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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Kellow Fiorini

Rita Hayworth —The Girl Behind the Goddess, Part 1

Rita Hayworth famously said, “Men go to bed with Gilda, and wake up with me.” Who was the me behind “Gilda” and “The Lady from Shanghai?” Let’s look beyond the carefully crafted veneer of the Love Goddess to the real Rita Hayworth — a Spanish dancer whose real name was Margarita Cansino.

Rita with her father Eduardo, around 1930. Kept out of school so she could earn money for the family as one half of a dance team with her father (who billed them not as father and daughter but man and wife), her lack of formal education and her father's abuse, made her withdrawn off stage.

Born in 1918, her father Eduardo, was a dancer from Madrid and her mother, Volga Howarth, was a Ziegfeld girl. By the time she was four Rita was training as a dancer with her father in Queens, New York. In 1930 the family headed west with hopes of opening a dance school, but they never did. The Great Depression derailed those dreams. Eduardo had to return to performing to pay the bills and chose his daughter as his dance partner. At 12 years old Rita became the sole breadwinner of the family, dancing with her father in Tijuana nightclubs where prohibition wasn’t enforced. Eduardo allowed people to think that his daughter was his wife. Later in life, Rita confided to husband Orson Welles that her father sexually abused her. That abuse caused Rita to become shy and withdrawn in real life. Dancing was the only time she felt truly free.

Rita at about age 13. It's hard to believe studios hated her beautiful black hair. She obviously still had baby fat, and while her figure is beautiful as is, the studio's initial criticism of her body would leave an indelible mark on her self esteem.

A casting director for Warner Brothers saw Rita dancing at The Agua Caliente Jockey Club and was intrigued, but thought she was too young for Hollywood. Two years later he tested Rita, but Warner Brothers rejected her saying that her hair was too curly, too black, too thick, and her hairline too low. In other words, she was too ethnic looking. In 1935 she was signed to a standard contract at Fox, playing small roles in B movies that exploited her Spanish looks, but due to a change in studio executives, Rita lost her contract.

A young Rita Hayworth before the infamous moving of her hairline and famous auburn locks.

Enter Eddie Judson, a former car salesman and self-styled agent, he convinced Rita and her family, who were still in need of Rita’s income, that he could help make her a star. The 41-year-old Judson convinced Rita, barely 18, to marry him. Judson would be crucial in creating and marketing Rita’s persona. A physical makeover included weight loss, pulling of her molars to rid her of chubby cheeks, and a painful procedure to push her hairline back using electrolysis hair removal. Advised to change her Spanish name, Margarita became Rita Hayworth.

As she looked in her early Hollywood years, before her infamous makeover. It's difficult to believe any studio would want to alter the looks of a woman this beautiful.

A hairdresser at Columbia left Rita’s pictures on the desk of studio head Harry Cohen who took one look and demanded to see her. Columbia was a small studio with no major stars. Every star was on loan from another studio which was expensive, and Cohen wanted talent that belonged to his studio. Cohen was a tyrant with a bad reputation in Hollywood. He was particularly hard on female stars, and Rita was no different. Three early films were key in solidifying her career — “Only Angels Have Wings,” “The Strawberry Blonde,” and ”Blood and Sand.” When her black hair was changed to auburn for “The Strawberry Blonde,” Rita effectively said goodbye to the last physical trace of her Spanish heritage.

Rita Hayworth with her dramatic new, much less "ethnic" look. Note the sculpted face, a result of pulling her molars to create a less round face.

In 1940s Hollywood, if you wanted lead roles, you had to conform to a standard of beauty that didn’t include non-whites. White stars often played ethnic roles, donning makeup to play, for example, a Chinese character, while actual Chinese actors filled out the background in small roles or as extras. With few exceptions, it was rare for non-whites to become A-list stars. When she was cast in “Blood and Sand” as a Spanish woman opposite Tyrone Power, it was a sign Rita had arrived. She had shed enough of her Spanish heritage to pass as a white actress playing a Spanish character. This was the beginning of her rise to fame as the glamourous love goddess of the 1940s, but everyone who knew Rita found her to be shy, and almost childlike.

Hayworth (top) with James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland (bottom) in The Strawberry Blonde, 1941.

With Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand, 1941.

The film that made her a star, Blood and Sand, 1941.

Working with choreographer Hermes Pan in “Blood and Sand” helped her win her next role opposite Fred Astaire in the musicals “You’ll Never Get Rich,” in 1941 and “You Were Never Lovelier” in 1942. Promotion for “You’ll Never Get Rich” included the infamous glamor shot of Rita in a lace nightgown that became one of the most popular wartime pin-ups. That image also caught the eye of Orson Welles who became her second husband.

Fred Astaire said Rita Hayworth was his favorite dance partner. Hayworth and Astaire in the early 1940s.

Next month: Hayworth’s romance and marriage to Welles, and her exit from and return to Hollywood amid her third marriage to Prince Aly Khan.

Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles on the set of The Lady From Shanghai, 1947.

One of my favorite YouTube videos - Rita Hayworth edit to Jump In The Line by Harry Belafonte. A brilliant dancer, and maybe the only times we get a glimpse of the real Rita.

Resources for this article

If This Was Happiness by Barbara Leaming (also available on audiobook and in print at Toledo Public Library)


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