ROGERS, GINGER (Virginia Katherine McMath) (1911–1995) Actress, Dancer, Singer
Known best for her famous dance routines with onscreen partner Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers became a master of the film musical, comedy, and drama, making her one of the most versatile actresses of her day. She was born in Independence, Missouri, on July 16, 1911, as Virginia Katherine McMath, but was nicknamed Ginger by her parents. Soon after her birth, the McMaths divorced, initiating a bitter custody battle during which her father kidnapped her twice. With Ginger secure in the care of her mother, Lela, they moved first to Hollywood, then to New York City, where Lela looked for work as a screenwriter. They eventually relocated to Fort Worth, Texas. There, Lela married John Rogers, and Ginger took the name of her new stepfather.
Like Lela, Ginger had show business ambitions at an early age. At her mother’s relentless urging, at 14 she entered and won a statewide Charleston contest, which led to a three-year tour with a vaudeville act. With an eye toward becoming a big-band singer, Ginger moved to New York City in 1929. Almost immediately, she found parts in Broadway musicals, most notably George and Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy (1930). Playing an ingenue, she introduced America to two classic Gershwin songs—“Embraceable You” and “But Not for Me.”In Girl Crazy, she also had her first professional contact with Astaire, who was hired to beef up the show’s choreography. Rogers’s Broadway roles soon drew the attention of Hollywood. A screen test won her a part in her first film, Young Man of Manhattan (1930). Her sassy reading of the line, “Cigarette me, big boy,” made it a favorite catchphrase of the era. In Hollywood, Rogers established herself as a leading interpreter of the tough, wise-cracking gal in movies such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 (both 1933).
Rogers found her breakthrough role in Flying Down to Rio (1930). As supporting players, she and Astaire stole the movie with their performance of a dance known as the Carioca. The public’s enthusiastic response to the pairing led to a series of eight musical comedies with Rogers and Astaire as the stars. The formulaic plots of these films functioned largely to fill time between their accomplished, romantic dance sequences, each of which took as long six weeks to develop. Rogers and Astaire’s films together included The Gay Divorcee (1934), To Hat (1935), and Shall We Dancefi (1937). Rogers always named Swing Time (1936) as her personal favorite, once explaining, “It gave me a bigger role than Mr. Astaire!” Although Rogers and Astaire reportedly harbored hostility toward each other, in fact they were generally cordial and developed a strong working relationship based on a shared sense of discipline and professionalism.
Despite her talents, Rogers was not as welltrained as many of Astaire’s dancing partners. She was, however, a quick study, able to master whatever the perfectionism of Astaire demanded. But far more important than her technical expertise was the warmth and liveliness she brought to the screen duo. KATHARINE HEPBURN once made the now often-quoted observation about Astaire and Rogers that “he gave her class and she gave him sex.” Rogers later challenged this assessment, observing, “Nobody can give you class. . . . You’ve either got it or you ain’t. ”While working with Astaire, Rogers also distinguished herself in nonmusical films. She was a standout as a caustic young actress in the star-filled Stage Door (1937) and skillfully played a woman trying to masquerade as a 12-year-old in the broad comedy The Major and the Minor (1942). She also displayed her range as an actress by taking on dramatic roles. Playing the lead in Kitty Foyle (1940), a melodrama about a working girl’s struggles, Rogers won an Academy Award for best actress. While continuing her film career, Rogers in the 1950s returned to the stage, often touring in revivals of musicals such as Annie Get Your Gun and Mame. She was particularly praised for her performance in Hello, Dolly!, in which she starred on Broadway for a year and a half. In the late 1970s, Rogers also found success with The Ginger Rogers Show, a musical celebration of her career that toured through the United States and Europe. A devout Christian Scientist and political conservative, Rogers generally led a quiet, scandal-free personal life. She did, however, marry and divorce five times, as well as having serious romances with some of Hollywood’s most eligible leading men, including Cary Grant and James Stewart. In her final years, though, she lived alone, spending most of her time on a ranch in Oregon. Three years after receiving a Kennedy Center Honor for her contribution to American popular culture, Rogers died of natural causes on April 25, 1995.
Croce, Arlene. The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book. New York: Outerbridge & Lazard, 1972.
Faris, Jocelyn. Ginger Rogers: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1994.
Rogers, Ginger. Ginger: My Story. New York: Harper-Collins, 1991.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Flying Down to Rio (1933). Turner Home Video, VHS, 2000.
The Gay Divorcee (1934). Turner Home Video, VHS, 1999.
Kitty Foyle (1940). Turner Home Video, VHS, 1998.
Swing Time (1936). Turner Home Video, VHS, 1999.