Hand color tinted photo of Rita Hayworth from the 1946 movie, Gilda
Rita Hayworth (born Margarita Carmen Cansino; October 17, 1918 – May 14, 1987) was an American dancer and film actress who garnered fame during the 1940s as one of the era’s top stars. Appearing first as Rita Cansino, she agreed to change her name to Rita Hayworth and her hair color to dark red to attract a greater range in roles. Her appeal led to her being featured on the cover of Life magazine five times, beginning in 1940.
The first dancer featured on film as a partner of both the stars Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, Hayworth appeared in a total of 61 films over 37 years. She is listed by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 Greatest Stars of All Time.
Hayworth was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1918 as Margarita Carmen Cansino, the oldest child of two dancers, Eduardo Cansino, Sr. from Madrid, Spain and Volga Hayworth, who had performed with the Ziegfeld Follies and was American of Irish-English descent. The Catholic couple had married in 1917. They also had two sons: Eduardo, Jr. and Vernon.
Margarita’s father wanted her to become a professional dancer, while her mother hoped she would become an actress. Her paternal grandfather Antonio Cansino was renowned as a Spanish classical dancer; he popularized the bolero and his dancing school in Madrid was world famous. Rita later recalled,
“From the time I was three and a half,… as soon as I could stand on my own feet, I was given dance lessons.” “I didn’t like it very much,… but I didn’t have the courage to tell my father, so I began taking the lessons. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, that was my girlhood.”
She attended dance classes every day for a few years in a Carnegie Hall complex, where she was taught by her uncle Angel Cansino. She performed publicly from the age of six. In 1926 at the age of eight, she was featured in La Fiesta, a short film for Warner Bros..
In 1927, her father took the family to Hollywood. He believed that dancing could be featured in the movies and that his family could be part of it. He established his own dance studio, where he taught such Hollywood luminaries as James Cagney and Jean Harlow. During the Great Depression, he lost all his investments, as musicals were no longer in vogue and commercial interest in his dancing classes waned. He partnered with his daughter to form “The Dancing Cansinos”. Since under California law, Margarita was too young to work in nightclubs and bars, her father took her with him to work across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. In the early 1930s, it was a popular tourist spot for people from Los Angeles. Due to her working, Cansino never graduated from high school; she completed ninth grade at Hamilton High in Los Angeles.
At the age of 16, Cansino took a bit part in the film Cruz Diablo (1934), which led to another in In Caliente (1935) with the Mexican actress Dolores del Río. Cansino danced with her father in such nightspots as the Foreign and the Caliente clubs. Winfield Sheehan, the head of the Fox Film Corporation, saw her dancing at the Caliente Club and quickly arranged for Hayworth to do a screen test a week later. Impressed by her screen persona, Sheehan signed her for a short-term six-month contract at Fox, under the name Rita Cansino, the first of name changes for her film career.
During her time at Fox, Cansino appeared in five pictures, in non-notable roles. By the end of her six-month contract, Fox had merged into 20th Century Fox, with Darryl F. Zanuck serving as the executive producer. Dismissing Sheehan’s interest in Cansino, Zanuck did not renew her contract. Feeling that Cansino had screen potential, the salesman and promoter Edward C. Judson, whom she would marry in 1936, got her the lead roles in several independent films and arranged a screen test with Columbia Pictures. The studio head Harry Cohn signed Cansino to a long-term contract, and cast her in small roles in Columbia features.
Often cast as the exotic foreigner, Cansino appeared in several roles in 1935: in Dante’s Inferno, with Spencer Tracy; and Paddy O’Day, in which she played a Russian dancer. She was an Argentinian in Under the Pampas Moon and an Egyptian beauty in Charlie Chan in Egypt. In 1936 she took her first starring role as a “Latin type” in Human Cargo.
Cohn argued that Cansino’s image was too Mediterranean, which reduced her opportunities to being cast in “exotic” roles, more limited in number. With Cohn and Judson’s encouragement, Hayworth changed her hair color to dark red and her name to Rita Hayworth. She had electrolysis to raise her hairline and broaden the appearance of her forehead. By using her mother’s maiden name, she led people to see her British-American ancestry and became a classic “American” pin-up.
In 1937, Hayworth appeared in five minor Columbia pictures and three minor independent movies. The following year, she appeared in five Columbia B films. In 1939, Cohn pressured director Howard Hawks to use Hayworth for a small but important role as a man-trap in the aviation drama Only Angels Have Wings, in which she played opposite Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. With this film’s box-office success, fan mail for Hayworth began pouring into Columbia’s publicity department. Cohn began to see Hayworth as his first and official new star. The studio never officially had stars under contract, except for Jean Arthur, who was trying to break with it.
Cohn began to build Hayworth up in 1940, in features such as Music in My Heart, The Lady in Question, and Angels Over Broadway. That year she was first featured in a Life magazine photo. He loaned Hayworth to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to appear in Susan and God, opposite Joan Crawford. While on loan to Warner Brothers, Hayworth appeared as the second female lead in The Strawberry Blonde (1941), opposite James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland. As the film was a big box-office success, Hayworth’s popularity rose; she immediately became one of Hollywood’s hottest properties. So impressed was Warner Brothers that they tried to buy Hayworth’s contract from Columbia, but Cohn refused to release her.
Her success led to a supporting role in Blood and Sand (1941), opposite Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell, with Fox, the studio that had dropped her six years before. In one of her most notable screen roles, Hayworth played Doña Sol des Muire, the first of many screen sirens. This was another box-office hit.
She returned in triumph to Columbia Pictures and was cast in the musical You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) opposite Fred Astaire, in one of the highest-budgeted films Columbia had ever made. So successful was the picture that the following year, the studio produced and released another Astaire-Hayworth picture, You Were Never Lovelier. In 1942, Hayworth also appeared in two other pictures, Tales of Manhattan and My Gal Sal.
During this period, Hayworth was featured in an August 1941 Life Magazine photo, in which she lounged seductively in a black-lace negligee. When the U.S. joined World War II in December 1941, the photo made Hayworth one of the top two “pin-up girls” of the war years; the other was the blonde Betty Grable. In 2002, the satin nightgown Hayworth wore for the photo sold for $26,888.
Peak years at Columbia
In 1944, Hayworth made one of her best-known films, the Technicolor musical Cover Girl (1944), with Gene Kelly. The film established her as Columbia’s top star of the 1940s. For three consecutive years, starting in 1944, Hayworth was named one of the top movie box office attractions in the world. She was adept in ballet, tap, ballroom, and Spanish routines.
Cohn continued to showcase Hayworth’s dance talents; she was the first dancer featured on film to partner with both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Columbia featured her in the Technicolor films: Tonight and Every Night (1945), with Lee Bowman; and Down to Earth (1947), with Larry Parks.
Her erotic appeal was most noted in Charles Vidor’s black and white film noir Gilda (1946), with Glenn Ford, which caused censors some consternation. The role, in which Hayworth in black satin performed a legendary one-glove striptease, made her into a cultural icon as a femme fatale. While her film was still in release, extensive publicity linked her to a widely covered nuclear bomb test in the South Pacific.
Numerous reporters from hundreds of papers across the country were covering preparations in 1946 at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean’s Marshall Islands for testing of the first nuclear bomb after World War II. The United States had been the first nation to use nuclear bombs, against the civilian population of Japan. Reporters publicized that young scientists had put the name of “Gilda” and Hayworth’s image on the bomb, alluding to her bombshell status as a film star. Coverage varied widely at the time, but the story stuck that her image had been put on the bomb, and was repeated in her 1987 obituary in The New York Times, which readers relied on as fact. Her husband Orson Welles issued a public statement at the time, saying they would be pleased only if this were the last bomb test ever. Hayworth was furious to be used in this way.
Her biographer Barbara Leaming had a later interview with Welles in which he recalled,
“… the angriest was when she found out that they’d put her on the atom bomb. Rita almost went insane, she was so angry. She was so shocked by it! Rita was the kind of person that kind of thing would hurt more than anybody. She wanted to go to Washington to hold a press conference, but Harry Cohn (president of Columbia Pictures) wouldn’t let her because it would be unpatriotic.”
Recent research documents that only the name “Gilda” was put on the bomb; no image of Hayworth was used.
A year later, Hayworth’s performance in The Lady from Shanghai (1947), directed by her husband Orson Welles, was critically acclaimed. The film’s failure at the box office was attributed in part to Welles’ having had Hayworth’s famous red hair cut short and died platinum blonde for the role. Cohn had not been consulted and was furious that Hayworth’s image was changed.
Also in 1947, Hayworth was featured in a Life cover story by Winthrop Sargeant, which led to her nickname as “The “Love Goddess”. This term was adopted and used later as the title of a biopic and of a biography about her. In a 1980s interview, Hayworth said, “Everybody else does nude scenes, but I don’t. I never made nude movies. I didn’t have to do that. I danced. I was provocative, I guess, in some things. But I was not completely exposed.”
Her next film, The Loves of Carmen (1948), again with Glenn Ford, was the first film co-produced by Columbia and Hayworth’s own production company, The Beckworth Corporation (named for her and Orson’s daughter Rebecca); it was Columbia’s biggest moneymaker for that year. She received a percentage of the profits from this and all her subsequent films until 1955, when she dissolved Beckworth to pay off debts she owed to Columbia.
Struggles with Columbia
Hayworth had a strained relationship with Columbia Pictures for many years. In 1943, she was suspended without pay for nine weeks because she refused to appear in Once Upon a Time . (During this period in Hollywood, actors did not get to choose their films; they were on salary rather than receiving a fixed amount per picture.)
In 1947, Hayworth’s new contract with Columbia provided a salary of US$250,000 plus 50% of film profits. In 1951 Columbia alleged it had $800,000 invested in properties for her, including the film she walked out on that year. She left Hollywood to marry Prince Aly Khan. She was suspended for failing to report to work on the film Affair in Trinidad.
In 1952 she refused to report for work because “she objected to the script.” In 1955, she sued to get out of a contract with the studio, but asked for her $150,000 salary, alleging filming failed to start when agreed. She said,
“I was in Switzerland when they sent me the script for Affair in Trinidad and I threw it across the room. But I did the picture, and Pal Joey too. I came back to Columbia because I wanted to work and first, see, I had to finish that goddamn contract, which is how Harry Cohn owned me!” “Harry Cohn thought of me as one of the people he could exploit,” said Hayworth, “and make a lot of money. And I did make a lot of money for him, but not much for me.”
Years after her film career had ended and Cohn was dead, Hayworth still resented her treatment by him and Columbia.
“I used to have to punch a time clock at Columbia,” noted Hayworth. “Every day of my life. That’s what it was like. I was under exclusive contract, like they owned me, … I think he had my dressing room bugged… He was very possessive of me as a person, he didn’t want me to go out with anybody, have any friends. No one can live that way. So I fought him… You want to know what I think of Harry Cohn? He was a monster.”
Hayworth resented that the studio failed to train her to sing or to encourage her to learn how to sing. Although she appeared to sing in many of her films, she was usually dubbed. As the public did not know the secret, she was embarrassed to be asked to sing by troops at USO shows.
“I wanted to study singing,” Hayworth complained, “but Harry Cohn kept saying, ‘Who needs it?’ and the studio wouldn’t pay for it. They had me so intimidated that I couldn’t have done it anyway. They always said, ‘Oh, no, we can’t let you do it. There’s no time for that; it has to be done right now!’ I was under contract, and that was it.”
Cohn had a reputation as a taskmaster, but he had his own criticisms of Hayworth. He had invested heavily in her before she began a reckless affair with the married Aly Khan, and it could have caused a backlash against her career and Columbia’s success. For instance, an article in the British The People called for a boycott of Hayworth’s films. It said, “Hollywood must be told its already tarnished reputation will sink to rock bottom if it restores this reckless woman to a place among its stars.” Cohn expressed his frustration with Hayworth’s judgment in an interview with Time magazine.
“Hayworth might be worth ten million dollars today easily! She owned 25% of the profits with her own company and had hit after hit and she had to get married and had to get out of the business and took a suspension because she fell in love again! In five years, at two pictures a year, at 25%! Think of what she could have made! But she didn’t make pictures! She took two or three suspensions! She got mixed up with different characters! Unpredictable!”
After the collapse of her marriage to Aly Khan in 1951, Hayworth returned to the United States with great fanfare, where she starred in a string of hit films: Affair in Trinidad (1952) with favorite co-star Glenn Ford; and in 1953 had two films released: Salome, with Charles Laughton and Stewart Granger; and Miss Sadie Thompson, with José Ferrer and Aldo Ray. Her performance in the latter film won critical acclaim.
She was off the big screen for another four years, due mainly to a tumultuous marriage to the singer Dick Haymes. After making Fire Down Below (1957) with Robert Mitchum and Jack Lemmon, and her last musical Pal Joey (1957) with Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak, Hayworth finally left Columbia.
She received good reviews for her acting in Separate Tables (1958), with Burt Lancaster and David Niven, and The Story on Page One (1960) with Anthony Franciosa. She continued working throughout the 1960s. In 1962, her planned Broadway debut in Step on a Crack was cancelled for undisclosed health reasons. She continued to act in films until the early 1970s. She made a well-publicized 1971 television appearance on The Carol Burnett Show. Her last film was The Wrath of God (1972).
Hayworth was a top glamour girl in the 1940s, a pin-up girl for military servicemen and a beauty icon for women. At 5’6″ (168 cm) and 120 lb (55 kgs) she was tall enough for her height to be a concern to dancing partners such as Fred Astaire. Hayworth got her big motion picture break because she was willing to change her hair color, whereas other actresses were unwilling. She reportedly changed her hair color eight times in eight movies.
In 1949 Hayworth’s lips were voted best in the world by the Artists League of America. She had a modeling contract with Max Factor to promote its Tru-Color lipsticks and Pan-Stik make-up.
Barbara Leaming writes in her biography of Hayworth, If This Was Happiness: A Biography of Rita Hayworth (1989) that, due to her fondness for alcohol and the stresses of her life, Hayworth aged before her time. Re-appearing in New York in 1956 to begin work on her first film in three years, Hayworth was described by the following: “despite the artfully applied make-up and shoulder-length red hair, there was no concealing the ravages of drink and stress. Deep lines had crept around her eyes and mouth, and she appeared worn, exhausted, older than her thirty-eight years.” Leaming wrote that during the filming of Fire Down Below, Hayworth heard a comment that she should hurry up as “no amount of time was going to make her look any younger.” In San Francisco the following year filming Pal Joey, she was signing autographs when she heard a fan say, “She looks so old.”
In 1941 Hayworth said she was the antithesis of the characters she played. “I naturally am very shy… and I suffer from an inferiority complex.” She once complained that “Men fell in love with Gilda, but they wake up with me.” In 1970 she remarked that the only films she could watch without laughing were the dance musicals she made with Fred Astaire. “I guess the only jewels of my life,” Hayworth said, “were the pictures I made with Fred Astaire.”
Hayworth’s two younger brothers, Vernon and Eduardo Cansino, Jr., both served in World War II. Vernon left the U.S. Army in 1946 with several medals, including the Purple Heart, and later married Susan Vail, a dancer. Eduardo Cansino, Jr. followed Hayworth into acting; he was also under contract with Columbia Pictures. In 1950 he made his screen debut in Magic Carpet.
Rita Hayworth lapsed into a semicoma in February 1987. She died at age 68 from Alzheimer’s disease a few months later on May 14, 1987. A funeral service was held on May 19, 1987, at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. Pallbearers included actors Ricardo Montalbán, Glenn Ford, Don Ameche and the choreographer Hermes Pan. She was interred in Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City. Her headstone includes the inscription: “To yesterday’s companionship and tomorrow’s reunion.”
“Rita Hayworth was one of our country’s most beloved stars”, said President Ronald Reagan, who had been an actor at the same time as Hayworth.
“Glamorous and talented, she gave us many wonderful moments on stage and screen and delighted audiences from the time she was a young girl. In her later years, Rita became known for her struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Her courage and candor, 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. Nancy and I are saddened by Rita’s death. She was a friend who we will miss. We extend our deep sympathy to her family.”