Legendary beauty of the silver screen, Rita Hayworth is one of Hollywood's most well-remembered and beloved beauties. An actress, a dancer, and a pop culture icon even to this day, Rita's climb from nobody to the biggest name in the world didn't happen right away and not without sacrifice on her part. She would nonetheless become the biggest sex symbol in the world with little more than a flip of the hair and a spring in her step. As far as the world was concerned, Rita was the beautiful "bombshell" they all knew and loved. Off screen, her life was one of constant change and crushing disappointment from the various men who found their way into her life. The shy girl, loved more for the women she portrayed than the woman she was, it was genuine love for the real Rita that ultimately ended up eluding her for much of her life.
Rita's start in this world could not have been more dissimilar to the icon she would eventually become. Born Margarita Carmen Cansino in New York City in 1918, she was the daughter of Spanish dancer Edwardo Cansino and mother Volga Hayworth, an American actress. With deep black hair and olive skin, she bore little resemblance to the redheaded vixen she would embody later in her life. Margarita started her career as a dancer at a young age. Pressured by her father to achieve success where he had not, Margarita was subjected to a harsh dancing class regimen from the age of 3 on. Though she disliked it, she was unwilling to stand her ground and obeyed her father, eventually becoming a skilled performer. The family later moved to California, where Edwardo started a dance school, offering dance lessons to some of the biggest names in the business. However, when the Great Depression hit, he lost everything and was forced to partner with his young daughter in a dance show in Tijuana, Mexico, where the young Margarita could legally perform in bars and nightclubs.
As a consequence of this early dance hall career, Margarita was unable to complete much of her education beyond the 9th grade. She never graduated from high school. Despite this incursion into her life, she and her father's Tijuana dance performances were successful enough to make her a name in the entertainment community south of the border. Some even postulate that the famous Margarita drink was named after her. Whatever her influences, young Margarita's fame was sufficient to get her noticed by Mexican filmmakers, who gave her bit parts in a few Mexican films. Tijuana being a popular tourist spot for many 1930s clubbers from LA looking for something a bit more risque, it was no surprise that her next big break would come from one of those clubbers, who turned out to be Winfield Sheehan, the head of Fox Film Corporation, who arranged a screen test for young Margarita. Impressed by her test, Sheehan gave her a short-term contract at Fox, changing her name to Rita Cansino. This would not be the last time she sacrificed her identity for her career.
Rita struggled at Fox, appearing in only 5 films of little note. When Fox became 20th Century Fox, new studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck was unimpressed with Rita and did not renew her contract. It was at this time that salesman and promoter Edward Judson found his way into her life. Feeling that Rita had potential, Judson essentially took over her career for her, getting her parts in independent movies and arranging for a screen test at Columbia Pictures. He also married young Rita, despite the fact that he was the same age as her father. This relationship enraged her family and caused a rift between them until after the marriage ended. However inappropriate their relationship, Judson was influential in landing Rita a contract with Columbia Pictures, under studio head Harry Cohn.
Though more widely featured in Columbia films than at Fox, Rita's Spanish features often earned her roles as the exotic foreigner. She did have noteworthy successes as a supporting player, but found few lead roles. Cohn's estimation was that Rita's ethnic name and dark Mediterranean features were hurting her potential. It was decided by Cohn and Judson that Rita should transform herself. Undergoing several, painful electrolysis treatments to push back her hairline, dyeing her hair red, and taking on her mother's maiden name, Rita was reborn an Americanized, redhead beauty. Though once again forced to concede to the wishes of the man in her life, this radical and difficult change opened all the right doors to Rita's sparkling future in the limelight.
The new Rita immediately began turning heads, thanks in part to the efforts of Cohn, who began marketing his transformed stunner in a much more aggressive fashion. She appeared in several high profile Columbia productions in 1940. She also had her first appearance in Life magazine that year. Now big enough to be lent out to other studios, MGM featured her along side Joan Crawford and Cary Grant in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS. Her star was definitely on the rise by this point, with letters pouring in from adoring fans wanting to know more about this ravishing redhead. Warner Brothers teamed her up with James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland in 1941's THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE. A huge success, this film increased her public notoriety and helped make her one of the hottest tickets in town - so much so that Warner Bros. offered to buy her contract. Cohn refused their offer. 1941 also saw her loaned out to star along side Tyrone Power in BLOOD AND SAND, produced by the studio who had dropped her six years before, 20th Century Fox. She had truly come full circle.
One of Rita's biggest draws during this rise to fame were her dancing skills, which earned her roles along side some of the most beloved dancers of the time, among them Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Films like YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH and YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER broke records at the box office and made her an ever bigger star. Rita's 1944 film COVER GIRL became one of her most beloved films and started a 3-year trend for Rita whereby she was named the biggest box office attraction in the world. This remarkable streak peaked in 1946 with what is probably her best remembered film, the noir classic GILDA, in which Rita starred along side Glenn Ford as a sensual femme fatale. You might remember Rita and her sexy hair twirl in that film as the objects of Red and Andy's desires in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. It was also her visage from GILDA on that "big goddamn poster" that helped keep Andy's secret in that movie. Her role GILDA actually raised some eyebrows, thanks to Rita's one-glove striptease, which was something of a scandal for the puritanical mindset of the time.
Rita's star power continued throughout the 1940s, although not without controversy. In 1946, she became the subject of a well known incident outside of Hollywood. WWII now but a memory and with America embroiled in a love affair with atomic bombs, it was said that her legendary face was placed on the side of an A-bomb dropped over the Bikini Atoll. This coined the phrase "bombshell" and it's association with beautiful, sexy women. Though a popular story among the public, Rita herself resented the use of her likeness in this fashion. Though it was later determined that only her name was placed on the bomb, the association with such an infamous event disturbed and angered Rita for a long time afterward.
That year also saw her team up with new husband Orson Welles in his film, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI. Though her performance was praised, the film was a flop. Some suggested this was due to Welles insistence on cutting Rita's now famous red hair shorter and dyeing it blonde for the film. This also created a issue with Columbia studio head Harry Cohn, who was uninformed about the change to his biggest star's appearance. Her marriage to Welles ended almost before it began. Despite having a child with her, Welles was unwilling to commit to her or her plans for their life together. Orson eventually became estranged from her and the two soon split. Though this was not the end of her attempts at finding love. At the top of her game and the pinnacle of her success, Rita's desire to settle down overruled all other considerations, taking her to some unlikely places and setting into motion the beginning of the end for her career.
In 1948, Rita made the rather unexpected decision to start a relationship with Prince Aly Khan, the son of a Pakistani sultan known for his playboy status and many connections with Hollywood. Though Rita was eager to settle down, her relationship with Khan was practically doomed from the start. Early controversies swirled about the relationship, much of it resulting from the fact that Rita was still legally married to Orson Welles at the time of her courting by Khan. Despite all that, the two married in 1949 and had a daughter, Yasmin. Things quickly turned sour, thanks to Khan's wandering eye and penchant for romancing many a young actress in Hollywood, even after his marriage to Rita. Learning of his adultery, Rita threatened to divorce Khan and even moved to Nevada with their daughter, where divorces were much easier to obtain at this time. Khan offered Rita $1,000,000 to raise their daughter as a Muslim. A staunch Catholic, Rita rejected this offer. The two would divorce soon after.
Almost immediately after her debacle with Prince Khan, Rita fell into another relationship, this time to washed up singer and club owner Rick Haymes. Heavily indebted and owing back alimony and child support payments to multiple wives, Haymes saw in Rita an opportunity to increase his fortunes. He somehow convinced her to pay off most of his debts, though that was not the end of his troubles. Having been born in Argentina, Haymes was technically an illegal immigrant and subject to deportation. Taking up the cause of Haymes residency, the two would marry. Her appearances at his clubs increased his profits markedly and for awhile things were good - until the IRS came calling. With a huge tax bill on the line and Rita's money squandered, the two lived virtually on the lam, holding up in hotel rooms as Haymes attempted to keep his faltering business afloat. Circumstances reached their breaking point one night at the Coconut Grove nightclub when Haymes publicly hit Rita in the face. She immediately left him and never returned.
Now virtually broke and unable to secure child support from either of the two fathers of her children, Rita's life had become a tangled mess of disappointment and pain. Sadly, more pain was yet to come for her.
As turmoil raged in her personal life, Rita also faced faced difficulties in her career. Constantly at odds with the Columbia studio heads, Rita was repeatedly censured and fined for her refusal to appear in certain movies or failures to show up to films she agreed to do. Still locked into the old studio contract system that essentially gave movie studios control over the careers of their actors, Rita was forced to work with Columbia's lack of faith in her talents. Throughout most of her career, her singing roles were dubbed by other singers. Rarely was Rita's true singing voice ever heard in her films. This was a long standing issue between her and Columbia, which refused to pay for the singing lessons that might have allowed her rectify this issue. Studio head Cohn also resented her marriage to Khan, lamenting the fact that she roused so much anger from the press and public by her affair with the prince. As the contract system in Hollywood came to an end, so did her obligations to Columbia. However, by that point new, younger beauties were being groomed for stardom and Rita was seen as old news. Movie roles began to dry up in the 1950s and by the 1960s, she was virtually gone from cinema screens. One last marriage to film producer James Hill promised some restoration of past acclaim, but the cruelty and mental abuse she suffered from Hill ended both the marriage and much of Rita's hopes for a comeback.
By the 1970s, Rita was broke and in need of money. Despite wanting to retire, her financial issues compelled her to take a role in 1972's THE WRATH OF GOD. It was this experience that revealed a worsening health issue Rita had begun to face at this time. Unable to remember her lines and forced to film her scenes one line at a time, it was thought her troubles resulted from alcoholism, which had become a problem for Rita years before during her disastrous marriages. In fact, the issue was much more serious. Suffering from undiagnosed Alzheimer's disease, Rita was quickly fading. Dropping out of 1973's TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS, Rita was forced to retire completely from acting due to her worsening mental state. By the 1980s, she had deteriorated to the point where she could no longer care for herself. She spent the next 7 years under the care of her daughter, Yasmin. Rita fell into a coma in February of 1987, succumbing to her illness just a few months later. She was 68.
Rita Hayworth's life is a story of epic climbs and crushing defeats. As a performer, there was no one more beloved by so many. As a person, she struggled to find true love and genuine acceptance, ultimately failing to find either from the men she married. She was once quoted as saying "men fell in love with Gilda, but they wake up with me." This was the sad truth of Rita's life. Glamorous and radiant on screen, she was plagued by lifelong issues of inferiority she simply could not resolve. Though she ended tragically, her time as the world's most beautiful siren of the screen will be her greatest legacy for many years to come.