Rita Hayworth: 1918–1987: Actor, Dancer, Producer Biography
Called "the fiery epitome of screen sensuality," by People magazine, Rita Hayworth became one of America's most popular and famous actresses of the 1940s and beyond, known for her grace, her beauty, and her amazing dancing ability. Born Margarita Cansino on October 17, 1918 in Brooklyn, NY, Hay-worth was part of a family descending from a long line of performers. When she was nine years old and the Vaudevillian scene was breaking up, Hayworth's family moved to Los Angeles. There her parents—Eduardo, a vaudevillian performer, dance instructor, and director, and Volga Haworth, a Ziegfield Follies showgirl—encouraged her to follow in the family line and started her in acting and dancing lessons. Hayworth's father at this time moved from Vaudeville performing to being a dancer and director for several Hollywood movie dance scenes.
While Hayworth was busy learning the family business, she also went to the Carthay School where she had parts in a few school plays, including a stage prologue for the movie Back Street at the Carthay Circle Theater. She then spent one year at Hamilton High before, in ninth grade, her schooling was halted when she became her dad's dancing partner. Called the "Dancing Cansinos," they performed up to 20 times per week. The show traveled throughout Mexico and California until Fox Film Corporation spotted Hayworth in Agua Caliente, Mexico. Because of her grace and beauty she was invited by Fox Films, at age 16, to begin her career in film, acting in B-grade movies. Although her screen debut was with her family in La Fiesta in 1932, her first film by herself was Dante's Inferno. Hayworth was billed on the film as Rita Cansino. The movie wasn't popular, but it brought her to the attention of Fox Film bigwigs and Hayworth was given a year-long contract. For this one year Hayworth held small, ethnic parts in movies such as Charlie Chan in Egypt, 1935, Under the Pampas Moon, 1935, Paddy O'Day, 1935, and Human Cargo, 1936. Her contract was not renewed, and Hayworth was forced to take a line of small parts playing Mexican and Indian girls for very little money.
When Hayworth was 18 she married Edward C. Judson, a man who was a car salesman and businessman and soon became Hayworth's manager. Judson is said by the Encyclopedia of World Biography to have transformed Hayworth, changing her from a dark Latin girl into a red-headed sophisticate. Hayworth altered her hairline and eyebrows with electrolysis and changed her name to Rita Hayworth (This was a variation on her mother's maiden name, with the 'y' added to help pronunciation). Her new look brought her speedily into the public eye and garnered her a seven-year contract with Columbia Pictures. After a string of small parts in low-budget movies, Hayworth was finally given a leading role, portraying an unfaithful wife in Only Angels Have Wings, 1939, alongside Cary Grant. After that she was seen in movies such as Strawberry Blonde, 1941, with James Cagney, and Blood and Sand, 1941, with Tyrone Power.
It was, however, in 1941's You'll Never Get Rich in which Hayworth starred with Fred Astaire, that Hay-worth began her ascent into the heights of stardom. It has even been said that Fred Astaire called Rita Hay-worth his favorite dancing partner, not his more popularly known partner Ginger Rogers. For this part she appeared on the cover of Time magazine and was labeled "The Great American Love Goddess" by Life. The next year she made three hit movies, My Gal Sal, 1942, Tales of Manhattan, 1942, and You Were Never Lovelier, 1942, her only other movie with Fred Astaire. Although her career was becoming more and more successful, her marriage was not—she divorced Edward Judson in 1942.
Also in 1942 Hayworth married Orson Welles, the famous actor, director, and screenwriter. With him she had a daughter, Rebecca, and life was looking up for the new mother and increasingly popular lead actress. In 1944 she starred alongside Gene Kelly in Cover Girl. As a promotion Life had an article about the actress along with a seductive picture of her wearing black lace and satin which was infamous in World War II as an American servicemen's pinup picture. American Decades quoted Times magazine as having noted that "intended … as the ultimate compliment, the picture was even pasted to a test atomic bomb that was dropped on Bikini atoll in 1946." As her celebrity rose, she started acting in better films. In 1945 she was seen in Tonight and Every Night, and in 1946 she took the leading role in the movie Gilda, the part that scandalized more conservative viewers because of a seductive strip scene, and the part which eventually became Hayworth's best known. According to The Daily Mail, it was Hayworth's part in Gilda that sealed her "screen goddess reputation." Another movie of hers done around this time, Down to Earth, was even included in a 20th century time capsule even though it received mixed reviews.
In 1948 Hayworth starred in The Lady From Shanghai alongside her husband Orson Welles who was also the director of the film. Although that seems rather nice, this was actually the end of Hayworth's relationship with Welles, she was in the process of divorcing him as they made the film. After making The Loves of Carmen, 1948, Hayworth married her third husband, Prince Aly Kahn in 1949. This marriage shocked the nation and brought Hayworth a little ways out of her popularity. Hayworth and Prince Aly Kahn had been having an affair even though they were both married, and she was already pregnant with their daughter Princess Yasmin Aga Kahn when they were married. Unfortunately this marriage ended, and the two were divorced in 1953.
At this point her career was beginning to fade. She never quite recovered from the scandal of her affair and marriage. She made the movies Affair in Trinidad, 1952, Salome, 1953, and Miss Sadie Thompson, 1953 and then was married again in 1953 to the singer Dick Haymes. The marriage was doomed to failure as Haymes beat Hayworth and was said to have tried capitalizing on her fame to bring back his failing career. The marriage ended in 1955. After her divorce she made the film Fire Down Below, 1957 and had a supporting role in 1957's Pal Joey, with Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak playing the leads. In 1958 Hayworth, although acclaimed for her part in Separate Tables, 1958, faced a career that was definitely on a downward spiral. It was at this time that she married for the fifth time, marrying producer James Hill. This marriage too ended in divorce, with Hayworth leaving him in 1961. She was quoted in People as having said, "Most men fell in love with Gilda but they woke up with me." Hayworth began to doubt that she would ever have a happy and successful relationship and she thought that one of the biggest problems was the fact that men went to bed with the image of glamour and sophistication shown in parts like Gilda and then woke in the morning with the real her. According to Barbara Learning, Hayworth's biographer, however, Hayworth's troubles with men were caused by her abusive relationship with her father. Although unknown prior to his, it seems that her father "raped [Hayworth] in the afternoons and danced with her at night." Whatever the problem really was, Hayworth never married again.
Hayworth's last string of films included such films as They Came to Cordura, 1959, The Story on Page One, 1960, The Poppy Is Also a Flower, 1967, I Bastardi, 1968, The Naked Zoo, 1971, and The Wrath of God, 1972. She attempted, in 1971, to perform on stage but couldn't do so because she could not remember her lines. It was about this time that people started realizing that there was something seriously wrong with Hayworth. Alzheimer's disease wasn't well known at the time, and there were a myriad of different diagnoses for what was wrong with the once famous actress. In 1981 she was declared unable to take care of herself, and for the next 6 years, until her death on May 14, 1987, her daughter Princess Yasmin Aga Kahn took care of her. Although she had been missing from the public eye for almost two decades, the public felt Hayworth's death, and the once called "American Goddess" will not be forgotten anytime soon. In 2000, according to PR Newswire, Sony Pictures Consumer Products and Hayworth's daughter Princess Yasmin unveiled the first Rita Hay-worth as Gilda Collector Doll. As Interview magazine said about why modern movie stars don't reach the heights of actresses like Rita Hayworth, "Hayworth's skin glows, her eyes beam with pleasure, her hair spills around her face like a river of luxury—it is impossible not to look at her, or long to know her, or want to be like her."
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Catherine Victoria Donaldson
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