Rogers, Ginger (1911–1995)

views updated

Rogers, Ginger (1911–1995)

American film star, dancer and actress who through verve, grace and hard work captured the public's imagination, particularly when she danced with Fred Astaire. Born Virginia Katherine McMath in Independence, Missouri, on July 16, 1911; died on April 25, 1995, at her home in Rancho Mirage, California; daughter of Lela Owens McMath (a secretary) and William Eddins McMath (an electrical engineer), who separated before her birth; attended public schools in Kansas City, Missouri, and Fort Worth, Texas; married Edward Jackson Culpepper, on March 29, 1929, in New Orleans (divorced July 1931); married Lew Ayres (an actor), on November 14, 1934 (divorced 1940); married John Calving Briggs II, on January 16, 1943 (divorced 1948); married Jacques Bergerac (an actor), on February 7, 1953 (divorced 1957); married G. William Marshall (a producer), on March 16, 1961 (divorced March 1967); no children.


Texas State Charleston Champion (November 1925); Academy Award for Best Actress (1940) for her performance in Kitty Foyle; granted Lifetime Achievement at Kennedy Center Honors (1992).

Made Broadway musical debut in Top Speed (December 25, 1929); made film debut in Young Man of Manhattan (1930); made final film Harlow (1965); published Ginger: My Story (1991).


Young Man of Manhattan (1930); Queen High (1930); The Sap from Syracuse (1930); Follow the Leader (1930); Honor Among Lovers (1931); The Tip Off (1931); Suicide Fleet (1931); Carnival Boat (1932); The Tenderfoot (1932); The Thirteenth Guest (1932); Hat Check Girl (1932); You Said a Mouthful (1932); 42nd Street (1933); Broadway Bad (1933); Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933); Professional Sweetheart (1933); A Shriek in the Night (1933); Don't Bet on Love (1933); Sitting Pretty (1933); Flying Down to Rio (1933); Chance at Heaven (1933); Rafter Romance (1934); Finishing School (1934); Twenty Million Sweethearts (1934); Change of Heart (1934); Upper World (1934); The Gay Divorcee (1934); Romance in Manhattan (1934); Roberta (1935); Star of Midnight (1935); Top Hat (1935); In Person (1935); Follow the Fleet (1936); Swing Time (1936); Shall We Dance (1937); Stage Door (1937); Having a Wonderful Time (1938); Vivacious Lady (1938); Carefree (1938); (as dancer-actress Irene Castle ) The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939); Bachelor Mother (1939); Fifth Avenue Girl (1939); Primrose Path (1940); Lucky Partners (1940); Kitty Foyle (1940); Tom Dick and Harry (1941); Roxie Hart (1942); Tales of Manhattan (1942); The Major and the Minor (1942); Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942); Tender Comrade (1943); Lady in the Dark (1944); I'll Be Seeing You (1944); Weekend at the Waldorf (1945); Heartbeat (1946); (as Dolly Madison ) Magnificent Doll (1946); It Had to Be You (1947); The Barkleys of Broadway (1949); Perfect Strangers (1950); Storm Warning (1950); The Groom Wore Spurs (1951); We're Not Married (1952); Monkey Business (1952); Dreamboat (1952); Forever Female (1953); Black Widow (1954); Beautiful Stranger (U.K., Twist of Fate, 1954); Tight Spot (1955); The First Traveling Saleslady (1956); Teenage Rebel (1956); Oh Men! Oh Women! (1957); The Confession (Seven Different Ways or Quick Let's Get Married, shot in 1964, released in 1971); (as Jean Harlow 's mother) Harlow (1965).

Ginger Rogers is indelibly linked with her dancing partner Fred Astaire, but her true partner in life, as she was always the first to say, was her mother Lela Rogers . "My mother went though hell, fire, and damnation to take care of me," she said tartly when she was 80, "and my mom was falsely accused of being a bitch." Rogers, in her heyday a lithe blonde of 5'5" and 105 pounds, clearly had the talent and drive necessary, but her mother, who tried unsuccessfully to make a career for herself as a screenwriter, set her daughter on the path to stardom.

Her parents separated before she was born as Virginia McMath in Independence, Missouri, in 1911, and, during the ensuing custody battle, her father William McMath kidnapped her. The court deemed this "reckless behavior" and awarded her to her mother Lela and curtailed his visiting rights. Rogers would see little of him before his death when she was 11. She spent her early years in Kansas City with her maternal grandparents and a family of aunts and cousins, one of whom gave her the nickname Ginger. Her mother pursued work as a screenwriter in Hollywood and, after she landed a job with Fox in New York, she sent for her daughter, who was then five. The child was offered a film contract, but Lela declined, saying she was too young and that working conditions for child actors were too harsh. While Lela worked, Ginger stayed alone in the apartment playing with her toys until she was enrolled in public school. Mother and daughter lived together for a year until Lela joined the Marines in 1918 and helped edit the Corps' newspaper, The Leatherneck. In 1920, Lela married a wounded veteran, John Rogers, and although he never adopted his stepdaughter, Ginger assumed his last name. The new family moved to Fort Worth, where one of Ginger's playmates was Mary Martin . They had an informal club called The Cooper Street Gang. When they grew from climbing trees to performing, Lela wrote a play called "The Death of St. Denis" for them, cast Ginger in the lead, and made her a black satin dress trimmed in red.

John Rogers became a successful insurance broker, but he was plagued by lung problems as a result of being gassed during World War I. When doctors said his condition was hopeless and he was on the brink of death, the family turned to a Christian Science practitioner who seemed to effect a miraculous cure.

Sure he was [a great dancer], but don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did … backwards and in high heels.

—Bob Thaves

Meanwhile, Lela took a job reviewing plays and films for the Fort Worth Record. Each afternoon after school, Ginger met her mother at the local theater, where she came to know the performers. The vaudevillian Eddie Foy, Jr., taught her the Charleston, and when one of his siblings was too ill to perform their act, he asked Ginger to fill in. Soon afterward, on November 9, 1915, wearing a homemade dress encrusted with rhinestones, she won the state Charleston championship in Dallas, and embarked on a five-week tour on the Interstate Time, a Southwest theater chain. Rogers dropped plans to be a schoolteacher, and her professional life began with her mother acting as manager.

Lela hired a girl and a boy to appear with Rogers in a group called "Ginger and The Redheads," and, at the age of 14, Ginger went on tour, carrying a large doll so that she would look young enough to qualify for children's rail fares. Lela was determined her daughter would succeed and wrote an act filled with childish patter and gags. In Memphis, when she learned that the manager planned to fire Ginger ("Nuts. She's terrible. Cancel her out."), Lela raced backstage, grabbed her daughter, and hurried her in full makeup to a nearby Chinese restaurant. The two remained there until her afternoon show, which was filled with school kids who loved Ginger's act and saved her job. Against Lela's better judgment, the theater chain booked Ginger in New York, the most demanding venue in the country. Though Variety's reviewer quickly panned her with "This kid with the baby talk is no good in New York," Lela put the criticism to constructive use. She cut the baby talk, rewrote the act, and had Ginger drop her singing voice five tones, all the while using spare minutes at her portable sewing machine where she sewed new costumes for her daughter.

They moved on to a more prestigious vaudeville circuit. While Rogers was appearing in Dallas, she was thrilled when Jack Culpepper, a singer and old boyfriend of one of her aunts, came backstage to see her. She had had a crush on him for years, and a few weeks later, to her mother's fury, she married him. "I had been part of the adult entertainment world for years, but still had not reached a personal maturity. I really had never been alone with a man. Harboring thoughts of Jack all those years on the road, I had convinced myself I was in love with him," Rogers wrote in her autobiography. The marriage quickly foundered, as did that of her mother's. Soon they both were divorced and in New York pursuing Ginger's career on Broadway. She made her musical debut in Top Speed in December 1929, a few weeks after the stock-market crash. Critic Brooks Atkinson described her as "an impudent young thing … who carries youth and humor to the point where they are completely charming." By day, Rogers made films for Paramount on Long Island. In her first, Young Man of Manhattan (1930), she played a wisecracking flapper and spoke a Mae West -type line, "Cigarette me, Boy," that caught the audience's imagination.

Rogers was chosen as the ingenue star of the George Gershwin musical Girl Crazy, which opened on Broadway on October 14, 1930, and she earned $1,000 per week during its 45-week run. During rehearsals, its writers called in a dancer named Fred Astaire to improve the choreography. Rogers was required to do eight shows a week on Broadway, and in her spare time she made films and occasionally appeared at the Blue Angel. Her schedule allowed her only five hours' sleep, but she managed to make time for one date with Astaire. The two went dancing at the Casino in Central Park to the music of Eddy Duchin. Before a romance could develop, Rogers was offered a contract with RKO and left for the West Coast in June 1931.

To Lela's outrage, the studio bleached Ginger's chestnut hair to blonde. Rogers liked the new color, thinking it softened her features and improved her looks, but waited two days before telling her mother she wanted to keep her hair that way. Lela was mostly annoyed that she had not been consulted, and finally admitted that she was beginning to like it herself. The best of the 14 films Rogers made over the next two years were 42nd Street (1933), which set the mold for the genre of backstage romance and featured her as "Anytime Annie," a social climbing chorus girl, and Gold Diggers of 1933, in which she sang "We're in the Money" in a costume studded with coins. Her real breakthrough came in Flying Down to Rio, also in 1933. Astaire, who had recently arrived in Hollywood, had been hired by RKO for a part in the film. When he needed a partner for a brief dancing number, he asked, "Where is Ginger Rogers? Isn't she on this lot?" Studio heads had loaned her to Paramount and quickly recalled her. Producers were unsure whether full-length dances would appeal to movie audiences, but the Rogers-Astaire number, "The Carioca," was so successful that the picture was re-shot to incorporate her into the story. The two appeared as secondary characters to the stars, Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond, but they were launched on a remarkable dancing partnership. In her autobiography, Rogers noted with some slight wistfulness that, at the time, Astaire had recently married, and she was on the brink of marrying actor Lew Ayres, so whatever romantic possibilities there might have been for them were never realized.

Rogers was loaned out to make films for Fox and Warner Bros. before she and Astaire were teamed again in Roberta (1935), with music by Jerome Kern, which starred Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott, and introduced a model named Lucille Ball . Despite her work on other lots, Rogers practiced with Astaire eight hours a day for six weeks before filming each number. When she was called away for non-musical films, their choreographer Hermes Pan stood in for Rogers as Astaire twirled him around the sound stage; Pan then taught her the routines when she returned to RKO. The Rogers-Astaire numbers in Roberta—"I Won't Dance" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"—became classics.

Other Rogers-Astaire RKO films followed: The Gay Divorcee (released in 1934, before Roberta), Irving Berlin's Top Hat (which many regard as their best collaboration, 1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (her personal favorite, 1936), Shall We Dance (1937), and Carefree (1938). She spent Sundays and holidays rehearsing, many nights recording her songs, and some nights after midnight standing through fittings. Her marriage to Lew Ayres, who was the favorite of her five husbands, foundered under their separate schedules. In 1938, after her marriage ended, she bought a ranch on the Rogue River near Medford, Oregon, and also built a house on the highest point overlooking Beverly Hills. It included a tennis court, projection room, and, as she was a teetotaler, a soda fountain,

for which she became famous. She gave popular and well-publicized parties where, because she followed Christian Science, no liquor was served. Despite the sobriety, the atmosphere led her guests to attempt amazing feats. The night she rented out the Rollerdome in Culver City, Humphrey Bogart strapped on skates and jumped three chairs in succession before attempting a cartwheel. He ended up sliding 15 feet on his trouser pants, to the delight of a photographer for Life.

Rogers' competitive spirit was clear in all she did. She was regarded as one of the best amateur athletes in Hollywood. As she regularly beat men at tennis, ping pong, and bowling, friends nicknamed her "Champ." She also took pride at being a fair Sunday painter, which she said was her only true relaxation from performing.

Meanwhile, studio executives kept Lela busy by putting her in charge of a workshop for young contract players, including Betty Grable and Lucille Ball. Ball, who ended up owning RKO as well as becoming America's top television star, said that Rogers and her mother had done more to promote her career than had anyone else in her early years. At one point, the two were said to have kept RKO from firing Ball after she accidentally pelted Katharine Hepburn with a cup of coffee.

Her fame as Fred Astaire's gossamer partner was not enough to satisfy Ginger Rogers. She was determined to show that she had the talent to be a successful dramatic actress. Though she was RKO's top star, she begged for the role of Queen Elizabeth I opposite Hepburn in Mary, Queen of Scots. To convince director John Ford that she could do it, she tested for the role in full costume under an assumed name. Her stunt was reported in the press, but studio executives decided the embittered Elizabeth would not suit her image.

The 1937 film Stage Door was, by her own description, a milestone in her career, because it afforded her her first real opportunity to show her acting ability. Rogers starred opposite Hepburn, her rival as the most important star at RKO. Hepburn had just appeared in a series of movies that flopped, and executives hoped that Stage Door, a story about aspiring actresses in a New York boarding house, would revive her career. The film was also a showcase for starlets such as Ball, Eve Arden , and Andrea Leeds , who shared top billing with Hepburn and Rogers. Director Gregory LaCava, who adapted it from the Edna Ferber -George S. Kaufman stage play, based much of the dialogue on the actresses' personalities—Hepburn's patrician aloofness and Rogers' careless accessibility. Although Andrea Leeds won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, Rogers treasured her favorable reviews, particularly one from The New Republic: "This is the first chance she has had to be something more than a camera object and stand forth in her own right, pert and charming and just plain nice, her personality flexible in the actor's expression." Rogers noted in her autobiography: "I just loved having the word actor applied to me."

Although she was a top moneymaker at RKO, Rogers found that the studio undervalued her, a point that became particularly clear when Mark Sandrich, who directed the earliest Rogers-Astaire films, advised her to take dancing, singing, and acting lessons. Rogers accepted the fact that she earned less than Astaire, but she also learned that the weekly salaries of the character actors Edward Everett Horton and Victor Moore were double her own. In her autobiography, she claimed that agents and studio heads consistently disparaged the contributions of actresses, but through persistence and the help of the studio head Pandro Berman, Rogers managed to increase her salary to $3,000 per week in the middle of 1939, and to have the sympathetic George Stevens replace Sandrich. Because Astaire developed their routines with their choreographer Hermes Pan, he was regarded as the stronger partner. Rogers felt that she received insufficient credit for her own suggestions, such as doing their number "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" in Shall We Dance (1937) on roller skates and the idea of leaping "over the tables" in a sequence in Carefree (1938). Anna Kisselgoff , chief dance critic of The New York Times, wrote: "Ginger Rogers was a better dancer than most people gave her credit for. She may have swooned and dipped into many a romantic swoon, but her footwork was as precise as Astaire's."

Astaire allowed that Rogers was the only one of his dancing partners (who later included Judy Garland and Lucille Bremer ) who never cried in rehearsals. Arlene Croce wrote in 1972 that "Ginger Rogers danced with love, with pride in the beauty of an illusion and with one of the most elegant dancer's bodies imaginable…. She avoided any suggestion of toil or inadequacy." In his strip "Frank and Ernest," cartoonist Bob Thaves summed up her achievement in a line that many borrowed. He drew a cartoon showing a bedraggled woman and two men standing in front of a poster advertising a "Fred Astaire Film Festival." "Sure he was great," gripes the woman to the men, "but don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did … backwards and in high heels."

Rogers' most important films of the war years were Bachelor Mother (1939), a role she accepted over her better judgment, and Kitty Foyle (1940), for which she won that year's Academy Award for Best Actress. "This is the greatest night of my life," she said in her acceptance speech. "I want to thank the one person who has stood by me faithfully: my mother."

In the 1942 Roxie Hart for Twentieth Century-Fox, based on the play Chicago, Rogers played an ambitious, wisecracking dancer who confesses to a murder committed by her husband so that she will make headlines. Years later, it became a cult film and was turned into the Broadway show Chicago starring Gwen Verdon .

With earnings of $292,150, Rogers was the highest paid Hollywood star in 1945 and the eighth highest salary-earner in the United States. Meanwhile, her mother Lela became a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideas to Combat Communist Infiltration of Hollywood. Ginger herself had been concerned with dialogue that had a "Communist turn" in her 1943 film Tender Comrade. She objected to speaking the line "Share and share alike," and so the producer

gave such speeches to other actors. Lela appeared at hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947, which was the start of the Communist witch hunts. The writer and the director of Tender Comrade, Dalton Trumbo and Edward Dmytryk, were both blacklisted as a result of HUAC investigations.

Ginger Rogers turned 40 in July 1951. Partly because of her age, and partly because of the rise of television, her film career inevitably began to wind down. She again proved herself to be a stalwart trooper and returned to Broadway in Love and Let Love, on October 19, 1951. The run lasted a month. On a vacation to France, she met Jacques Bergerac, a 25-year-old lawyer from Biarritz. She married him and made him her costar in the 1954 film Twist of Fate (released as Beautiful Stranger in the United Kingdom), although their marriage ended in divorce in 1957. She was also married to William Marshall, a producer, from 1961 to 1967.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Rogers toured with Annie Get Your Gun, Hello Dolly, Mame, Coco, and Forty Carats, among others. As Peter B. Flint noted in her obituary in The New York Times, reviewers attributed her enduring career to a dualistic personality; she could be both tough and vulnerable, ingenuous and calculating, and she had a talent for mimicry and affectation. An ardent Republican and Christian Scientist to the end, Ginger Rogers died on April 25, 1995, at her home in Rancho Mirage, California.


Author's interview with Ginger Rogers. February 25, 1992.

Current Biography. April 1967. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1967.

The New York Times (obituary). April 26, 1995.

Rogers, Ginger. Ginger: My Story. NY: HarperCollins, 1991.

Time. April 10, 1939.

related media:

Hollywood: The Golden Years. BBC Television Productions in Association with RKO Pictures, 1987.

Kathleen Brady , author of Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball (Hyperion) and Ida Tarbell: Portrait of A Muckraker (University of Pittsburgh Press)

About this article

Rogers, Ginger (1911–1995)

Updated About content Print Article