furniture and she’s get in a car and I’d have to get in the car to try and control her. She’d drive up into the hills suicidally. Terrible, terrible nights.”

Lady of Shanghai still
Lady of Shanghai still

Hayworth’s performance in her husband Welles’ 1947 film The Lady from Shanghai was critically acclaimed.. The failure at the box office was attributed in part to Rita’s famous red locks being cut short and bleached platinum blonde for the role. Manager Harry Cohn was furious as he hadn’t been consulted and Hayworth’s image had been changed. During this year, Hayworth was featured in a Life cover story by Wintrhop Sargeant that resulted in the nickname “The Love Goddess” being given to her and was later adapted and used as the title of a bipic and biography about her. Her next film, The Loves of Carmen in 1948 was the first film co-produced by Columbia and The Beckworth Corporation, Hayworth’s production company which she named for Rebecca her first daughter that she had with Orson Welles. It was Columbia’s biggest moneymaker that year and Rita received a percentage of those profits and all of her subsequent films until 1954 when she dissolved Beckworth to pat off debts.

Lady of Shanghai still
Life Magazine Cover “The Love Goddess”

Everybody else does nude scenes, but I don’t. I never made nude movies. I didn’t have to do that. I danced. I was provocative, I guess, in some things. But I was not completely exposed.

Rita Hayworth in a 1980’s interview

Rita Hayworth was the first Hollywood Princess

In 1948, at the height of her fame,. Hayworth travelled to Cannes and was introduced to Prince Aly Khan. This began a year long courtship which culminated in their marriage on the 27th May 1949 and her bridal trousseau was designed by French designer Jacques Fath. Hayworth left Hollywood and sailed for France, breaking her contract with Columbia in the process. As Hayworth was one of the most well-known celebrities in the world at the time, massive amounts of global press coverage was focused on the courtship and wedding. Hayworth would also receive negative backlash as she was still legally married to Orson Welles during the early days of courtship with the prince which caused some Amercians to boycott her movies.

Rita Hayworth and Prince Aly Khan on their wedding day
Rita Hayworth and Prince Aly Khan

Long before Grace Kelly, Hayworth’s marriage to Prince Aly Khan was the first time a Hollywood actress had become a princess. On 28th December 1949, Hayworth would give birth to the couple’s only daughter, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan. Though she was anxious to start a new life away from Hollywood, Aly Khan’s flamboyant lifestyle and duties proved to be too much for Hayworth to handle. She struggled to fit into his social circle and found it difficult to learn French. Aly Khan and his family were heavily involved in horse racing, owing and racing horses. Hayworth had no interest in the sport but joined the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club anyway. She had some success with her filly Double Rose winning several races in France and finishing second in the 1949 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Her husband was also known as a playboy and it was suspected that he was unfaithful during their marriage. He was spotted in 1951 when he was still married to Hayworth, dancing with actress Joan Fontaine in the very same nightclub in which they met. That same year, Hayworth set sail for New York with her two daughters. Although Hayworth and Aly Khan would reconcile for a short time, they eventually divorced in 1953.

Hayworth’s return to Cohn and Columbia

After the collapse of her marriage in 1953, Rita Hayworth returned to Hollywood to star in her comeback picture Affair in Trinidad in 1952 which once again paired her with Glenn Ford. Director Vincent Sherman recalled that she seemed “Frightened at the approach of doing another picture.” She also continued to clash with Columbia boss Harry Cohn and was placed on suspension during filming. Nevertheless, the picture was still highly publicised and ended up grossing $1 million more that her previous blockbuster Gilda.

Movie poster for Affair in Trinidad
Rita Hayworth in promotional shot for Affair in Trinidad

Hayworth would continue to star in a string of successful pictures. In 1953 she had two films released, Salome with Charles Loughton and Stuart Granger and Miss Sadie Thompson with José Ferrer and Aldo Ray. She was off the big screen for four years following this, mainly due to her tumultuous marriage to the singer Dick Haymes.

Rita Hayworth in Salome
Rita Hayworth in Miss Sadie Thompson

When Hayworth and Haymes first met, he was still married with a waning singing career. When Rita showed up at the clubs he got a larger audience.. Haymes at this point was desperate for money as two of his ex-wives were suing him for unpaid child support. His financial issues were so bad that he was unable to return to California without being arrested. In 1954, hjis ex-wife Nora Eddington got a bench warrant for his arrest as he owed her $3,800 in alimony. Less than a week later, his other ex-wife Joanne Dru also got a bench warrant because she said he owed her $4,800 in support payments for their three children. Hayworth would end up paying mosty of Haymes debts.

Haymes was born in Argentina, and did not have solid proof of his American Citizenship. Not long after he met Rita, U.S Officials initiated proceedings to have him deported to Argentina for being an illegal alien. He hope Hayworth could influence the government and allow him to stay in the States. When she assumed responsibility for his citizenship, a bond was formed that led to their marriage. They were married on the 24th September 1953 at the Sands Hotel, Las Vegas with their wedding procession going through the casino.

Rita Hayworth and Dick Haymes on their wedding day

Rita Hayworth and Dick Haymes

During her marriage to Haymes, she was involved with a lot of negative publicity which lessened her appeal significantly. By the time she returned to the silver screen to start in Fire Down Below in 1957, Kim Novak had overtaken her and become Columbia’s top female star. Her last musical was Pal Joey in 1957, and after this film, Hayworth left Columbia for good. After a tumultuous two years together in which she was also fighting a custody battle for her daughter with Aly Khan, Haymes struck Hayworth in the face in public in 1955 at the Coconut Grove nightclud in Los Angeles. Hayworth packed her bags, walked out and never returned. The assaulr and crisis shocked her and her doctor ordered her to stay in bed for several days. Hayworth was short of money following her marriage to Haymes. She had failed to gain child support from Aly Khan and would also sue Orson Welles for back payments of child support for their daughter that she claimed had never been paid. This was unsuccessful and added to her stressful situation.

Rita Hayworth and James Hill
Rita Hayworth and James Hill

In 1958, Hayworth began another relationship with producer James Hill, and they married on 2nd February 1958. He put her in one of her last major films Separate Tables. This was popular and highly praised, although she was named as the worst actress of 1958 by The Harvard Lampoon for her performance.

Hayworth would continue to act and recieved good reviews for her performance in Separate Tables in 1958 starring alongisde Burt Lancaster and David Niven, and The Story on Page One in 1960. Rita Hayworth would continue to work throughout the 1960s.

Rira Hayworth in Separate Tables
Rita Hayworth in Separate Tables

In 1961, Hayworth once again would file for divorce allleging extreme mental cruelty. In his memoir, James Hill would suggest that the marriage broke down as he wanted Hayworth to continue making movies in Hollywood, whilst she wanted them both to retire.

Charlton Heston did however write about the brief marriage of Hayworth and Hill in his memoir that paints a very different picture. One night, Heston and his wife Lydia joined the couple at a restaurant for dinner in Spain with the director George Marshall and the actor Rex Harrison, Hayworth’s co-star in The Happy Times. Heston wrote that the occasion “turned into the single most embarrassing evening of my life”, and described how Hill heaped “obscene abuse” on Hayworth until she was “reduced to a helpless flood of tears, her face buried in her hands”. Heston goes on to write that the others sat stunned, witnessing a “marital massacres”, and though he was “strongly termpted to slug him” (Hill), he left with his wife Lydia after she stood up, almost in tears herself. Heston wrote, “I’m ashamed of walking away from Miss Hayworth’s humiliation, I never saw her again.”

In 1962 however, her planned Broadway debut in Step on a Crack was delayed for undisclosed health reasons. She was paired one last time alongside her good friend Glenn Ford in 1964s The Money Trap and would continue to act in films into the early 1970s. Her last film was a western The Wrath of God in 1972.

Rita Hayworth in the 1970s
Rita Hayworth

Hayworth was 54 years old when she retired in 1972, and the experience exposed her poor health and worsening mental state. Because she was unable to remember her lines, her scenes were shot one line at a time. In November, she agreed to complete one more movie, the British film Tales That Witness Madness, but due to her worsening mental health she left the set and returned to the United States. She would never return to acting.

Rita Hayworth would suffer immense sadness in 1974 when both of her brothers passed away within a week of each other which led her to drink heavily. In January 1976, Hayworth was removed from a TWA flight after having an angry outburst when travelling with her agent. This event attracted a lot of negative publicity with a disturbing photgraph being published the next day. What was thought to be alcoholism at the time was eventually understood to be Alzheimer’s disease.

Rita Hayworth with Olivia de Havilland
Rita Hayworth receiving the 1977 National Screen Heritage Award

Alzheimer’s disease had largely been forgotten about in the medical community at the time since its discovery in 1906. When Hayworth’s diagnosis was made public in 1981 she became “the first public face of Alzheimer’s, helping to ensure that future patients did not go undiagnosed… Unbeknownst to her, Hayworth helped to destigmatise a condition that can still embarrass victims and their families today” according to medical historian Barron H Lerner. In July of the same year, Hayworth’s healrh had deteriorated to the point where a judge in a Los Angeles court agreed that she should be placed under the care of her daughter Princess Yasmin Aga Khan of New York City. Hayworth lived in a New York apartment at The San Remo on Central Park West with her daughter next door who would arrange Hayworth’s care for her final years.

In 1983, Rebecca Welles arranged to see her mother for the first time in seven years. Speaking to his lifelong friend Roger Hill, Orson Welles expressed his concern about the visit’s effect on his daughter. “Rita barely knows me now”, Welles said. He recalled seeing Hayworth three years before at an event which the Reagans held for Frank Sinatra. “When it was over, I came over to her table, and I saw that she was very beautiful, very reposed looking, and didn’t know me at first. After about four minutes of speaking, I could see that she realized who I was, and she began to cry quietly.”

In an interview which he gave the evening before his death in 1985, Welles called Hayworth “one of the dearest and sweetest women that ever lived”

Rita Hayworth was one of our country’s most beloved stars. Glamorous and talented, she gave us many wonderful moments on stage and screen and delighted audiences from when she was a young girl. In her late, Rita became known for her struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Her courage and candor, and that of her family, were a great public service in bringing worldwide attention to a disease which we all hope will soon be cured. Nancy and I are saddened by Rita’s death. She was a friend who we will miss. We extend our deepest sympathy to her family.

Statement from President Ronald Reagan who was also a contemporary of Rita Hayworth

Rita Hayworth lapsed into a semi-coma in February of 1987 and died at age 68 from complications associated with Alzheimer’s disease three months later at her home in Manhattan on the 14th May 1987. Her funeral service was held on the 18th May 1987 with pallbearers such as actors Ricardo Montalbán,, Glenn Ford, Cesar Romero, Anthony Franciosa, choreographer Hermes Pan and family friend, Philip Luchenbill.

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