In the 1940s and 1950s, there was no one “hotter” that Rita Hayworth. With a reserved striptease in the film Gilda, Hayworth became every man’s fantasy. Who could believe in today’s age of near nudity upon every screen that a simple slow peel of arm-length black gloves could be so enticing? Later, Hayworth was reported as saying, “Every man I’ve ever known has fallen in love with Gilda and awakened with me.” (Do you recall Julia Roberts paraphrasing the quote when she is in bed with Hugh Grant in Notting Hill?)
Hayworth’s pin up poster – the one of her kneeling on a bed in a black lace negligee – became the mainstay of American servicemen during World War II.
Born Margarita Carmen Cansino (the daughter of flamenco dancers) in Brooklyn, NY, Hayworth joined her father as his dancing partner at age 13. With her hair dyed black to emphasize her Latino roots, Rita and her father in performances in Mexican nightclubs in the Los Angeles area. Her parents neglected Rita’s education, and this lack of knowledge increased her insecurities as she matured.
At age 18, she married for the first time to a man named Edward Judson, a man some 20 years her senior. He was a small time wheeler-dealer and used car salesman. Judson was the one, however, to assist Hayworth with an introduction to Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures. Cohn signed Hayworth to a 7-year movie contract – a contract which required her to slim down her figure, to lighten her hair, and to change her name from “Margarita” to “Rita,” as well as to take the name “Hayworth” from her Irish mother’s surname.
Her first role of any significance came in a supporting role with Cary Grant in 1939’s Only Angels Have Wings. That role was followed by those of an ingenue in Cover Girl, as a terpsichore in You Were Never Lovelier, and the role which became her film signature, the one of Gilda. Her sensuous “Put the Blame on Mame,” which was dubbed by Anita Ellis, was an instant hit upon the music charts.
Her marriage to Judson was dissolved in 1943. That relationship was followed by one with Orson Welles. They wed in the fall of 1943. Welles elevated Hayworth’s image from seductress to leading lady by directing her in Lady from Shanghai. Welles co-starred with his wife; they were dubbed as Beauty and the Brain. However, Hayworth was to discover Welles true love was his work. In 1947, she told the press. “I’m tired of being a 25% wife.” Shortly afterwards, she left for the French Riviera with her daughter Rebecca.
There, she was introduced to Prince Aly Khan, a man a bit obsessed with the “Gilda” image. They began an affair, which became the fodder of the tabloids. In May 1948 (after both Hayworth and Khan had divorced), they were to have been married at Chateau de L’Horizon, Khan’s seaside villa in the south of France. In reality, they were married at city hall in Vallauris because French law could not be bent even for a prince. Aly placed a 32-carat diamond upon Hayworth’s hand. L’Horizon hosted the reception.
Hayworth soon gave birth to Princess Yasmin, but in April 1951, the couple separated. As it had been with Welles, Aly’s business and social duties kept the “princess” from knowing happiness. Hayworth said after the separation became final, “I have concluded that a happy and contented home life, which I earnestly desire for my children and myself, is otherwise unattainable.” The couple fought openly for the custody of Yasmin, but in 1953, Aly agreed to a $1.5 million settlement in a default divorce. Seven years later, Aly died in a car accident when his Alfa Romeo piled into a tree. He was dead at age 49.
Two more marriages followed. The first to singer Dick Haymes and then to producer/writer James H. Hill Jr. Her last major role for Columbia Pictures was as a stripper-turned-socialite opposite Frank Sinatra in Pay Joey (1957). That role was followed by critic favorites, Separate Tables (1958) and They Came to Cordura (1959).
Second-rate films peppered her filmography during the 1960s and by the 1970s there were rumors of drunkenness. She was replaced as the lead in the Broadway production of Applause because she could not remember her lines. She walked off sets of movies. Her behavior became quite irrational. Finally, the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s proved the alcoholism a mistaken assumption. Rita Hayworth died at age 68 in May 1987.