We remember a lovely face and a ravishing figure, a spirited toss of shining red hair. Her name conjures images of 1940s glamour and romance, music and magic. But what was Rita Hayworth really like?
Rita Hayworth died on May 14th, 1987, of complications from Alzheimer's disease, at age 68. Hayworth led a stormy and tumultuous life full of well-publicized ups and downs. She was film royalty and a real-life princess, but her true story was a somewhat grim fairy tale, and she never enjoyed a happily-ever-after.
Most fans know about her fabled marriages to film luminary Orson Welles and international playboy Prince Aly Khan; her adversarial relationship with Columbia studio head Harry Cohn; her iconic film noir turns as Gilda (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1948); her staggering dancing ability and legendary pairings with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. They also know she died too soon.
Rita was a reluctant glamour goddess who preferred to slouch around in jeans and sweatshirts with no makeup far before it was fashionable. Unable to live up to her screen image, she was unlucky at love. "They went to bed with Gilda," she said sadly, referring to her most iconic role, "but they woke up with me." She counted among her greatest achievements being a good mother to her two daughters. She looked upon her acting career as a job, nothing more.
Many young stars have a stage mother pushing them into the business. Margarita Cansino had a stage father, dancer Eduardo Cansino, a perfectionist and taskmaster who superimposed his own frustrated ambitions on his lovely young daughter. Cansino owned a school of dance in Hollywood where the studios sent their contract players to teach them the basics. (This is where James Cagney learned to tap dance, and Jean Harlow prepared for her only musical role, in 1935's Reckless).
From the age of 13, young Margarita was put to work as a primary Cansino breadwinner alongside her father, to supplement the family income. Appearing in after-hours Tijuana nightclubs as Eduardo's dancing partner, Rita was performing sexually charged rhumbas and tangos with her own father to drunken crowds. More than one source suggests that Margarita may have been physically and sexually abused by her hard-driving, exacting father, as well.
She was signed as a contract player at Fox Studios in 1935, where she played a succession of exotics and stereotyped South-of-the-Border characters until her option was dropped a few months later.
A Svengali-style first marriage to a much older man, a fast-talking salesman named Edward Judson, took her from Latin bit player to Hollywood ingénue. It was Judson who oversaw the complete transformation of black-haired Latin lovely Rita Cansino into the all-American girl next door Rita Hayworth. He had her hairline completely reshaped by painful electrolysis and dyed her locks a deep shade of red, changing her name from Cansino to Hayworth in the process.
She signed with Columbia, her career took off, and she became one of the top stars of the 1940s. Though she enjoyed rehearsing her dancing and the camaraderie with her Columbia Studios family, Rita never took her work too seriously. Her ambitions were to be a wife and mother, but she found her career left her precious little time to spend with her children, Rebecca (Welles) and Yasmin (Khan). And every man she married turned out to be the wrong man.
After the marriage to Aly Khan in 1949 (her third), Hayworth retired from the screen. After their divorce, she returned to Hollywood to resume her career, but it had lost momentum. The decade that followed was a series of comebacks. So the goddess of the 1940s struggled in the 1950s, as her tabloid-worthy personal life became more interesting than the films she was making, including her musical swan song, Pal Joey (1957).
Aging gracefully is difficult at best in Hollywood, and Hayworth was scrutinized and criticized in the press for her weight fluctuations and the lines around her eyes—and she was only in her 30s! But again, she was determined to reinvent herself, so she could continue to make a living and provide for her children.
By the late '50s, Hayworth was on her way to becoming a dramatic actress in literate fare such as Terrence Rattigan's Separate Tables (1958) and Clifford Odets' The Story on Page One (1960). But again, her professional achievements were overshadowed by reports of alcoholism and domestic violence via her embattled relationships with her fourth husband, fading singer Dick Haymes, and her fifth, producer James Hill.
Though Hayworth was not diagnosed until 1980, it was as far back as the early 1960s when friends and family began to notice a change in Rita. She began having blackout-type episodes that most attributed to her heavy drinking. MGM star Ann Miller recalled that Rita had invited her and choreographer Hermes Pan to dinner one night. They knocked on the front door and waited a long time for an answer. Finally, the door flew open and there stood an unkempt, wild-eyed Rita, who stared at her two friends uncomprehendingly. "Who are you? Go away!" she blurted to Miller and Pan, then slammed the door in their faces before they could identify themselves. When Rita and Ann spoke a few days later, Hayworth told Miller she had no memory of the event.
The episodes of strange behavior continued on and off for more than a decade, as Hayworth continued to work sporadically in film and on television. Finally, it became clear she could not continue. Hayworth's youngest daughter, the Princess Yasmin Khan, became her mother's primary caregiver. In the late 1970s, Yasmin set up her mother in an apartment with round-the-clock care in her building on Central Park West in New York City. It was not until 1980 that Hayworth's condition was given a name, after pioneer researcher Dr. Alois Alzheimer. (In 1994, the diagnosis of American President and former movie actor Ronald Reagan would continue to bring universal awareness to the disease.) By now, Rita was in decent physical shape, but completely incoherent.
From this perpetual dream world, her daughter remembers, Hayworth was unreachable...except when there was music playing. Then, she would sway to the rhythm and a smile would light up her still lovely face, almost as if she were rehearsing those long-ago dance routines to romantic standards by Berlin, Porter and Kern. In the recesses of the mind is where all Love Goddesses really reside.