Ginger Rogers, the versatile Academy Award-winning actress, comedian, singer and dancer who lightened the hearts of Depression-era America through her classically romantic ballroom encounters with Fred Astaire, died Tuesday at her home in Rancho Mirage. She was 83.
Her death, apparently of natural causes, was announced by Riverside County coroner’s spokeswoman Veronica Martinez.
“She was an actor, a star, a superstar and, boy, was she a legend,” said producer A. C. Lyles, who worked with her at Paramount.
Although Miss Rogers made a total of 73 movies over four decades, with highly successful detours into television and nightclubs, she remained best known for the 10 films she glided through with Astaire, beginning with “Flying Down to Rio” in 1933. They taught America to dance the Continental, their foreheads touching in a display of stylish togetherness that was to become their signature.
“The magic of Astaire-Rogers . . . cannot be explained; it can only be felt,” wrote director Garson Kanin in 1967 after Miss Rogers had returned to Broadway in “Hello, Dolly!” and Manhattan’s Gallery of Modern Art had organized a Ginger Rogers film festival.
“They created a style, a mood, a happening,” Kanin wrote. “They flirted, chased, courted, slid, caressed, hopped, skipped, jumped, bent, swayed, clasped, wafted, undulated, nestled, leapt, quivered, glided, spun—in sum, made love before our eyes. We have not seen their like since.”
Despite the air of romance, there were no love scenes. In her 1991 autobiography, “Ginger: My Story,” Miss Rogers claimed that Astaire’s wife, Phyllis, objected to any graphic display of emotion.
“One thing’s for sure,” Miss Rogers wrote, "(Phyllis) never warmed up to me . . . and she surely didn’t want her husband to, either.”
Astaire, who died in 1987, and Miss Rogers wove their magic throughout the Depression-ridden 1930s, first in “Rio,” then “The Gay Divorcee,” “Roberta,” “Top Hat,” “Swing Time,” “Follow the Fleet,” “Shall We Dance,” “Carefree,” and “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle,” and, after a decade’s separation, “The Barclays of Broadway” in 1949.
At first, Miss Rogers, who prided herself on being self-taught and coached but never taking a formal dance lesson, was criticized as too inept to keep step with Astaire. But by their second picture, “The Gay Divorcee,” critics acknowledged that she had overcome their doubts and did have the necessary technical expertise.
She once called her teaming with Astaire “just a wonderful happening. It wasn’t planned. I thought it turned out to be magic. I was told even in the first picture people could see something was happening. But when you’re in the eye of the hurricane you don’t see that yourself.”
Astaire went on to dance with many other partners, but none was so well-remembered or loved.
Miss Rogers went on to other challenges, too, fighting for dramatic roles and earning her Oscar portraying the white-collar working girl “Kitty Foyle” in 1940.
Meantime, both partners in the idyllic dance team consistently denied persistent rumors that they couldn’t get along off-screen.
At a Masquers’ Tribute to Miss Rogers in 1979, the elegant Astaire said: “She’s been such a wonderful partner. There are all kinds of rumors that we used to fight. And we didn’t. I’ve been denying it for the last 20 years or more.”
“Studio publicity men were always trying to make it look like we fought,” Miss Rogers said in a 1980 interview, “just to keep our names in the papers.”
There were a few disagreements, she conceded, including her insistence on wearing a feather-trimmed gown when the couple danced and sang “Cheek to Cheek” in the film “Top Hat.”
“He complained that the feathers kept getting in his mouth and up his nose,” she said, “but it was the most beautiful dress I’d ever worn and I knew it was right. . . . (Later) he even gave me a gold feather for my charm bracelet.”
Miss Rogers often spoke wistfully of doing another film with Astaire years after their last in 1949, but it did not happen.
“I just adored and admired Fred with all my heart,” she said at the time of his death. “He was the best partner anyone could ever have.”
Katharine Hepburn reportedly once said of the two that “Ginger gave him sex and he gave her class.”
Miss Rogers’ closest relationship in her life, however, was with her mother, Lela, who gave up her own career as a news reporter and scriptwriter to chaperon and advise her daughter.
“Rarely have I known a closer mother-daughter relationship,” wrote columnist Hedda Hopper, always a Rogers booster, in 1951.
Miss Rogers strongly resented comments that her mother was a domineering stage mother and said emphatically in the 1980 interview that her mother had been the most influential person in her life.
“She was not a stage mother,” the fiery Miss Rogers said. “She was not a fishwife. She was a very dignified woman. . . . She had horse sense.
“My mother was a terrific woman. She was not a monster. She had some class,” Miss Rogers said, again discussing the topic with Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith in 1984. “I called her no matter where I was—Italy, Switzerland, France, England, Norway—I called her and told her I loved her.”
When she received her Academy Award at the 1941 ceremony in the Biltmore Bowl, a tearful Miss Rogers uttered only one line, looking directly at her mother: “This is the greatest moment of my life.”
Born Virginia Katherine McMath in Independence, Mo., Miss Rogers danced her way into show business by winning a 1925 Charleston contest as a Texas teen-ager.
After winning, Virginia started traveling the vaudeville circuit, adopting the diminutive of her formal first name and the surname of her stepfather as her stage name, Ginger Rogers.
With Mama Lela managing and chaperoning, Miss Rogers toured with other young girls in an act called “Ginger and her Redheads.” She also worked the vaudeville circuit briefly in 1928 with her first husband, Jack Culpepper, in an act dubbed “Ginger and Pepper.”
By 1929, at the age of 18, Miss Rogers was on Broadway in “Top Seed” and segued easily out to Paramount’s Long Island studios for a small part in one of the new “talkie” movies called “Young Man of Manhattan.”
The nonsmoking Rogers so enchanted audiences with her one running gag line—"Cigarette me, big boy—"that it became a part of the American idiom of the day.
After bit parts in other East Coast films and her success in George Gershwin’s Broadway musical “Girl Crazy” in 1930-31, Rogers moved west to Hollywood for the heyday of movie musicals.
She made several movies each year, varying from song-and-dance spectaculars to drama and comedy, rarely taking vacations because of her philosophy that “if you are going to be in pictures, be in pictures.”
When television came along, Miss Rogers flirted with the prospect of a dramatic series, but stalled her debut until 1954 when she found a proper star vehicle—a 90-minute Noel Coward play called “Tonight at 8:30" directed by no less than Otto Preminger. Most of her television appearances were specials or guest spots on variety shows.
Aging gracefully thanks to her lifelong regimen of swimming, tennis and golf and avoiding lunch and overeating, Miss Rogers returned triumphantly to Broadway when she was in her mid-50s to take over the Dolly Levi role from its originator, Carol Channing.
She also toured in the 1960s with “Annie Get Your Gun” and did the title roles of “Mame” and “Coco” in London, although she declined to utter the scripted opening expletive in the musical about famed Paris couturiere Coco Chanel.
She made her last movie, “Harlow,” playing actress Jean Harlow’s mother, in 1965, and in the 1970s toured with a nightclub act titled “Ginger Rogers & Co.” She occasionally headlined summer theater and dabbled in directing.
She gave up the footlights only when ill health forced her to use a wheelchair. She continued, however, to collect honors at film festivals and tributes, most notably the Kennedy Center Honors in December, 1992.
Much of Lela Rogers’ horse sense rubbed off on her daughter, who became one of Hollywood’s wealthiest stars. Named one of the 10 highest-paid Americans in 1943 when she earned $355,000, Miss Rogers invested her six-figure salaries in blue chip stocks and land, including an 1,100-acre ranch on Oregon’s Rogue River.
Whenever she could, Miss Rogers retreated to the ranch she had bought in 1939 to fish, golf, play tennis, cook, paint, sculpt and manage her investments.
Miss Rogers was proud of her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, a conservative organization limited to those who can prove they are descended from the nation’s original colonists.
Like her mother, Miss Rogers was a staunch Republican, and in 1944 served as vice chairwoman of the Hollywood for Dewey Committee, touting the ill-fated presidential candidacy of New York governor, Thomas E. Dewey. She spoke vehemently against Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies.
A devout Christian Scientist, Miss Rogers boasted that she never drank or smoked and that the bar in her Beverly Hills home served ice cream sundaes and sodas rather than liquor.
In her later years, Miss Rogers frequently criticized contemporary movies because they contained four-letter words, and in 1980 likened Hollywood to the biblical sin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The lady who taught movie audiences the Continental, the rumba and the samba called the 1960s dance, the Twist, “vulgar and exhibitionism personified.”
During a stint as spokeswoman for J.C. Penney Co. in the 1970s, Miss Rogers used interviews to boost God more than the pantyhose she was paid to promote.
Yet she insisted in a 1982 interview that she was not “puritanical” and, throughout her career, made her own nicks in the rules of wholesome behavior.
As a young film star, she was frequently arrested and fined for running red lights or speeding, once explaining to an officer: “But I was on my way to the studio, hurrying to make a picture.”
In an age when the girl next door rarely dyed her hair, Miss Rogers did dye or bleach hers—frequently.
“Ginger Rogers made her hit as a redhead,” Hedda Hopper observed in 1944. “Since then her hair has changed as frequently as our California weather.”
But the vivacious star raised the most eyebrows by marrying—and divorcing—five husbands: vaudeville performer Culpepper in 1928; actor Lew Ayres in 1934; Marine Private Jack Briggs, who was nine years her junior, in 1943; Paris attorney-turned-actor Jacques Bergerac, who was 15 years younger than she, in 1953, and actor-director-producer William Marshall, with whom she formed a short-lived movie production company in Jamaica, in 1961. She was also engaged for a time to billionaire Howard Hughes.
Asked in 1980 if she still believed in marriage, Rogers said: “The only civilized way is marriage; the rest is chaos. No one believes that more than I do. Haven’t I proved that over and over again?”
Miss Rogers had no children and no regrets about that, noting that young people all over the world sought her advice and love so that, “I have all the children I can handle.”
In recent years, Miss Rogers worked to preserve the past—Hollywood’s and her own—through testimony and litigation.
She urged Congress to prohibit the colorizing of classic black and white movies, many of which she had starred in, saying the technique made her feel “painted up like a birthday cake.” And she beseeched the state Legislature to prohibit commercial exploitation of the likeness, name or voice of deceased celebrities without their heirs’ consent.
In various courts, she protested the unauthorized use of her image in such items as a “Ginger Rogers as Dinah Barkley” doll (named for the character in her last film with Astaire). She also sued unsuccessfully to prevent distribution of a 1986 Federico Fellini movie titled “Ginger and Fred,” claiming the film unfairly capitalized on the fame she had gained with Astaire and portrayed her in an unsavory light.
Although Miss Rogers refused to give her age as she grew older, her birth date, July 16, 1911, was unchallenged and critics frequently commented that she looked far younger than she was. Asked in 1980 if aging bothered her, the irrepressible leading lady said:
“Age can’t take your individuality away from you, and that’s what counts. There isn’t enough time in the world left for me to do all the things I want to. . . . But no one’s going to say the girl didn’t try.”
The career of Ginger Rogers included:
* Young Man of Manhattan, 1930
* The Tip-Off, 1931
* The Tenderfoot, 1932
* The Thirteenth Guest, 1932
* You Said a Mouthful, 1932
* 42nd Street, 1933
* Broadway Bad, 1933
* Gold Diggers of 1933
* Professional Sweetheart, 1933
* A Shriek in the Night, 1933
* Sitting Pretty, 1933
* Flying Down to Rio, 1933
* Chance at Heaven, 1933
* Finishing School, 1934
* Twenty Million Sweethearts, 1934
* Change of Heart, 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 Wonderful Time, 1938
* Vivacious Lady, 1938
* Carefree, 1938
* The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, 1939
* Bachelor Mother, 1939
* 5th Ave 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
* Magnificent Doll, 1946
* It Had to Be You, 1947
* The Barkleys of Broadway, 1948
* 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 (or Twist of Fate), 1954
* Tight Spot, 1955
* The First Traveling Saleslady, 1956
* Teenage Rebel, 1956
* Oh, Men! Oh, Women! 1957
* Harlow, 1965
* Top Speed, 1929
* Girl Crazy, 1930
* Love and Let Love, 1951
* Hello, Dolly!, 1966
Source: Associated Press