You’d be hard-pressed to find World War II barracks without pin-up photos of actress Rita Hayworth tacked to the walls. Her stunning good looks made her a fan favorite, but she had the talent to make it in Hollywood, too. And yet her career crumbled under her turbulent personal life, creating a scandal so huge that it eclipsed her star-making qualities.
People didn’t nickname Hayworth the “Love Goddess” for nothing. Indeed, the stunning actress had red hair, a shapely figure and sensuality both in life and on-screen that captivated those around her. And her hit movies included You Were Never Lovelier, Cover Girl and most of all her career-defining role, Gilda. In fact, it’s important to note that she played the femme fatale in the latter film.
With such natural beauty and allure, Hayworth had many off-screen lovers. Yes, her personal life drew plenty of attention – and that was before her off-screen decisions created a public uproar. One choice in particular precipitated the actress’s fall from grace, pushing her out of the spotlight and toward her tragic end.
Rita Hayworth – born Margarita Carmen Cansino – was perhaps born to be a performer. You see, her father, Eduardo Cansino, danced professionally, while her mother, Volga Hayworth, had previously been a showgirl with the Ziegfeld Follies. However, all was not well in the household as Hayworth’s father abused and pushed her into the spotlight at an early age.
Warner Brothers, for one, saw Hayworth’s talent early on – at least, as a dancer. And they cast the then-eight-year-old in a short film called La Fiesta. With that, her family decided to relocate from New York to California, where her father opened a dance studio where he taught celebrities, including James Cagney, how to flamenco.
Four years later, Hayworth’s father decided to pull his then-12-year-old out of school so that they could pursue dance full-time. The duo toured nightclubs in Tijuana, Mexico, and performed as partners. Still, the future Hollywood star proved a nervous performer – a feeling that made sense considering her father’s non-stop pursuit of perfection.
Eventually, Hayworth’s father got her a screen test, which led to some work as an extra on movies made in Mexico. Then came the 1935 film, Dante’s Inferno, in which the notoriously shy then-16-year-old performed an alluring dance number. Two years later, her father hired a 41-year-old car salesman named Eddie Judson to manage the budding starlet’s career.
Now, Judson’s methods for making a star out of Hayworth were cruel to say the least. You see, he got her a seven-year contract with Columbia Pictures, but at her own expense. Namely, Judson promised studio head Harry Cohn that the aspiring actress would provide him with sexual favors. And Judson perhaps felt he had the leverage to make such promises because he had married his teenage client in 1937.
Furthermore, Judson wasn’t the only one to take a vested interest in Hayworth’s career. In Barbara Leaming’s biography about the actress, If This Was Happiness, she wrote that Cohn “developed an obsession” with the one-time dancer. As such, he cast her in the 1939 movie,Only Angels Have Wings, acting alongside Cary Grant.
Then came 1941 and the chance to star in Blood and Sand. Another actress, Carole Landis, had already turned down the role that would eventually become Hayworth’s, Dona Sol des Muire. You see, the former had refused to dye her hair a fiery red, but the Columbia starlet had no qualms about it.
And director Rouben Mamoulian had wanted a red-haired actress to make the most of the new Technicolor film technology, so Hayworth fit the bill. Plus, she could easily dance the tango, as written in the script. And it all came together perfectly, according to choreographer Hermes Pan. According to the Independent, he said, “When Rita came on she was just dynamite.”
After that, Hayworth captivated audiences – and her dance partner, Fred Astaire – in a string of movie-musicals. The duo danced and sang through 1941’s You’ll Never Get Rich and the next year’s You Were Never Lovelier. Both flicks gave the budding starlet the chance to show off her true talents – she was more than just a pretty face, after all.
What’s more, Astaire – most famous for collaborating with actress Ginger Rogers – loved his work with Hayworth, too. In fact, he even said she was his favorite partner, high praise considering his long history of working with Rogers. These successful flicks gave way to another movie-musical opportunity called Cover Girl in 1944.
Here, Hayworth starred opposite Gene Kelly, and the pair danced and sang their way through music by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin. The movie was a huge success, and the actress considered it to be one of her career highlights. Meanwhile, her director, Charles Vidor, had taken note of her subtle talents – seeing her potential to helm darker roles, too.
That’s right, because Vidor later brought Hayworth on board as the titular character in his 1946 film, Gilda. The seductive character first appears in the flick as she sings her siren song, “Put the Blame on Mame.” From there, she finds herself in a love triangle with her husband, a Buenos Aires gambling hall owner, and an American who wanders into town.
Of course, Hayworth sizzled on screen, and the world didn’t forget it. For one thing, her sultry, singing entrance in Gilda inspired an equally as alluring debut for Jessica Rabbit in the 1988 movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And in Hayworth’s day, the public saw her as her on-screen character from then on.
Indeed, Hayworth was proud of the work she did in Gilda. But she also grew tired of being so closely associated with the sexy part. You see, the actress felt as though the rest of her work – and personality, too – got overlooked because of the unforgettably sensual part she played in the 1946 movie.
On that note, Hayworth’s personal relationships came to be defined by this reputation, too. For five years before she played Gilda, she’d worked up the courage to leave her first husband, Judson. Unbelievably, the car salesman threatened to maim Hayworth, but she walked away anyway – with the help of her then-boyfriend, a strongman named Victor Mature.
After a few months, though, Hayworth had moved on from Mature, too. And her next choice for a beau surprised the world. Indeed, she linked up with brainiac Orson Welles, whose illustrious Hollywood career included writing, producing, directing and starring in one of history’s most influential films, Citizen Kane.
And furthermore, Welles hadn’t been drawn to Hayworth because of her performance in Gilda. No, their connection came slightly before her career-defining flick. You see, he – like many other men across America – fell for the actress when he saw a 1943 pinup of her in Life magazine.
So Welles and Hayworth exchanged wedding vows a few months after her split from Judson. And at least at first, the Citizen Kane mastermind made the perfect partner for the on-screen siren. For one thing, he took a first-hand role in cultivating his wife’s career, molding her into a woman with the brains and beauty to take Hollywood by storm.
During their marriage, Hayworth and Welles worked together on his flick, The Lady From Shanghai. And Columbia had hoped that the on-and-off-screen pair would smoulder with chemistry, like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall had in the past. But the “Beauty and the Brain,” as they were called in the papers, had begun to fall apart behind the scenes.
From the start of their relationship, the two A-listers had trouble brewing. You see, Cohn, the head at Columbia, had yet to overcome his obsession with the actress. In fact, he felt territorial over his starlet, which put a strain on her marriage to Welles. The Citizen Kane star considered his wife’s boss to be a monster.
There was also Hayworth’s emotional side – Welles came to find that she was quite needy, which made him uncomfortable. And it couldn’t have helped that the famed actor stepped out on his wife regularly. Not only did he sleep with prostitutes, but he also cheated with fellow famous faces, such as actress Judy Garland.
Even so, the pair didn’t legally split right away, but they did begin to lead separate lives. For his part, Welles moved in with an Italian woman, while the actress fielded flirtations from powerful men. Indeed, these included the Shah of Iran and Aristotle Onassis, a shipping magnate who went on to marry former First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy.
But Hayworth rebuffed both men and their gifts, phone calls and flower deliveries. In reality, she was depressed about the end of her marriage to Welles, with whom she shared a daughter named Rebecca. Indeed, she had traveled to Europe in the summer of 1948, but considered returning to the United States because of her dark state of mind.
Little did Hayworth know that someone wanted her to stay right where she was. Yes, Prince Aly Khan – the playboy son of Muslim religious leader, the Aga Khan – had seen the actress’s star-making turn in Gilda. In fact, he had watched and re-watched the flick, captivated by the titular character’s sultry performance.
And luck was on Khan’s side that summer, as Hayworth had made her way to his side of the globe. The prince expressed to gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell his desire to meet the actress, and the writer made him a promise. She’d get the Gilda star to attend a party at the Palm Beach Casino – and then have them seated next to one another.
To Maxwell’s credit, the plan fell in place perfectly. When Hayworth arrived at the party, Khan met her at the bottom of the stairs and didn’t stray far all night. According to a 1993 piece in Vanity Fair, her secretary, Shifra Haran, was quoted as saying, “The prince was immediately smitten, but Miss Hayworth definitely was not.”
Some of that hesitation may have come from Hayworth’s relationship with Khan beginning before she finalized her divorce from Welles. Indeed, and the prince wasn’t perfect, either – he had a wife and two sons when he started to pursue Hayworth. But as their courtship began, a gypsy told the actress that she was about to begin her life’s big romance. So she felt convinced that she should pursue Khan regardless of the fallout.
Now, that fallout was swift for Hayworth. Still a Hollywood star at the time, she took off and traveled the world with Khan. And in the London publication, The People, a writer opined, “The extravagant expeditions of this colored prince and his ‘friend’ have become an insult to decent-minded women the world over.” Meanwhile, the actress’s boss, Cohn, seethed half a world away.
Eventually, Cohn cited Hayworth in a $1.2 million lawsuit when she quit a film in order to stay with her beau. But she had decided to leave Hollywood in favor of pursuing a relationship with Khan, after all. So they made it official on May 27, 1949, when they exchanged wedding vows in a small French Riviera ceremony. Seven months later, they welcomed their only child, a daughter named Yasmin.
Onlookers – including Hayworth’s ex-husband, Welles – predicted doom for the new couple. According to the Independent, he described their union as “a fatal marriage, the worst thing that could have happened to her.” And he continued, “He [Khan] was charming, attractive, a nice man… but the wrong husband for her.”
Sadly, Welles and the rest of the naysayers were proven right in 1951, when Hayworth filed for divorce from Khan. The actress had grown sick of her husband’s philandering ways, so she left – and attempted to return to the job she had left behind. Unfortunately, though, Hollywood wouldn’t be as kind to the one-time siren on her second go-round.
Instead, Hayworth returned to California to star in flicks such as 1952’s Affair in Trinidad, Pal Joey in 1957 and Separate Tables the next year. But her star had faded, and her personal life began to deteriorate with her career. You see, she married two more times – and both unions ended in abuse and divorce.
Not only that, but Hayworth battled both Khan and Welles for custody of the children they shared together. And each legal struggle played out in the public eye. On top of that, the Gilda star’s fourth husband, Dick Haymes, took advantage of her financially, too.
Unfortunately, Hayworth became known for her angry outbursts, as well as her penchant for drinking alcohol. By the early 1960s, she could no longer remember dialogue that well and started to forget things more frequently. At one point, she even failed to realize that a stranger who hugged her was actually her ex-husband, Welles.
In fact, it took until 1980 for doctors to realize what was going on with Hayworth. They discovered that the screen siren had Alzheimer’s disease and, by that time, it had reached an advanced stage. Medical professionals knew little about the condition back then, but the actress was lucky – she had her beloved daughter, Yasmin, to take care of her until the end.
So Hayworth passed away on May 14, 1987, and her struggle with the then-misunderstood Alzheimer’s disease brought her new fans. Plus, it put a spotlight on a condition that needed research, time and funds. Then-President Ronald Regan said after her death, “Her courage and candour, and that of her family, were a great public service in bringing worldwide attention to a disease which we all hope will soon be cured.”
Indeed, the spotlight shone on Hayworth during this time of her life and showed her as a hero. But the same focus had highlighted her flaws in marrying Khan. Ultimately, the actress knew that people saw her as her on-screen persona, as opposed to the person who she really was. She put it best when she poignantly said, “They fall in love with Gilda, and they wake up with me.”