A legendary Hollywood actress whose beauty catapulted her to international stardom in the 40’s and 50’s, Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Cansino on October 17 1918, in New York City. She changed her last name to Hayworth early on in her acting career on the advice of her first husband and manager, Edward Judson.
Still a young girl, Rita moved with her family to Los Angeles and eventually joined her father on the stage in nightclubs both in the United States and in Mexico. It was on a stage in Agua Caliente, Mexico, that a Fox Film Company producer spotted the 16-year-old dancer and inked her to a contract.
Rita Cansino, as she was still known, made her film debut in 1935 with ‘Under the Pampas Moon’, which was followed by a string of other films including ‘Dante’s Inferno’ (1935) with Spencer Tracy, ‘Charlie Chan in Egypt’ (1935), ‘Meet Nero Wolfe’ (1936), and ‘Human Cargo’ (1936).
In 1937 she married Judson, a man 22 years older than her, who would set the stage for his young wife’s future stardom. On his advice, Rita not only changed her last name, but also dyed her hair auburn. Judson worked the phones and managed to get Hayworth plenty of press in newspapers and magazines, and eventually helped her get a seven-year contract with Columbia Pictures.
After a few disappointing roles in several mediocre films, Hayworth landed an important role as an unfaithful wife opposite Cary Grant in ‘Only Angels Have Wings’ (1939). Critical praise came Hayworth’s way. So did more movie offers.
Just two years after the relatively unknown actress shared the screen with Grant, Hayworth was a star herself. Her stunning, sensual looks greatly helped, and that year ‘Life’ magazine writer Winthrop Sargeant nicknamed Hayworth “The Great American Love Goddess.”
The moniker stuck, and only helped further her career and the fascination many male movie fans had with her. In 1941 Hayworth took the screen opposite James Cagney in ‘Strawberry Blonde’. That same year she shared the dance floor with Fred Astaire in ‘You’ll Never Get Rich’. Astaire later called Hayworth his favorite dance partner.
For her part, Hayworth didn’t shy away from the attention. “Why should I mind?” she said. “I like having my picture taken and being a glamorous person. Sometimes when I find myself getting impatient, I just remember the times I cried my eyes out because nobody wanted to take my picture at the Trocadero.”
Her stardom peaked in 1946 with the film ‘Gilda’, which cast her opposite Glenn Ford. A favorite of film noir fans, the film was chock-full of sexual innuendo, which included a controversial (tame by today’s standards) striptease by Hayworth.
The following year she starred in another film noir favorite, ‘The Lady From Shanghai’, which was directed by her then-husband, Orson Welles.
Hayworth starred in more than fifteen films in the two decades following ‘The Lady From Shanghai’, including ‘Miss Sadie Thompson’ (1953), ‘Pal Joey’ (1957), ‘Separate Tables’ (1958), and ‘Circus World’ (1964) for which she earned a Golden Globe nomination.
But Hayworth had also met and fallen in love with Prince Aly Khan, whose father was the head of the Ismaili Muslims. A statesman and a bit of a playboy, Khan eventually served as Pakistan’s representative to the United Nations.
Hayworth and Khan married in 1949 and had a daughter together, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan. After divorcing Khan after just two years of marriage, Hayworth later married and divorced the singer Dick Haymes. Her fifth and final marriage was to movie producer James Hill.
As her personal life was dogged by turmoil, her acting career sputtered. Periodic film roles did come her way, but they failed to capture magic and project the kind of star power her earlier work once had. In all, Hayworth appeared in more than 40 films, the last of which was the 1972 release ‘The Wrath of God’.
In 1971 she briefly attempted a stage career, but it was quickly halted when it was apparent that Hayworth was unable to memorize her lines.
Hayworth’s diminished skills as an actress were largely chalked up to what many believed was a severe alcohol problem. Her deteriorating state made headlines in January 1976 when the actress, appearing disheveled and out of sorts, was escorted off a plane.
That same year a California court, citing Hayworth’s alcohol issues, named an administrator for her affairs.
But alcohol was only one of the factors ruining her life. Hayworth was also suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, which doctors diagnosed her as having in 1980. A year later she was placed under the care of her daughter, Princess Yasmin, who used her mother’s condition as a catalyst for increasing awareness of Alzheimer’s disease. In 1985, Yasmin helped organize Alzheimer’s Disease International, and eventually helmed the group as its president.
After years of struggle Hayworth died on May 14 1987, in the apartment she shared with her daughter in New York City. Her passing elicited an outpouring of appreciation from fans and fellow actors.
“Rita Hayworth was one of our country’s most beloved stars,” President Ronald Reagan said upon hearing of Hayworth’s death. “Glamorous and talented, she gave us many wonderful moments on the stage and screen and delighted audiences from the time she was a young girl. Nancy and I are saddened by Rita’s death. She was a friend whom we will miss.”