Tracing the Sad End of a World-Famous Beauty

The interview with Princess Yasmin Aga Khan Jeffries on the last years of her mother, actress Rita Hayworth--which appeared in The Times’ View section last week--produced two vivid flashes for me.

The first was the Life magazine cover portrait of Hayworth, kneeling on a couch in a negligee, that I saw on every barracks wall in World War II from San Francisco to the most remote Pacific atoll. It was, without question, the sexiest piece of art I’ve ever seen--and she was completely covered.

The second flash is more painful--and a lot more recent. I suspect that few Orange Countians know that Rita Hayworth made her last unchaperoned public appearance in Newport Beach--and that it culminated in a tragic series of events in which I became involved after the fact as a magazine writer.

In late February, 1977, a press release was circulated to Orange County media saying that Hayworth was going to act as hostess at a showing of the works of a little-known local artist at a Newport Beach condominium. The irony of this woman--still a relatively young 58--who was for several years the top box-office draw in Hollywood, appearing at such a function was lost on everyone who received the press release except Times reporter Shearlean Duke, the only writer to follow up on the offer of an interview. It turned out to be the last one-on-one interview Hayworth ever gave.

Less than a week later, she was being held in a posh private suite at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, and the Orange County counsel’s office--at the request of a Hoag staff psychiatrist--had petitioned the Superior Court to appoint a temporary conservator of the “person and estate of Margarita Cansino, a.k.a. Rita Hayworth.”

Although the medical reasons for the request were sealed by Judge Claude M. Owens, the petition said that Hayworth was “gravely disabled as a result of a mental disorder or impairment by chronic alcoholism and is unwilling to accept, or incapable of accepting, treatment voluntarily.”

This, of course, made headlines all over the world, and Good Housekeeping magazine asked me to find out how she got into this predicament. It was like unraveling a detective story--and it was immeasurably sad.

Hayworth’s life had been masticated in the public press for 3 decades. Her five marriages (the most famous of her husbands were Orson Welles, Prince Aly Khan and singer Dick Haymes) were almost daily fodder in the gossip columns. So was her increasingly bizarre behavior, which made her a poor business risk when other actresses her age were working steadily.

One of her close friends pictured her as a “simple, basically sweet human being who always seemed to be standing alone, fighting her own battles without help. All she ever wanted was a husband and home to come to. And all she ever got was exploited by men.”

And so after her last marriage failed and the business she enriched for so many years decided she was a bad risk, Hayworth became a recluse, living in a once-splendid Beverly Hills mansion that had been allowed to run down to the point where it looked forlorn and deserted. Her two daughters were long gone: Rebecca (by Orson Welles) married and moved to the state of Washington, and Yasmin (by Aly Khan) a member of the international jet set that her mother once adorned.

Into this dismal picture came a Newport Beach artist and businessman who had been writing Hayworth fan letters since World War II. He met her at a Beverly Hills country club where she played golf, and they became friends--one of the few friends she had at this stage of her life.

He said he watched her drinking become more and more addictive and looked desperately for ways to help her out of it. To that end, he told me, he invited her to spend several weeks with him in Newport Beach so he could audit her drinking. He kept her with him constantly, but several days after the art exhibit, he had to leave the apartment for a few hours. When he returned, he said, he had to break in because the door was barricaded. He said he found his apartment in a shambles--and Hayworth cowering in a closet.

She clearly needed help, and he took her to Hoag. From that moment on, he never saw her again. Her Beverly Hills attorney flew home from a trip abroad, met Yasmin in Newport Beach, got the conservatorship bid quashed and took Rita Hayworth to a convalescent home in New England. Only then did we learn that she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

The View piece talks about the loving care she received during the last years of her life.

It wasn’t always that way.