HAYWORTH, RITA (Margarita Carmen Cansino, Rita Cansino) (1918–1987) Actress, Dancer
Dubbed the “American Sex Goddess” by Time magazine, Rita Hayworth was one of the 1940s’ most popular film stars. Born Margarita Carmen Cansino on October 17, 1918, she was the daughter of a Spanish dancer in vaudeville and a Ziegfeld chorus girl. Hoping to break into movies, her father, Eduardo, moved the family from Brooklyn to Los Angeles when Margarita was nine. He found work teaching dance and staging film dance sequences until his adolescent daughter emerged as a great beauty. At 12, she left school to become Eduardo’s professional dance partner. Billed as the “Dancing Cansinos,” they performed as many as 20 shows a week.
Margarita soon drew the attention of Hollywood talent scouts. In 1934, a screen test won her a sixmonth contract with the Fox studio, which shortened her first name to Rita. She appeared as a dancer in one scene in Dante ’s Inferno (1935). Her other work for Fox was left on the cutting room fioor. Released from her contract, Rita Cansino put her career in the hands of Edward Judson, a shady businessman to whom she was married from 1937 to 1942. Judson found her freelance acting jobs in B movies until Columbia signed the starlet to a sevenyear contract. The studio re-created Cansino, positioning her as a glamour girl instead of as an “ethnic” actress as Fox had. To complete this transformation, they raised her hairline through electrolysis and christened her Rita Hayworth. (Her new surname was a variant spelling of her mother’s maiden name.) Hayworth, a shy woman whoconsidered herself a dancer with a fiair for comedy, was not wholly at ease with her new, sexier image.
At Columbia, Hayworth continued to be cast in forgettable low-budget films before appearing as the second female lead in Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings (1939). The role led to substantial parts in Blood and Sand and The Strawberry Blonde (both 1941). But she finally achieved stardom when cast as Fred Astaire’s dance partner in the musical You’ll Never Get Rich (1941). With its success, Hayworth performed in series of wartime musicals, playing a young, all-American beauty. The most notable included You Were Never Lovelier (1942), again costarring Fred Astaire, and Cover Girl (1944) with Gene Kelly. During World War II, Hayworth was also famous for a photograph that appeared in the August 11, 1941, issue of Life magazine. Showing her facing the camera while kneeling in lingerie, the image became one of the most popular pin-ups of soldiers overseas. In a dubious tribute to Hayworth, the photograph was taped to a test atomic bomb dropped on the Bikini Atoll in 1946.
After the war, Hayworth found several of her best roles in films noir. In Gilda (1946), she was both smoldering and vulnerable in the title role. In perhaps her most indelible screen moment, she performed in the film a memorable striptease, pulling off long black gloves while singing “Put the Blame on Mame.” (As in most of her films, her singing voice was dubbed.) The sexy image of Gilda haunted Hayworth’s personal life. She was famously quoted as saying, “Every man I’ve known has fallen in love with Gilda and wakened with me.”Hayworth cut her trademark red hair and dyed it blond to play another femme fatale in The Lady from Shanghai (1948). The film’s director was the acclaimed Orson Welles, who became Hayworth’s second husband in 1943 and the father of her daughter Barbara. Called “the beauty and the brain” by the press, they were one of Hollywood’s most sensational couples until she divorced Welles soon after their one film together was completed. Of the marriage’s failure, she once said, “I just can’t take his genius anymore.”
The year before her divorce, Hayworth took a vacation to Europe, where she met Prince Aly Khan. Although both were married at the time, they began a public romance. The tabloid coverage on the couple made Hayworth an international celebrity. Their marriage in May 1949 and the birth of their daughter, Yasmin, seven months later were also widely reported. Like all of Hayworth’s marriages, this union did not last long, probably because of Aly’s philandering. They were divorced in 1953. In 1951, Hayworth returned to Hollywood after a three-year absence. She had successes with films such as Affair in Trinidad (1952), Pal Joey (1957), and Separate Tables (1958), but she was unable to revive the popularity she had achieved during the 1940s. Even worse for Hayworth, she weathered two disastrous, violent marriagesthe first to singer Dick Haymes (1953–55), the second to Separate Tables producer James Hill (1958–1961).
In 1962, Hayworth tried to boost her failing career by appearing in Step on a Crack on Broadway. However, the show was canceled because of the star’s inability to memorize her lines and her increasingly violent mood swings and emotional outbursts. Rumors spread that Hayworth had become an out-of-control alcoholic. Still, she continued to find some film work, although primarily in Europe. Hayworth made her last film, a western titled The Wrath of God, in 1972. With her mental condition deteriorating steadily, the underlying cause of Hayworth’s instability was finally discovered when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in the early 1980s. In her final years, she was cared for by her daughter Yasmin, who became a leading advocate for Alzheimer’s research. Hayworth died at her home in New York City on May 14, 1987.
Leaming, Barbara. If This Was Happiness: A Biography of Rita Hayworth. New York: Viking, 1989.
Ringgold, Gene. The Films of Rita Hayworth. Seacaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1991.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Gilda (1946). Columbia/Tristar, DVD, 2000.
The Lady From Shanghai (1948). Columbia/Tristar, DVD/VHS, 2000/1992.
Separate Tables (1958). MGM/UA, VHS, 1999.
You Were Never Lovelier (1942). Columbia/Tristar, VHS, 1992.