A glamorous leading lady of the 1940’s, Rita Hayworth represents a style Hollywood has long forgotten. Throughout much of that decade, she was the undisputed queen of erotic filmdom, property of Columbia Pictures. Strikingly beautiful and as famous for her many affairs as for her roles, Hayworth will be remembered forever by a loyal legion of fans.
Born Margarita Carmen Cansino on October 17, 1918, Rita Hayworth was the daughter of Spanish born dancer Eduardo Cansino and his Ziegfeld Follies partner Volga Hayworth. Hayworth began dancing professionally at age twelve. At only thirteen, she was dancing at Mexican night spots where she was eventually noticed by Fox production boss Winfield Sheehan. She made her screen debut in 1935, playing bit parts in a number of films under her real name, usually a dancer. She was beginning to get leads in minor pictures when the merger of Fox with 20th Century resulted in Sheehan’s removal from power and her dismissal from the studio.
She was drifting into obscurity in the films of minor companies when, in 1937, she married Edward Judson, a shrewd businessman twenty-two years her senior who dropped his regular line of car sales to concentrate on his wife’s talent. He won her a seven-year contract with Columbia. Under his guidance, she changed her name to its now famous moniker and was transformed from a raven-haired exotic into an auburn-haired sophisticate. But, for the remainder of the 1930s, she was confined to leads in B pictures, typically on the action side.
Her first promising role was the second female lead in Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings (1939), in which she played a philandering wife. She briefly returned to B-movies, but by the early 1940’s she developed rapidly into a glamorous star through such career landmarks as Blood and Sand (1941), You’ll Never Get Rich (1941), in which she sparkled as Fred Astaire’s dancing partner, and Cover Girl (1944), in which she was teamed with Gene Kelly. Her picture in “Life” magazine was so much in demand as a pinup by American servicemen overseas that it was reproduced in millions of copies and even adorned the atomic bomb that was dropped on Bikini Atoll.
The film that more than any other defined Rita’s position as Hollywood’s Love Goddess was Gilda (1946) in which she oozed sexuality. Throughout much of the 1940’s, Columbia Pictures studio boss Harry Cohn took personal charge of her career and tried, not too successfully, to direct her personal life as well. Her many – and very public – affairs with men exasperated Cohn. In 1942, she fell in love with Victor Mature, her co-star in My Gal Sal (1942), and separated from her husband. The following year, when she obtained a divorce, she announced her engagement to Mature, but instead married director-actor Orson Welles. The marriage did not last.
In May of 1948, on her first visit to Europe, Rita met and fell in love with Aly Kahn, the playboy son of the spiritual leader of millions of Moslems. Their romantic escapade took them all over Europe to the accompaniment of loud and prying press coverage and indignant criticism, since the Prince was not legally divorced. In May of 1949, Aly and Rita were married in France. Two years later they were divorced.
Rita returned to Hollywood broke and asked Columbia to restore her contract. Harry Cohn obliged. She was back in films, but somehow the magic was gone. A bitter rift developed between Rita and Cohn. Her planned fourth marriage, to singer Dick Hyames, took place in 1953 and was dissolved in 1955, beset by Dick’s immigration and financial problems. Rita was absent from the screen for three years, but returned in 1957, now playing aging beauties. She gave a credible performance in Separate Tables (1958) and in the same year married the film’s co-producer, James Hill. They divorced in 1961. She later appeared in mostly routine films, some in Europe.
Hayworth attempted a stage career in 1971, but it was abruptly ended because she couldn’t remember her lines. In 1977, a court-appointed administrator took charge of her affairs. In 1981 she was declared legally unable to care for herself and was in the care of her second daughter, Yasmin Aga Khan. It was then revealed that the star was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. She died at sixty-eight, a tragic remnant of the world’s memory of her as Hollywoods epitome of glamour.