Hayworth, Rita (1918–1987)

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Hayworth, Rita (1918–1987)

American actress whose beauty and charisma epitomized Hollywood glamour in the 1940s and 1950s. Name variations: Rita Cansino. Name pronunciation: HAY-worth. Born Margarita Carmen Cansino on October 17, 1918, in New York City; stricken with Alzheimer's disease in 1981, lived under care of her second daughter Princess Yasmin Aga Khan until her death on May 14, 1987, in New York City; daughter of Eduardo Cansino and Volga (Haworth) Cansino; attended high school up to ninth grade in Los Angeles; married Edward C. Judson, in 1936 (divorced 1942); married Orson Welles, on September 7, 1943 (divorced); married Ali Shah Khan, in 1949 (divorced 1953); married Dick Haymes, in 1953 (divorced 1955); married James Hill, on February 2, 1958 (divorced 1961); children: (with Welles) Rebecca Welles ; (with Ali Shah Khan) Yasmin Aga Khan .


(as Rita Cansino) Under the Pampas Moon (1935); (as Rita Cansino) Dante's Inferno , 1935; (as Cansino) Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935); (as Cansino) Paddy O'Day (1935); (as Cansino) Human Cargo (1935); (as Cansino) Meet Nero Wolfe (1935); (as Cansino) Rebellion (1936); (as Cansino) Trouble in Texas (1937); (as Cansino) Old Louisiana (1937); (as Cansino) Hit the Saddle (1937); Girls Can Play (1937); The Game That Kills (1937); Criminals of the Air (1937); Paid to Dance (1937); The Shadow (1937); Who Killed Gail Preston? (1938); There's Always a Woman (1938); Convicted (1938); Juvenile Court (1938); Homicide Bureau (1939); The Renegade Ranger (1939); The Lone Wolf (1939); Spy Hunt (1939); Only Angels Have Wings (1939); Special Inspector (1939); Music in My Heart (1940); Blondie on a Budget (1940); Susan and God (1940); The Lady in Question (1940); Angels Over Broadway (1940); The Strawberry Blonde (1941); You'll Never Get Rich (1941); Affectionately Yours (1942); Blood and Sand (1942); My Gal Sal (1942); Tales of Manhattan (1942); You Were Never Lovelier (1942); Cover Girl (1944); Tonight and Every Night (1945); Gilda (1946); Down to Earth (1947); The Lady from Shanghai (1948); The Loves of Carmen (1948); Affair in Trinidad (1952); Salome (1953); Miss Sadie Thompson (1953); Fire Down Below (1957); Pal Joey (1957); Separate Tables (1958); They Came to Cordura (1959); The Story on Page One (1960); (also producer) The Happy Thieves (1962); Circus World (1964); The Money Trap (1966); The Poppy Is Also a Flower (1966); L'Avventuriére (The Rover , Italian, 1967); I Bastardi (Sons of Satan , It., 1969); Sur la Route de Salina (The Road to Salina , Fr.-It., 1970); The Naked Zoo (The Grove , 1971); The Wrath of God (1972).

As one of the most enduring of Hollywood legends, Rita Hayworth offers a fascinating example of the sacrifices that were necessary to appeal to mainstream American audiences during and immediately after World War II. Hayworth the "Love Goddess," as she came to be called, may well be the best representative of a self-constructed star in the 20th century, whose persona was elevated and enslaved by publicity and the power of mass communications.

Eduardo Cansino, Rita's father, was descended from a family of Spanish dancers with a tradition that goes back to the middle of the 19th century. Eduardo's father, Antonio Cansino, made his debut at an early age in Seville and rapidly gained enough popularity to sustain himself with the money he made by dancing. He had 11 children, taught all of them to dance, and even used some of them in a dancing troupe. The Cansinos, led by Antonio, went on tour in and outside Spain. Unfortunately, two of the children died during one of the tours, and Antonio decided to abandon his dancing career and dedicate himself to teaching. Rita Hayworth's grandfather had started a trend in the Cansino family that would not die, however, for two of his children, Eduardo and Elisa , continued dancing. The young Cansinos traveled to the United States to present their act in 1913. A hit in New York, they were hired by Martin Beck and decided to stay in the States.

The "dancing Cansinos" became a household name on the New York scene, building enough of a reputation to be invited to appear in the Broadway musical Follow Me as guest artists. During this engagement, Eduardo met Volga Haworth , a young woman from Washington, D.C., who had run away from her parents—both English actors—to pursue an artistic career in Manhattan and was soon hired for the Ziegfeld Follies. Following her marriage to Eduardo, Volga joined the Cansinos in their dancing tours, became pregnant at the beginning of 1918, and gave birth to Margarita Carmen Cansino on October 17, in Brooklyn, New York.

The beginning of Rita Hayworth's life marked the end of her mother's career. Volga went from aspiring actress to full-time mother, while Eduardo and Elisa reached the peak of their collaboration, appearing before New York's finest audiences. As Barbara Leaming writes in If This Was Happiness, "in the first years of Margarita's life … Volga routinely handled all her husband's practical business so that he could devote himself fully to his art." Volga had two more children: Eduardo (born October 13, 1919) and Vernon (born May 21, 1922).

When young Hayworth showed a proclivity for dance, Eduardo wasted no time in linking his daughter's talent to the Cansino family tradition and enrolled her in dancing lessons. Eduardo was not keen on giving his children a formal education, however, so it took Volga several confrontations to convince Eduardo to register their daughter in school at the age of six. The stability that the young Cansinos enjoyed during these first years lasted until Eduardo decided that his future lay in film, the medium that was then becoming popular, and that they had to leave New York to pursue his dream. In 1927, he split with his sister Elisa and moved his family West, settling in Los Angeles. Though Eduardo never enjoyed the film career that he dreamed of, he and his family managed to live from his art. He set up a dance school and required Hayworth to attend dance lessons after school every day. Leaming writes that "Eduardo had singled her out as the only one in the family who shared his artistic talent, but as a consequence he placed a great burden of responsibility on her that her two brothers happily escaped." It was clear to everyone in the Cansino household that Rita would continue dancing and, hopefully, succeed in a way that her talented father never could. It was also clear that her dancing would be the point of departure for her career; thus, dancing became the focus of her training. Everything else was secondary.

It soon occurred to Eduardo, as he observed his daughter dancing and growing, that the youngster might afford him the opportunity to revive the "dancing Cansinos" and establish himself as a dancer on the West Coast. Thus, during Hayworth's years of elementary education at Carthay School and her first year at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, she was forced to focus more on the training sessions than on her school work. As a consequence, Hayworth's education suffered. The young girl made her stage debut in a school play when she was 11 and her professional debut, in 1932, at the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles.

Hayworth stopped attending school while in ninth grade when the Cansinos moved once again, this time across the U.S.-Mexico border. Father and daughter were engaged first for 18 months at the Foreign Club in Tijuana and then in Agua Caliente, Mexico. During their stay, 13-year-old Rita, who looked enough of a grownup to pass as Eduardo's wife and dance-partner, could not leave the house. When it came to his daughter, Eduardo was extremely domineering, and it is suspected that his restrictions might have stemmed from incestuous motives. Hayworth would later tell Orson Welles that during this period her father had repeatedly engaged in sexual relations with her.

Eduardo's initial attempts to have his daughter cast in movies yielded little or no result. Eventually, however, she received an offer from Winfield R. Sheehan, who worked for Fox Film Corporation, to dance and play a supporting role in Dante's Inferno, starring Spencer Tracy. Eduardo was asked to choreograph his daughter's dance sequence. If Dante's Inferno was a big-budget failure, it was not a failure for Hayworth, as she received a yearlong contract to work for Fox when she finished shooting the film. It was 1939.

Now billed Rita Cansino, because studio publicists felt the name "Margarita" was too long, she was slow to loosen up before the camera; most of what she knew about performing involved dancing. Determined to improve, she signed up for acting lessons. She then appeared in Under the Pampas Moon as an Argentine dancer and in Charlie Chan in Egypt as an Egyptian dancer. At age 16, Hayworth was already learning her craft, capitalizing on the ethnic ambiguity of her looks, and fighting her shyness.

Eduardo's daughter did not receive an offer from Fox to continue appearing in their movies when her yearlong contract ended, and the news threw the Cansinos into financial turmoil. To sustain her relatives, Hayworth spent several months playing minor roles that required dancing—usually as either "Latin" or "Indian"—though she had no offers for a steady job. A year after her dismissal from Fox, Rita signed a seven-year contract with Columbia Pictures, added a "y" to her mother's maiden name to become Rita Hayworth, and made her first movie with them, Girls Can Play. In 1937, after finishing the filming of The Game That Kills, she escaped her father's house to marry Eddie Judson, an erstwhile car dealer and businessman who acted as her agent.

Under Judson's influence and her desire to become more marketable star material, Hayworth cut her hair, used electrolysis to raise her forehead, and underwent private coaching in both acting and singing. This process of body and facial transformations took eight months and resulted in the almost-mythical Rita Hayworth the world remembers best. The change in appearance proved effective and the new Rita was cast to play the adulterous wife in Howard W. Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings (1939) with Cary Grant and Jean Arthur and produced by Columbia. Other important films followed: The Strawberry Blonde (1941), for Warner Bros., and Blood and Sand (1941), for Fox. By 1941, Rita Hayworth's star was on the rise.

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.

—Rita Hayworth

"The knowledge that she had been in large part created would remain a source of immense anxiety," writes Leaming. "Did she really have any acting talent, or was it all a publicist's hype?" The year 1941 marked the beginning of the myth of Rita Hayworth and the end of the private life of Margarita Cansino. On August 11, Life magazine published a photo of a negligee-clad Hayworth that many American soldiers carried with them during World War II after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The famous picture has, since the time of its publication, become ingrained in the minds of many Americans and elevated Hayworth to the status of "cultural icon," "the Love Goddess," according to Life.

It was obvious to Columbia that Hayworth was one of its best assets and that pairing her up with the king of American dance, Fred Astaire, in You'll Never Get Rich, would bring in more revenue and increase renown for its star. The film

was an immediate hit and established her as a "glamour girl who can dance" in the view of the public and as a hard worker in the view of those filming with her in the studio, including Astaire. The two dancers collaborated a second and last time for the movie, You Were Never Lovelier. Hayworth went on to work with Gene Kelly in Cover Girl (1944), and Glenn Ford in Gilda (1946), one of the films for which she is best remembered for her impromptu striptease with elbow-length gloves while singing "Put the Blame on Mame." Though there were other blockbuster movies released that year, "none were as provocative as Gilda where Hayworth jiggles in and out of one strapless evening gown after another, her long neck and elongated torso, her long, hefty legs twisting and turning snakelike to heart-thumping music," write Jay Nash and Stanley Ross. "Critics remained indifferent to the film but returning GIs flocked with their wives and sweethearts to see Columbia's sex goddess." Though Hayworth was a reigning pinup star with soldiers pre-Gilda, the movie made her more so. Her likeness and her name was painted upon the test Abomb dropped on Bikini Atoll. Hayworth appeared in a less well-received movie in 1947, Down to Earth, a copy of which remains in a 20th-century time capsule for the perusal of generations in the forthcoming millennia.

Lady from Shanghai (1948) emerged out of Hayworth's professional collaboration with her second husband, Orson Welles, who co-starred and directed the film. A masterpiece of the film noir genre, Lady from Shanghai's most famous setting features Hayworth standing in a hall of mirrors. The scene is a cinematic marvel both because of Hayworth's sophisticated, mature acting, and because of Welles' mastery of direction and his memorable use of mirror images. After Lady from Shanghai, Hayworth made one more movie, The Loves of Carmen (1948), and then retired temporarily from the movie business when she became the bride of Prince Aly Khan, whose father Aga Khan III, was Imam (or pope) to 15 million Asian and African Ismaili Muslims; the family claimed direct descent from Fatimah , daughter of the Prophet Muhammed.

Hayworth's marriage to Aly Khan, like all of her previous marriages, piqued the interest of the American public and kept the press hunting for stories. By 1952, the year she made An Affair in Trinidad, Hayworth had been married three times and had two daughters: Rebecca with Welles and Yasmin with Khan. Rita made two movies in 1953, Salome and Miss Sadie Thompson, divorced Aga Khan, and then abandoned the big screen again, this time to marry singer Dick Haymes. She returned to the movies in 1957 to film Fire Down Below for Columbia and then shoot a film version of Pal Joey, a musical by Rodgers and Hart.

Notwithstanding the many difficulties in her personal life, Rita Hayworth was known to be consistently professional until her fourth marriage, her beauty, her success, and her health all started to decline. In 1959, when she gave what is arguably her best performance in They Came to Cordura, critics remarked on her age and the impending loss of the beauty that had made her famous.

By the end of 1961, the year Hayworth divorced her fifth husband, her behavior was being influenced by Alzheimer's disease, but the disorder that was starting to affect her everyday life had yet to be diagnosed. Like her mother Volga Haworth, Hayworth was also an alcoholic. The combination of the two problems made life difficult for the people surrounding her, especially her young daughters who lived through her fits of anger and moodiness. The deterioration of her brain also affected Hayworth's professional life: it became extremely difficult for her to memorize her lines and thus keep up the standards she had upheld for so long. She continued to make films until 1971 and even had offers to appear on stage, which she rejected. By the time she shot The Wrath of God in 1971, Hayworth was unable to remember more than a line at a time. She attempted to make another movie in 1972, but her memory had been so severely damaged by then that she forgot to return to the set. Hayworth continued to make public appearances, however, and even went on a disastrous tour of South America, specifically Argentina and Brazil. Photographs taken at this time illustrate the sad final metamorphosis that she underwent. Despite efforts made by her agent to keep the press at bay, her physical deterioration became fodder for the international media. Pathetic images filled the tabloids, while writers compared the glorious Hayworth of the 1940s to this disintegrating, incoherent woman.

By 1976, unable to care for herself, Hayworth was admitted to Hoag Memorial Hospital in Newport Beach, California, where her problem was diagnosed as alcoholism. She stayed at the hospital until her daughter Yasmin took her back to the East Coast, set her up in an apartment, and oversaw her care. Hayworth was forced to abstain from drinking, and Yasmin consulted with several doctors, one of whom, in 1980, stopped assuming that the problem was alcohol and actually examined Hayworth's brain before making his diagnosis. Nineteen years after the first symptoms had presented themselves in a noticeable fashion, Hayworth's problem was finally understood to be the then little-known disease, Alzheimer's.

Princess Yasmin Aga Khan became her mother's legal conservator in 1981 and moved Rita to a New York City apartment near her own, overlooking Central Park. By this time, Hayworth was so far gone that she was unable to recognize even family members. The only thing that could move her was music. "Whenever music was played for her," writes Leaming, "her shoulders and feet might briefly come alive in her chair." Rita Hayworth died in her New York apartment on May 14, 1987.


García-Johnson, Ronie-Richele. "Rita Hayworth," in Notable Hispanic American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1993.

Leaming, Barbara. If This Was Happiness: A Biography of Rita Hayworth. NY: Viking, 1989.

"Rita Hayworth," in Current Biography 1960. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1960.

suggested reading:

Hill, James. Rita Hayworth: A Memoir. London: Robson, 1983.

Kobal, John. Rita Hayworth: The Time, the Place, and the Woman. NY: Norton, 1978.

Morella, Joe. Rita: The life of Rita Hayworth. NY: Delacorte Press, c. 1983.

Peary, Gerald. Rita Hayworth. NY: Pyramid, 1976.

Ringgold, Gene. The Films of Rita Hayworth: The Legend and Career of a Love Goddess. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1974.

Carlos U. Decena , Ph.D. candidate in American Studies, New York University

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Hayworth, Rita (1918–1987)

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