Although Rita Hayworth’s successful film career was waning by the latter part of the 1950s, she will always be remembered as a sultry screen siren and pinup glamour girl who would later be named “The Love Goddess”. While most fifties men were besotted with the titian haired beauty, women from this era so admired her that countless baby boomer girls were named Rita.
Born in New York City on October 17, 1918 to showbiz parents, Margarita Carmen Cansino began her intense dancing career indoctrination at the age of three. Her name was shortened to Rita Cansino and by the age of twelve, she was dancing professionally.
In hopes of landing dancing parts in the motion picture industry, the Cansinos moved to Hollywood in 1927 where Rita and her father Eduardo began performing in nightclubs and bars as “The Dancing Cancinos”. In 1935 Rita Cansino was signed to a six-month contract with Fox Film Corporation after a studio executive was struck by her performance at the Caliente Club. Her contract was not renewed though when Fox merged with 20th Century Fox.
Cansino was only 18 when she married her first husband Edward Judson in 1937. A shrewd businessman and acting as her manager, Judson procured Rita a contract with Columbia Pictures. It was while there that studio head Harry Cohn and Judson persuaded her to not only change her name from Rita Cansino to Rita Hayworth but to totally remake herself into a more classic looking movie star.
She underwent extensive electrolysis to erase her Latino widow’s peak and her black hair was dyed a flaming red. These drastic changes transformed her into Columbia Pictures’ most popular 1940’s pin-up girls.
After making a dozen minor appearances in Columbia films, Hayworth was cast in the 1939 Howard Hawks production of “Only Angels Have Wings.” She became a box-office success and made nine films in 1940 and 1941.
Her dancing skills were put to the test in 1941 when she starred with Fred Astaire in the musical “You’ll Never Get Rich” and again the following year in the very popular “You Were Never Lovelier.” After Ginger Rogers passed away, Fred Astaire was quoted as saying Rita Hayworth was his favorite dancing partner.
Hayworth learned early that the press would control her destiny and took advantage of every photo opportunity to dress seductively and always flash them that dazzling smile. She was featured in a succession of magazine covers and would be dubbed “The Love Goddess” by Life Magazine writer Winthrop Sargeant.
A black and white photograph of her in a 1941 Life Magazine wearing a black lace trimmed negligee became the unofficial pin-up photo for many World War II servicemen. In 2002 the satin nightgown worn in the photo sold for $26,888.
Rita Hayworth divorced Judson in 1942 and continued her climb to stardom with the very profitable pictures “Tales of Manhattan” and “My Gal Sal.” Her performance as a steamy seductress opposite Glenn Ford in the 1946 movie “Gilda” propelled her into the leading role of old Hollywood glamour.
The Jean Louis designed black sheath dress worn for her iconic “Put the Blame on Mame” striptease scene would be recognized as one of The Ten Best Fashion Moments in Film by the Independent Newspaper.
Following a brief courtship, Rita wed Orson Welles in a civil ceremony on September 7, 1943. Their daughter, Rebecca was born December 17, 1944.
In a move that infuriated Columbia executive Harry Cohn, Rita allowed Welles to persuade her to cut and dye her famous locks for her starring role in “The Lady From Shanghai.” Their onscreen chemistry was obvious even though Hayworth and Welles were separated during the filming.
While Hayworth’s performance was critically acclaimed, many attributed the poor box-office showing to the drastic change in her appearance. Rita Hayworth divorced Orson Welles in 1948. They remained lifelong friends.
Hayworth met Prince Aly Khan in Cannes in 1948 and began a year-long affair with the still married Prince. Their May 28th, 1949 marriage was solemnized in Cannes, France and was attended by 500 guests. Their only child Princess Yasmin Aga Khan was born seven months later.
Rita’s life as a princess was short lived though as she and Khan separated in 1951, reconciled in 1952, and were divorced in April of 1953. It was rumored Khan had continued his playboy lifestyle and the divorce was due to his infidelities.
Upon her return to Hollywood, Hayworth starred in a string of successful films with her comeback picture “Affair in Trinidad” grossing more than the 1946 blockbuster, “Gilda”.
“Salome” and “Miss Sadie Thompson” were 1953 hits. She did not work for another four years during her tumultuous marriage to Dick Haymes. She returned in 1957 to good reviews for “Fire Down Below” and “Pal Joey”.
In February of 1958, she married film producer James Hill who produced her final film during the fifties, a starring role with Burt Lancaster and David Niven in “Separate Tables”. They divorced in 1961 with Hill asserting Hayworth wanted to retire while he wanted her to continue making pictures.
As Hayworth’s health began to decline, she made only a few pictures during the 1960’s and concluded her acting career in 1972 with the film “The Wrath of God”.
After years of increasingly bizarre behavior erroneously attributed to alcoholism, Hayworth was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 1980. Princess Yasmin arranged for her mother’s care until one of the most famous 1940s pin up girls passed away on May 14, 1987.
President Ronald Reagan gave the eulogy at her funeral. He mentioned her glamour and talent and spoke of her courage and struggles with Alzheimer’s Disease. Ironically Reagan would be diagnosed with the disease in 1994.
Princess Yasmin Aga Khan serves on the Board of Directors of the Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders Association and as President of Alzheimer Disease International. She is also a sponsor and active in the Alzheimer’s Association Rita Hayworth Galas.
A touching rendition of Rita Hayworth’s battle with Alzheimer’s and how she took up painting and produced some beautiful works of art is expressed by Princess Yasmin in the 2009 documentary narrated by Olivia de Havilland, “I Remember Better When I Paint.”