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Obituaries

From the Archives: Rita Hayworth, ‘Love Goddess’ of ‘40s, Dies

rita hayworth
Rita Hayworth in her most famous role, opposite Glenn Ford in “Gilda.”
(American Cinematheque)

Rita Hayworth, a shy Spanish dancer who was transformed into the titian-haired movie “love goddess” of the 1940s only to rebel against the studio system that created her, has died in New York City, it was reported Friday.

Miss Hayworth, a victim of Alzheimer’s disease that robbed her of speech and memory during the last years of her life, died Thursday night at the home of Princess Yasmin Khan Embiricos, her daughter from her storybook marriage to Prince Aly Khan.

Yasmin said her mother was 69 but film biographies listed her age as 68.

The death came just three days after the second annual “Rita Hayworth Gala,” a glittering, black-tie affair at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel hosted by her daughter that raised $1.3 million for the Alzheimer’s Disease Society.

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Monday Services Set

Funeral services were scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday at the Roman Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. Burial will follow at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City.

Miss Hayworth’s glamour was such that during World War II she was second only to Betty Grable as the GIs’ favorite pinup. Columnists wrote that she was the woman Technicolor was invented for. She was on the cover of Life magazine four times, a record equalled only by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and her picture was pasted on the first atomic bomb exploded in peacetime, on Bikini atoll in 1946.

By 1949, Miss Hayworth was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actresses--earning more than $375,000 a year. She was also a real-life princess, the wife of Aly Khan, whose father was the spiritual leader of 9 million Ismaili Muslims.

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But only two years later, her marriage in shambles, she was alone with two children and running out of money. In order to travel with her husband, she had defied demands by Columbia studios boss Harry Cohn that she report for work. He suspended her and sued for breach of contract.

“I was really in deep slavery,” she said later of her tenure at Columbia, adding that she was suspended so many times for refusing roles that she lost count. She insisted that Cohn had her dressing room bugged and made her punch a time clock even though she was his biggest star. But Cohn said he only wanted her to do her job.

Miss Hayworth professed to despise the roles she was assigned there--the vivacious beauty and saucy seductress. And it was not until she left Columbia and began to age that she gained recognition from critics as a serious actress in such independent films as “Separate Tables” in 1958, in which she was praised for her sensitive portrayal of a tormenting wife, and “They Came to Cordura,” a 1959 drama that cast her as a prisoner being transported across the desert.

37-Year Career

During a 37-year career, she made 61 films—about half of them before she achieved stardom in 1941 in the light musical, “You’ll Never Get Rich,” with Fred Astaire. They included “Blood and Sand,” “Tales of Manhattan,” “Cover Girl,” “Gilda” (the seductive siren who became her film signature), “The Lady from Shanghai,” “Salome,” “Miss Sadie Thompson,” “Pal Joey,” “The Story on Page One” and “The Money Trap.” Her last film was “The Wrath of God” in 1972.

With an exuberant beauty that came alive before the cameras, Miss Hayworth was ideal for the Hollywood system that manufactured stars through grooming, publicity and carefully planned buildups.

“She was a real creature of the movies, possessing the quality of involving the audience in her problem, like all the greatest stars,” director George Cukor once said of Miss Hayworth.

Rouben Mamoulian, her director in “Blood and Sand,” once said: “She made you believe in both her beauty and her ability whenever she was on the screen.”

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Miss Hayworth had five husbands, including Orson Welles, singer Dick Haymes and Khan. She said her marriages failed because no man would give her what she really wanted—a quiet home life. She once explained the problem by saying, “Every man I knew had fallen in love with Gilda and wakened with me.”

Rita Hayworth and Cary Grant in “Only Angels Have Wings.”
Rita Hayworth and Cary Grant in "Only Angels Have Wings."

Feeling Imprisoned

In the 1960s, interviewers painted a picture of Miss Hayworth as a sporadically employed movie star, living in her Beverly Hills mansion and feeling imprisoned by the image Hollywood had given her. “I’m an actress,” she told one reporter. “I have depth. I have feeling. But they don’t care. All they want is an image.”

Stardom could never mask the nervous insecurity that followed Miss Hayworth all of her life. Early in her career, she began having a drink to relax before her scenes and by the late 1970s, reports of her supposed alcoholism were widespread.

Though she sometimes drank heavily, according to biographers, alcohol turned out not to be her main physical problem. That was Alzheimer’s disease, a debilitating condition that degenerates brain cells and destroys memory and the ability to read, write or speak. After the disease was diagnosed, Miss Hayworth in 1981 was placed under the care of Princess Yasmin, who now heads Alzheimer’s Disease International, the research and support group for sufferers and their families.

Miss Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Dolores Cansino on Oct. 17, 1918, in Brooklyn, the daughter of Spanish dancer Eduardo Cansino and Volga Haworth, who with a slight change in spelling provided her daughter her professional name. The Cansinos also had two sons.

Trained from childhood as a dancer, Miss Hayworth was hardly into her teens when she became her father’s dancing partner. A series of stage appearances led to extended engagements in nightclubs in Tijuana, which was a favorite playground of the movie crowd during the 1930s. It was there that Hollywood discovered the dark-haired, slightly plump little girl of 17 who, with a little streamlining, was to become Rita Hayworth.

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Low-Budget Movies

She signed a contract with Darryl Zanuck in 1935, and as Rita Cansino played in about 10 low-budget movies. But it was Cohn who gave gave her a new hair color, makeup that changed her from a toothy child to a glamour girl, and a new name—Rita Hayworth.

In 1939, she made a splash in a supporting role with Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in “Only Angels Have Wings.” Full stardom arrived two years later when she was teamed with Fred Astaire in “You’ll Never Get Rich” and “You Were Never Lovelier.”

Though she was considered a capable vocalist, her music always was dubbed by another singer—something the public was unaware of, and which she resented.

In 1937 she married Edward Charles Judson, ostensibly a wealthy oilman who she said turned out to be a car salesman fronting for a Texas promoter. She divorced him in 1942, saying he nagged her, treated her like a child and didn’t let her have any fun.

A year later, her romance with Welles--who once sawed her in half during his magic show--caught Hollywood by surprise. When they wed in the fall of 1943, it was quickly dubbed the marriage of the Beauty and the Brain. Welles made out a list of books she was to read, and she read them.

Miss Hayworth’s first child, Rebecca, was born in 1944 but the birth didn’t help a marriage that grew tumultuous through separations, reconciliations and even a film together (“The Lady From Shanghai.”) They finally divorced in 1947, Miss Hayworth saying it was “impossible to live with genius 24 hours a day.”

She had first teamed with Glenn Ford in “The Lady in Question” in 1940, but it was not until “Gilda” in 1946 that they sizzled together in a melodrama that divided critics but pleased moviegoers. The sexual tension tested the limits of the then strict picture decency code and the eroticism of the standout song, “Put the Blame on Mame,” was heightened by Miss Hayworth’s revealing gown and the way she toyed with her abundant, lustrous hair. Ironically, that song—written by Doris Fischer and Allan Roberts in two hours—was an afterthought and not added to the film until the script was completed.

Ford, told of her death, said simply, “I have lost a very dear friend.”

The press began speculating about a romance with wealthy playboy Aly Khan in 1948 after he and Miss Hayworth spent time together in Europe, but she said they were only friends. Back in Hollywood later that year, Columbia suspended her for refusing an assigned role and the Hollywood Reporter quipped, “From Cohn to Cannes to Khan to Canned.”

A few days later she and Khan sailed for Europe and their wanderings were in the press daily, reporters calling it a “roadshow romance.” The General Federation of Women’s Clubs demanded a boycott of her films because Khan was already married. Clergymen in Australia made a similar demand.

Obtaining a divorce, Khan wanted to wed Miss Hayworth in a private marriage in May, 1949, at Chateau de l’Horizon, his Riviera home. But French law compelled a public ceremony first in the town hall of the nearby village of Vallauris. There Khan put a 32-carat diamond on Miss Hayworth’s finger, making her the Princess Aly Khan.

Her second daughter, Princess Yasmin, was born just after Christmas, 1949, at Lausanne, Switzerland. Even after marriage, the glamorous couple made news daily: Aly racing horses, Miss Hayworth taking Arabic dance lessons. They made an African safari that was filmed and released as a documentary, and then there came reports that Khan was seeing other women, and that a divorce was imminent.

Miss Hayworth returned to the United States in April, 1951, denying divorce but saying she had “no idea” when she and her husband would meet again. She also said she was almost broke and wanted to resume her career. Columbia, which earlier had told her there was nothing for her, announced that she would star in “Affair in Trinidad,” her first picture since “The Loves of Carmen” in 1948. It was a second-rate film and colleagues saw it as Cohn’s slap in Miss Hayworth’s face for defying him. But it made money.

The next year, she fared better with “Miss Sadie Thompson,” in which critics praised her striking, warm portrayal of W. Somerset Maugham’s South Seas tramp.

Divorce Actions

She spent nearly two years in on-again, off-again divorce actions and reconciliations with Khan before finally getting a default divorce in 1953. She insisted that Yasmin be raised as an American and a Christian, and a year later Khan agreed to a $1.5-million settlement.

In September, 1953, she married crooner Haymes, who was facing deportation on grounds that he had lost his American citizenship rights when he applied for a draft exemption during World War II as a citizen of Argentina. Miss Hayworth said she had found real love at last but eventually left him, fleeing to New York with her hair dyed black and using the name “Mrs. Philsbury.” Reporters had little trouble recognizing her when she stepped off the train with her children, nurse, lawyer and 17 pieces of luggage. She divorced Haymes in 1955.

Miss Hayworth ended her 20 years with Columbia in 1957 portraying the stripper turned socialite in “Pal Joey.” She had the show-stopping musical number, “Zip,” and got top billing over Frank Sinatra and the new glamour star Cohn had molded to replace her, Kim Novak.

Miss Hayworth married her last husband, producer-writer James H. Hill Jr., in 1958. He was a co-producer of “Separate Tables” and Hill blamed their divorce three years later on the fact that he forced her to make pictures when she wanted to play golf.

Her professional life was no better. Her periodic film activities during the 1960s were marred by projects that never materialized, disputes over production and distribution, and reviews that frequently praised her performances but panned the pictures.

And then Alzheimer’s forced her from the screen forever.

People who knew Miss Hayworth well say the label “movie star” never fit. She preferred privacy to crowds, and ordinary people over the famous.

“Actually, she was just a dancing gypsy who would have been very happy working in a chorus, happily married to some average-type husband,” choreographer Jack Cole once remarked.

In a book about his former wife, Hill recounted Miss Hayworth’s story of the time she was a little girl rehearsing a dance routine with her father on a New Jersey amusement pier. Hearing the music of a carousel, she slipped away and followed the sound until she found herself sitting on one of the horses. It made her forget work; it let her be a child.

“Ever since then,” she said, “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—then that carousel comes to mind, and once I hear the music, I am back on that horse. It always makes me sad, because somehow, someone or something will be along, and I’ll have to leave.”

news.obits@latimes.com

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