Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Rita Hayworth, Tragic Princess

by Anne Helen Petersen

Readers, Rita Hayworth had something. And by something, I mean everything. This little girl from Brooklyn, exploited at the hands of her domineering father, forced to change her name and her hairline to get rid of her pesky Latinness, had the sort of beauty and verve that unite to form charisma. She’s gorgeous, but so are many classic Hollywood stars. What sets her apart is the alacrity in her eyes, the persistent bounce in her step — when you see her onscreen, it seems like everyone else is just sleepwalking.

But Hayworth’s story is also a tragic one: in addition to undergoing a very public and very graphic (and very literal) erasure of her heritage, she also endured mental abuse and manipulation at the hands of multiple men. But Hayworth also managed to galavant across the globe in the 1940s with a man who was not her husband — at the exact time when Ingrid Bergman was busy being denounced on the Senate floor as an “instrument of evil” for doing the same thing. And Hayworth’s man was not only not her husband — he wasn’t even Christian! HE WAS A ‘MOSLEM’! FROM ARABIA! (I am not making these words up — they were in the gossip columns.)

But because this man was a prince, and Hayworth would (hopefully, fingers crossed, please don’t show as pregnant before this happens) be made a princess, it was somehow forgivable. She had endured a life of transformation and heartbreak, all of it very much in the public eye, and so there were things that audiences wanted for her — happiness, a family, princess-dom — that made them willing to forgive pesky technicalities. But the lustre of royalty did not last, and Hayworth moved on: to a string of moderate hits, to more husbands, to relative obscurity.

But for a brief period in the late ’40s, she was the closest thing America had to a Cinderella.

Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Cansino, in Brooklyn, to two showbiz parents. Her father, Eduardo, was a Spanish dancer; her mother, Volga, had been a Ziegfield girl. (Ziegfield Girl = Chorus Girl. Think ’30s version of a Pussycat Doll.) Margarita’s grandfather had been a HUGE DEAL in Spanish dancing — he brought the bolero to American audiences — and it was he who gave Hayworth her first dance lesson at age three.

From then on, Hayworth was in constant dance training. Her family moved to Hollywood when she was eight, and her father began giving personal lessons to big studio stars. But the Depression tightened belts both in and outside of Hollywood, and dance instruction was one of the first luxuries to go. But Eduardo Cansino had a plan: he would make Rita his dance partner, and they could go dance in Tijuana clubs as “The Dancing Cansinos.” Nevermind that this arrangement suggested Rita to be her father’s wife — the pair was a HUGE HIT. And it was in one of these Tijuana nightclubs that Hayworth was spotted by a talent scout for Fox Studios, who quickly signed her, under the name Rita Consuelo, to a six-month contract.

But Consuelo was nothing special, at least not yet. She appeared in very small parts in a number of very small films, and at the end of her six month contract, Fox unceremoniously let her go. At all of 18, she eloped to Vegas with Edward Judson, a businessman-turned-talent-manager as old as her father. Judson helped land Consuelo a string of bit parts, eventually winning her a screen test with Columbia Pictures in 1937. Columbia signed her to a seven-year contract, but Consuelo spent her first months with the studio typecast as sultry, dancing (bit-part) Latinas. Columbia wanted a new star — someone to rival MGM’s glamour. But to turn Cansino into such a star, drastic measures were apparently necessary.

How do you de-Latinize a beautiful woman? Take away her widow’s peak. And get rid of her black hair. Cansino went into seclusion, underwent extensive hairline electrolysis, dyed her hair flaming red, and re-emerged as Rita Hayworth.

And so this woman:

Became this one:

What’s most remarkable about this transformation isn’t how blatantly racist it is. Rather, it’s that it wasn’t a secret. Columbia didn’t try to cover up what it was doing to its star; rather, they publicized the shit out of it.

As Adrienne McLean explains in Being Rita Hayworth (if you have any interest in Hayworth, or in star transformation in general, this book is an absolute must), Columbia collaborated with various publications to create an image for Hayworth as a Spanish dancer working hard to “overcome her type,” namely, that of a Spanish dancer. One fan magazine has Hayworth explaining “That’s one reason I changed my name… I didn’t want to be known only as a dancer.” She dieted, took voice lessons, dyed her hair, learned to act, and made a decision to always dress glamorously at all times. It’s as if Vanessa from Gossip Girl suddenly became a Blair/Serena hybrid.

Glamorous at all times FOR REAL.

Hayworth appeared, in short order, on the cover of both Look and Life, and became known for her “love” for the press — “Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and Margaret Sullavan may appear in dungarees and polo coat and scowl at the camera boys as though they were boogey men, but not Rita. She gives them their money’s worth,” according to one fan magazine. More likely: Columbia told her to ham it up whenever possible because the studio, always a “minor” compared to the Big Five (MGM, Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros, RKO), needed a glamour girl.

By 1940, there were 3,800 stories and 12,000 pictures of Hayworth in circulation. Girl was visible. Appearances in gradually more high-profile films — with Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), with Joan Crawford in Susan and God (1940), and a big hit in Strawberry Blonde with James Cagney and Olivia De Havilland (1941) — made it clear: Hayworth was a true star.

Throughout this period, Columbia labored to make it clear that Hayworth was not a dancer, because the Rita who danced was exotic, black-haired, doomed to type-casting, and a failure as a star.

But in 1941, Columbia loaned Hayworth to Fox for the role of Doña Sol des Muire, a “sultry Spanish socialite” who seduces bullfighter Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand. SPANISH HERITAGE COMES IN HANDY WHEN YOU NEED IT! But unlike her other films, in which Hayworth played the Spanish dancing lady because that was the only thing she could play, her role in Blood and Sand was sold in the spirit of masquerade. In other words, Hayworth showed that she could act Spanish, even though she was now thoroughly Anglicized.

The film was a smash, and Columbia cast her in a series of happy happy dancey dancey films with the master of the happy dancey films, Fred Astaire.

You’ll Never Get Rich and You Were Never Lovelier were ready-made hits, and Astaire, ever the exacting secret asshole, admitted that Hayworth was “a natural.” “She’s constantly surprising me,” he averred. “Nothing is too difficult for her. She watches, goes home, practices up, and the next day she’s got it perfect.” I mean look at this clip (fastforward to about 1:25; make sure you stick with it to the end).

Here’s what you realize:
1. You want a dress that twirls exactly like that.
2. Fred Astaire was really quite skinny.
3. The dancing was filmed with four continuous shots — not the rapid cut and pasting of current dance films, which allow dancers to mess up and get edited to look good. Astaire and Hayworth had to dance perfectly — and uninterrupted — for minutes at a time. It’s a marvel to behold.
4. Rita was a really good wobble dancer.

(If you’re in the mood for something even sassier, tap-dance wise, go spend some time here.)

Hayworth may have lacked the slick grace of Astaire’s longtime partner Ginger Rogers, but what she lacked in polish she made up for in verve. There’s something about the way she flings her appendages that just screams ALIVE.

During this period, Hayworth became one of the most popular pin-ups for soldiers during World War II. To put it more bluntly: hundreds of thousands of soldiers regularly used her photo for masturbatory purposes between the years of 1941 and 1945. I mean, that’s what a war pin-up is, and we might as well say it: government-sponsored soft porn, distributed en masse to relieve sexual tension.

Remember how Morgan Freeman gave Tim Robbins Hayworth’s poster in Shawshank Redemption? There’s a Wikipedia entry entitled “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.” That’s how crucial she was to so many people’s narratives in the 1940s. And I mean, holy shit, look at the photo — it’s more than looking good in negligee, which she obviously does. It’s all about the expression on her face, a cross between a question and an invitation. And it’s that face — that ability to make each person who saw it seem personally invited — that differentiates the lingerie models from the stars, and that separates, say, Megan Fox sucking on her finger from Rita Hayworth in a coy kneel.

After years of enduring mental abuse and threats of physical violence from her first husband, Hayworth walked out on him in 1942, filing divorce on grounds of cruelty. He had stolen all of her money, but she was free. At least for a year, at which point she married Orson Welles, known, at this point, for his arrogance and brilliance.

The wedding was low-key — Hayworth wore a blouse and skirt — and surprised most of their friends. A suitable number of months later, Hayworth and Welles had a baby and posed for a lot of ridiculously cute photos.

I mean, what’s going on here?

Is Welles the bull to Hayworth’s matador? Or is Welles just f-ing crazy? It’s unclear, but what seemed clear, at least to the reading public, was that Hayworth had found happiness. Welles might have been a megalomaniac (and The Magnificent Ambersons, released the year before the marriage, had incited a high profile meltdown between Welles and his studio) but he had provided Hayworth with the necessary pieces for domestic bliss: husband, baby, home.

Between 1944 and 1947, Hayworth became one of the most valuable stars in Hollywood. She starred with Gene Kelly in Cover Girl and appeared in full Technicolor in Tonight and Every Night, which showcased Hayworth samba-ing in this obvious inspiration for the Princess Leia get-up.

And then there was Gilda. The plot for this film noir is somewhat throwaway, but it shows Hayworth at the height of her hotness powers, and I would gladly watch the other 109 minutes of the film in order to see these 11 seconds, immortalized all over the internet (and in my Twitter avatar):

Watch it on mute if you have to — just watch it. Because that fling of the hair, that raise of the eyebrows — “Gilda, are you decent?”

I DIE. I die a thousand Classic Hollywood beautiful deaths. There’s a pantheon of perfect moments in cinema, and this moment resides there, right between the moment when Paul Henreid lights Bette Davis’ cigarette in Now, Voyager and Claudette Colbert hikes up her skirt on the side of the road in It Happened One Night. (Feel free to add your own classic moments in the comments, but realize that this one wins by default.)

The film doesn’t need anything else but that moment, but it one-ups itself with Hayworth singing “Put the Blame on Mame.” TWICE.

Once all sad, sultry, and acoustic guitar sad-sack:

And again, all awesome and spunky and bringing down the house:

The primary purpose of these performances is to highlight Hayworth’s ability to wear the hell out of a strapless dress. I MEAN REALLY. (When asked what held up her dress during the scene, Hayworth’s reply: “Two things.”) But the song’s secondary purpose is more hidden: the “Mame” of the song is responsible for three of America’s most tragic disasters, and she essentially sparked each catastrophe vis-a-vis a love affair. Naturally, Hayworth’s character in Gilda, like Hayworth herself, destroys things — including herself — with her love. She doesn’t mean to; it just happens. Later that year, “Gilda” was inscribed on the first nuclear bomb tests post World War II in the Bikini Atoll. I am not making this up.

In 1947, Welles directed and co-starred with Hayworth in The Lady of Shanghai, marking the effective disintegration of the couple’s marriage. In hindsight, the film functions as a huge “fuck you”: Welles made Hayworth cut her trademark auburn curls and dyed what remained an off-putting platinum blonde. The film took away Hayworth’s trademark skills — her ability to dance, to make her hair bounce, to move — that had typified her performances to that point. Welles was essentially renovating her image, with or without her consent.

The head of Columbia Studios, Harry Cohn, was furious. And rightly so: the film was a stink bomb, in part because it so clearly deviated from what had endeared Hayworth to audiences. Today, we call such a massive physical transformation an “Oscar Turn,” but back then, it was an audience betrayal. To many, it seemed as if Welles was punishing Hayworth for her classic Hollywood-ness, attempting to exclude her from the mainstream in the same way that he had exiled himself.

Welles had become insufferable. Hayworth filed for divorce soon thereafter, explaining “I can’t take his genius any more.” Rita, I know the feeling. I can only take Welles in two-hour sections, so I can only imagine what it must have been like to spend the evening — let alone five years — at his side. Was he constantly thinking in terms of allegory? Were there sleds all over the house? Did he make you do radio plays in the basement with elaborate side effects?

And although their divorce was still pending, the third act of Hayworth’s life had already begun. Her next film, The Loves of Carmen, was a return to form, with Hayworth playing Carmen to Glenn Ford’s Don Juan. It’s somewhat ridiculous, but audiences flocked to it the same way they flocked to Julia Robert’s glorious return to form in My Best Friend’s Wedding after years of Mary Reilly against-type-ness.

How did they make her hair grow so fast?

And just as Carmen hit theaters, Hayworth was all over the gossip columns with a super hot new romance. In July of 1948, old biddie gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell threw a party on the French Riveria, at which she introduced Hayworth to Prince Aly Khan, son of Aga Khan, the ruler of “the world’s Ishamili Muslims.” Dude was bars-of-gold rich, known as one of the world’s “great lovers,” and conveniently separated (if not yet divorced) from his wife/the mother of his two sons. The two meet, totally make out, and start spending a lot of time to together in very public places, but insist nothing’s going on.

But let’s refresh. Here’s what we have:

1. One very wealthy prince, arguably available.
2. One very beautiful actress, arguably the most popular star in the world, and arguably available.

UMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM . . . something was obviously going on.

After a few months of promoting her films up and down the Riveria, Hayworth returned to Hollywood. She found a script waiting for her, decided it sucked, and refused to report to set. Columbia put her on suspension, and she fled to Mexico, where BIG SURPRISE a Prince just happened to be waiting.

Naturally the gossip press went full-bore crazytime. And here’s where things get really awesome: the totally-not-a-couple holds a joint press conference in Mexico to staunch rumors of their relationship. The proof? They were both still married! They were totally just giving each other back rubs in Mexico!

I imagine this went over about as well as Brad Pitt’s avowals that he and Angelina were totally not having hot and heavy sex when he went to visit her in Africa. But then photos of Pitt making sand castles with Maddox on the African coast magically appeared, and the non-cover was blown.

For Hayworth and Khan, denial did very little. It was clear that the two, still legally married to others, were intimate. The press began to attack. Even when Hayworth’s divorce became final and Khan announced their intention to marry as soon as he was free, religious groups were threatening boycotts. Recall that this was early 1949 — just months later, Ingrid Bergman would be denounced on the senate floor for her affair with Roberto Rossellini.

But before any of the Bergman mess took place, things fell into place for Hayworth and her prince. Khan’s wife finalized the divorce, and the couple had a very royal wedding in May.

The Prince and Well-Bonneted Princess.

Fast forward a few months, and OH BIG SURPRISE, Hayworth is pregnant! Baby Khan is born seven months after the wedding date — a “preemie” that somehow looks FULLY GROWN! Amazing! But all rumors are quashed by the lovely fact that this baby, daughter of Rita Hayworth, half sister to the spawn of Orson Welles, just happens to be a princess.

As has proven true with so many gossip cases, the public verdict hinged on timing. Were Hayworth and Khan having an extramarital affair? Okay, maybe. But did they get married really soon and make it all pretty and bombastic and take pictures for the gossip magazines? YES! YES THEY DID! Was their child conceived before they were married? Most likely, yes. But they did get married, and the baby was born in wedlock, making the baby an authentic (not-exactly-totally-white, okay, fine, we’ll deal with it) princess.

But it wasn’t just the princessdom that made the public forgive Hayworth. She had gone through so much — manipulative parents, manipulative husbands, manipulative studios — and done it all in the eyes of the gossip-reading public. If you watched movies and knew anything about stars in the late ’40s, you knew that Rita Hayworth had suffered her fair share. Just like today’s readers yearn for Jen Aniston to find love, the readers of yore hoped that Hayworth, who really just wanted a traditional romance and domestic happiness, to find the idyll she sought. Sure, the guy wasn’t white, wasn’t a Christian, and was still married. But he seemed to be offering happiness to someone who seemed to deserve it, which made their transgressions all the more forgivable.

Whether then or today, it’s all about the way a romance is sold, and the way a star’s image is situated. As I mentioned earlier, mere months later, Bergman was decried and essentially banished to Europe — not because the public didn’t like her, but because Bergman had a domestic idyll, and forsook it for a fling with a skinny Italian in sunglasses.

In the end, it’s not about means so much as the end. To extend on my never-ending Pitt-Jolie-Aniston comparison, it doesn’t matter if Brad Pitt cheated on his wife, so long as the woman with whom he cheated essentially turned him into a domestic figure and the father of six children. In the same way, what happened in the lead-up to Hayworth and Khan’s marriage didn’t matter, nor did the specifics of Khan’s princedom. What did matter was that Hayworth seemed to have found happiness.

With her marriage, Hayworth retreated from Hollywood, filing the gossip press with speculation that she would never return to the big screen. And she did stay away, playing the role of the domestic wife, tending to her two daughters and traveling the world. But trouble was brewing, and in 1951, Khan was spotted dancing with Joan Fontaine, aka the star of Rebecca, in a Vegas nightclub. THE NERVE.

Hayworth publicly called for a divorce, established residency in Nevada (which was what you had to do in those days to actually get a divorce), and the marriage finally ended in early 1953. In the meantime, Hayworth returned to the screen with two hits (Salome and Miss Sadie Thompson) each of which exploited her established star image.

Yet mere months after the finalization of her divorce to Khan, she married a clear skeezeball named Dick Haymes. Haymes, a lounge singer whose career was on the decline, was still married to his wife (do you see a pattern here?) and owed tens of thousands in back taxes and child support. God this guy sounds AWESOME.

And then things went into freefall. It almost makes me too sad to talk about it, so I’m just going to type a list of decline:

1. Haymes convinces Hayworth to fight with Columbia, effectively keeping her off the screen for four years. Four years!

2. Aly Khan starts fighting for custody of their daughter, Yasmin. This is obviously a bad scene. Hayworth issues xenophobic statements vowing now to let her daughter grow up out of the United States, Aly Khan wants her to grow up a princess, which, okay, has its merits.

3. With Hayworth off the screen and Haymes’ salary seized by the IRS, the two are too poor even to pay their hotel bills.

4. Hayworth sends her kids to go live with a nanny while things get sorted out. Confidential, the most widely read scandal rag of the time, gets photos of the kids playing in the nanny’s backyard, which just happens to be filled with a few unfortunately placed ash heaps and trash. Does not help Hayworth’s case in the custody battle.

5. Dick[face] hits Hayworth in public at a night club in Los Angeles. A thoroughly humiliated Hayworth leaves him.

6. Hayworth attempts a comeback, appearing in Pal Joey and a few other musicals that mostly just make me cringe, like when you see Old Tom Cruise trying to be Top Gun Tom Cruise. Not because she was old, but because the verve, the very light of her, seemed to have gone out.

7. Hayworth marries Husband #5, who yet again swindles her of most of her money.

After years of decline, poverty forced her to sign on for a B-grade Western with the equally washed up Robert Mitchum. And at 54, decades of alcohol and stress had aged her prematurely. Her memory was failing, and she had to shoot each of her scenes one line at a time. This from the woman who had nailed her performance of “Put the Blame on Mame” on the second take.

The sad truth was that Hayworth was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and would spend the next 20 years gradually losing herself and every memory of her bittersweet life. She was eventually put under the care of her daughter Yasmin, then a grown woman, and spent her final years staring out a window in Central Park West.

I look at pictures and watch footage of Rita Hayworth, and see a resilience and vivacity that could only endure for so long. She was the plaything of her studios and the media, and lived in the imagination of countless men and women around the world. Millions wanted her to find happiness and were willing to forgive any matter of indiscretion in order for her to find it. She searched for it — through studio-shaped images, new names, and a laundry list of husbands — but fame makes many things elusive, especially contentment and peace. When asked how it felt to have everything, she replied, “I haven’t had everything from life. I’ve had too much.”

And I watch that cherished moment in Gilda, or the way she flung her arms and legs in abandon during her in her dance scenes with Astaire, and I see a woman aching to live. Which is why it’s so tragic that a woman so clearly filled with life, in the end, found it so hard to live a full one.

Previously: Paul Newman, Decency Manifest.

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.