Rita Hayworth was one of the most iconic stars of her day. Nicknamed “The Love Goddess,” Hayworth’s image graced many a silver screen and was beloved by fans the world over.
Margarita Carmen Cansino was born in Brooklyn, New York, the oldest child of two dancers. Her father, Eduardo Cansino Sr., hailed from a small town near Seville, Spain. Her mother, Volga Hayworth, was an American who performed with the Ziegfeld Follies. The couple met and married in 1917, with Margarita being born the following year. The couple also had two sons named Eduardo Jr. and Vernon.
While Volga wished for her daughter to become an actress, Eduardo wanted Margarita to become a professional dancer. Her paternal grandfather, Antonio Cansino, was an esteemed dancer in his own right and had popularized the bolero, in addition to maintaining a world-famous dancing school in Madrid.
By the age of three, Margarita was learning to dance at home, later attending dance classes daily at a Carnegie Hall complex. There, she was taught by her uncle, Angel Cansino. At the time of her fifth birthday, she was part of a Broadway production as one of the Four Cansinos in The Greenwich Village Follies. At age eight, she would appear in a short film for Warner Brothers called La Fiesta (1926).
In 1927, Margarita’s family moved to Hollywood, as her father believed that dancing was a critical component of many films and wanted to take advantage of his family’s dancing abilities. Eduardo established a dance studio in town, training the likes of James Cagney and Jean Harlow. Once the Great Depression occurred, his business was affected, causing him to lose all of his investments. As a result, he partnered with 12-year-old Margarita to create an act called the Dancing Cansinos. However, Margarita was too young to work in nightclubs and bars per California law. In response, Eduardo took her to Tijuana, Mexico, which was a popular tourist destination.
Though Margarita never graduated from high school because she was always working, she did complete ninth grade at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles.
By age 16, Margarita found herself working in the film industry. She carried out a bit part in Cruz Diablo (1934) and in In Caliente (1935) with Dolores Del Rio. While dancing with her father at various nightclubs, she was seen by Winfield Sheehan, the head of the Fox Film Corporation, who made arrangements for Margarita to have a screen test. Shortly thereafter, she was signed to a six-month contract as Rita Cansino.
At Fox, she appeared in various roles that were not memorable, working in Dante’s Inferno (1935), Under the Pampas Moon (1935), Charlie Chan in Egypt (1934), and Paddy O’Day (1935). Sheehan’s goal was to have Cansino become the next Dolores del Rio. This plan was thwarted when Fox merged into 20th Century Fox, as the executive producer was now Darryl F. Zanuck. Zanuck did not renew Cansino’s contract.
In response, salesman and promoter Edward C. Judson found freelance work for Cansino, securing roles for her in small-studio films. Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, signed her to a seven-year contract and began to cast her in minor roles. Cohn saw her as an actress with an exotic image and felt that her last name sounded too Spanish. As a result, Rita Cansino became Rita Hayworth, adopting her mother’s maiden name, to the dismay of her father. In doing so, Cohn hoped that audience would accept her new image. A new name was not the only change that was executed; Hayworth had her hair dyed red and underwent electrolysis procedures to raise her hairline and make her forehead more prominent.
In 1937, Hayworth appeared in five films for Columbia Pictures and eloped with Judson in Las Vegas. She was cast in a small but significant role in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), alongside Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, which drew attention to Hayworth. She began receiving ample amounts of fan mail and was quickly becoming Columbia’s new star.
As a result, Cohn continued to build up Hayworth’s image, casting her in films such as Music in My Heart (1940) and Angels Over Broadway (1940). She was loaned to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for Susan and God (1940) with Joan Crawford. Later, she was loaned to Warner Brothers, where she was cast in The Strawberry Blonde (1941) with James Cagney. Her popularity continued to rise and Warner Brothers tried to buy her Columbia contract but Cohn refuse to release Hayworth.
During this time, she divorced Judson with a complaint of cruelty. Judson had failed to tell her that he had been previously married twice. When Hayworth left him, she had no money and turned to friend and choreographer Hermes Pan for support.
Hayworth’s screen credits continued, allowing her to continue working with other major stars. She carried out a supporting role in Blood and Sand (1941) with Tyrone Power and Linda Darnall for Fox, which had dropped her years ago. Her time working for Columbia continued with roles in You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) and You Were Never Lovelier (1942), both of which partnered her with Fred Astaire. At this time, she posed for her iconic Life photo, which featured her in a negligee. This image made Hayworth one of the top two pin-up girls of World War II, with the other being Betty Grable.
In 1943, she would marry Orson Welles in a civil ceremony. The couple promptly returned to the studio hours after the ceremony to go back to work.
Cover Girl (1944) would establish Hayworth as Columbia’s top star of the 1940s, while also giving her the distinction of being the first of six women to dance on screen with Astaire and Gene Kelly.
In the same year, Hayworth gave birth to daughter Rebecca Welles. Despite the new addition to the family, Hayworth and Welles had a difficult marriage. While Welles did not want to be tied down to one person, Hayworth still considered him her greatest love. They divorced in 1947.
Though Hayworth showed off her ballet, tap, ballroom, and Spanish dancing abilities in many of her films, her seductive and glamorous image was most prominent in Gilda (1946), making her an iconic femme fatale. Gilda, which also starred Glenn Ford, was soon followed by a critically acclaimed performance in The Lady from Shanghai (1947). A subsequent Life article dubbed Hayworth “The Love Goddess.” Hayworth and Ford would work together once again in The Loves of Carmen (1948), which would be another major success.
In the same year, Hayworth was introduced to Prince Aly Khan, the son of a sultan, during a trip to Cannes. They were married on May 27, 1949, leading Hayworth to leave Hollywood for France, thereby breaking her Columbia contract. The wedding was heavily publicized around the world for her star status and gained some notoriety because she was still legally married to Welles at the time. Nonetheless, Hayworth was the first Hollywood actress to become a princess. Later that year, she gave birth to their only daughter, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan.
Though Hayworth was eager to start a new life, she struggled to fit in with her new environment and with Khan’s playboy lifestyle. Complications also arose regarding how they would raise their daughter; Khan offered Hayworth $1 million to raise her as a Muslim but Hayworth wished to raise her as a Christian. By 1951, she sailed to New York with her daughters and the couple officially divorced in 1953. A young Yasmin played in the courtroom during the divorce proceedings, even climbing onto the Judge’s lap at one point.
Hayworth returned to Columbia for a comeback film called Affair in Trinidad (1952), which reunited her with Ford. Though nervous about her return to the motion picture industry, the film grossed $1 million more than Gilda. Hayworth followed this film with roles in Salome (1953) and Miss Sadie Thompson (1953). After a difficult four-year marriage to singer Dick Haymes, marred by his alcoholism, staggering debt, and questionable citizenship status, negative publicity affected her appeal. She also found herself in need of money, failing to gain child support from Khan and suing Welles for back payment of child support. When she returned to the screen once again in Fire Down Below (1957), Kim Novak had already established herself as the top female star for Columbia.
Hayworth left Columbia permanently after completing Pal Joey (1957), following this with a three-year marriage to film producer James Hill. While Hill wanted Hayworth to continue making films, she wanted them both to retire from Hollywood. As a result, the couple’s relationship was strained and Hill exhibited abusive behavior. They would divorce in 1961.
Hayworth continued to act through the 1960s and 1970s. A planned Broadway debut was cancelled due to health reasons, while The Money Trap (1964) cast her alongside Ford for the last time. Her final film was The Wrath of God (1972).
Hayworth struggled with alcohol as the stresses of difficult relationships and a need for more money kept piling on. She began to experience issues with memorizing her lines and her mental state was all the more devastated when both of her brothers died within a week of each other.
While her family members attributed her angry outbursts as effects of the alcohol she was consuming, they would later find out that her alcoholism had masked the symptoms of what would eventually be understood as Alzheimer’s disease. Hayworth would become the first public face of Alzheimer’s.
She passed away in her Manhattan home on May 14, 1987, at age 68.
Today, Hayworth is memorialized in many different ways and continues to be loved by fans all over the world. While there are a few locations of relevance to her, her memory lives on far beyond any physical tributes.
In the 1920s, she and her father, brother, and a servant named Hattie Smith lived at 480 Central Park West in New York. By 1925, the family lived at 6420 35th Ave in Queens, New York. Both properties remain residential today.
In 1930, the family was living at 1463 Stearns Dr. in Los Angeles. Hayworth’s alma mater, Hamilton High School, stands at 2955 S. Robertson Blvd. in Los Angeles. By 1940, Hayworth was living at 201 Veteran Ave. with Edward Judson in Los Angeles. The two Los Angeles homes remain residential.
As one can imagine, Hayworth traveled extensively throughout her career, taking trips to New York, San Francisco, Honolulu, Southampton, and more. During these trips, her name varied, listing her as Margarita Welles, or later, Margarita Hill. As a testament to her many travels in style, it is fitting that her custom-made Cadillac resides at the Petersen Automotive Museum, located at 6060 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles.
Over time, public discussion of Hayworth’s illness drew attention to Alzheimer’s disease, leading to an increase in federal funding for Alzheimer’s research. Today, the Rita Hayworth Gala benefits the Alzheimer’s Association every year in Chicago and New York City. The program was founded in 1985 by Yasmin and has since raised more than $72 million.
Additionally, in 2016, Hayworth’s friend and former manager, Budd Burton moss, started a campaign for a commemorative postage stamp in honor of Hayworth in addition to an honorary Academy Award. The campaign is currently in progress, with a target fulfillment date of October 17, 2018, which would have been Hayworth’s centennial.
Overall, Hayworth impacted the film industry and rapidly became one of its top stars. It is fitting to continue celebrating her work throughout her centenary month and beyond.