Rita Hayworth’s glamorous screen image hid a life of sadness and abuse. Photo / Getty Images
There’s a Stephen King novella in which a man, wrongly imprisoned for life, spends 25 years staring at a picture of Rita Hayworth on the wall of his cell. The photograph hides a hole he has patiently chiselled in the concrete, his only means of escape. For the prisoner, the pin-up is a symbol of freedom and hope. Yet the real Hayworth knew little of either. Abused by her father, then mistreated by a succession of studio heads and appalling husbands, she made 61 films in 37 years before a dismal end, ravaged by alcoholism and Alzheimer’s.
“Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. That was my girlhood,” she said. Born Margarita Carmen Cansino in New York in 1918, she was the daughter of Spanish flamenco dancer Eduardo Cansino. When she was 12, he took her out of school to be his full-time dancing partner, dressing her in skimpy clothes and scarlet lipstick.
To evade American child labour laws, the pair worked on gambling boats off the California coast and in sleazy casinos and nightclubs in Mexico.
“I didn’t like dancing very much,” she said later. “But I didn’t have the courage to tell my father.”
Mistakes on stage resulted in severe beatings. Cansino would introduce his child as his wife. Decades later, when Hayworth’s biographer Barbara Leaming interviewed the star’s third husband, Orson Welles, the whole truth came out.
“Orson told me about her rages and personality changes,” she said. “One day I asked him about incest. That incredible voice broke. And he said, ‘Yes, it was true.’ Eduardo raped her in the afternoons and danced with her at night.”
In 1935, after bit parts as a “Latin extra” in movies shot in Mexico, the 16-year-old Margarita was spotted in a club in Agua Caliente by a Fox producer, who signed her.
The teenage starlet was soon in a string of B-movies — while being wooed by a chancer called Edward Charles Judson, who posed as a Texas oilman but was, in fact, a car salesman.
He persuaded her to hire him as her manager, and then, in May 1937, to marry him.
“Basically, I am a good, gentle person, but I am attracted to mean personalities,” Hayworth told People in 1974. Judson was worse than mean. The thrice-divorced 41-year-old called the 18-year-old actress his “investment”.
He made her dye her black hair auburn, and raise her hairline by painful electrolysis. If she resisted his demands, he hit her.
He even offered her to the head of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, as a mistress. (“People thought he was a pimp,” recalled one Hollywood agent.)
Cohn signed the actress, and Rita Cansino became Rita Hayworth, the surname a nod to her mother Volga Hayworth, a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl.
By 1941, Hayworth was famous. She had starred in The Strawberry Blonde, Blood and Sand and the Fred Astaire film You’ll Never Get Rich; she had been on the cover of Time. Finally, she felt able to leave Judson. He threatened to throw acid in her face, and only agreed to a divorce after she signed over a chunk of lucrative California real estate and $12,000 in cash. “He helped me with my career and helped himself to my money,” she said, after the divorce was settled in February 1942.
Hayworth was suddenly America’s most famous single woman. Life called her “The Great American Love Goddess” and the label stuck, though she demurred: “I naturally am very shy and I suffer from an inferiority complex.”
Bob Landry’s famous photograph of her on a bed in a lacy nightgown bewitched Orson Welles, who pursued her after her affair with the billionaire Howard Hughes had fizzled out. In 1943, she married Welles.
Then, in 1946, came the defining moment of her career: Gilda. Singing Put the Blame on Mame, dressed in a clinging black satin strapless gown, she seductively removes arm-length gloves. “When she made Gilda the whole world fell in love with her,” said the agent Budd Burton Moss. By this point, she was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actresses — earning more than £5 million a year in today’s money — and had a hefty contract with Max Factor lipstick. But for Hayworth, success was bittersweet.
She was typecast as a siren: “Gilda became a hindrance,” she said in 1967. “I didn’t want to be Gilda all my life.” A month after the film came out, a picture of Hayworth was glued to the first atom bomb to be tested in peacetime. “Rita almost went insane, she was so angry,” said Welles. Their marriage was imploding, too. Welles would give her reading lists to improve her mind; both were unfaithful. In 1947, they divorced.
Then came the row with Columbia over her affair with the playboy Prince Aly Khan, a married Muslim, which led the General Federation of Women’s Clubs to boycott her films. “I was really in deep slavery,” Hayworth complained, claiming that Columbia had bugged her dressing room. In 1948, after an illicit trip to Europe with Khan, she was sued for breach of contract, inspiring the Hollywood Reporter headline: “From Cohn to Cannes to Khan to Canned”. She married Khan, and had a daughter, Princess Yasmin. But two years later, citing “extreme cruelty, entirely mental in nature”, she divorced him.
Hayworth was not without self-awareness — “Every man I knew had fallen in love with Gilda and wakened with me,” she once said — but she never learnt from her mistakes. In 1953, she bounced into marriage with the big-band singer Dick Haymes, a scheming, violent alcoholic known throughout Hollywood as “Mr Evil”. Her fifth marriage, in 1958, to film producer James Hill, was another appalling choice. Charlton Heston described a meal with the newlyweds in Spain as “the single most embarrassing evening of my life”. He said Hill heaped “obscene abuse” on Hayworth until she was “reduced to a helpless flood of tears, her face buried in her hands”.
As the 1960s wore on, Hayworth felt cast aside by Hollywood, telling one reporter: “I’m an actress. I have depth. I have feeling. But they don’t care. All they want is an image.” In 1976, there were reports of her “looking dishevelled, distressed and waving her arms in protest” at Heathrow. Days later, she seemed confused on a chat show. Believing her to be disabled by chronic alcoholism, a court put an administrator in charge of her affairs. What was not yet apparent was that she was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s, only diagnosed in 1980. Her daughter Yasmin cared for her until her death in 1987, aged 68.
“I’ve had a lot of unhappiness in my life — who doesn’t?” Hayworth once said.
She would dream back to a blissful moment in her childhood when, having given her father the slip, she sat by herself on a merry-go-round on the New Jersey pier. “Ever since then if I don’t like where I am, or who I’m with, or myself — if I don’t like me, which happens the most often — that carousel comes to mind, and once I hear the music, I am back on that horse,” she said.
“It always makes me sad, because somehow, someone or something will be along, and I’ll have to leave.”