In August 1941 – less than four months before the bombing of Pearl Harbour plunged America into World War II – Rita Hayworth graced the cover of Life magazine. She was pictured in a white bikini, grinning as photographer Bob Landry caught her eating lunch on a Los Angeles beach. But this delightfully natural image made less impact than another picture inside the magazine.
Here, Landry depicted a far more seductive Rita, either relaxing in her own bedroom as the caption claimed, or on a studio prop bed. And the white silk negligee that she wore may have been borrowed from Columbia’s wardrobe department. Gazing boldly at the camera, Hayworth seemed to promise more than the artful illusion of glamour.
Until a bathing suit-clad Betty Grable showed off her ‘million dollar legs’ , Landry’s photo made Rita the most popular pin-up among American troops. In 1946, the image was used to decorate the test bomb exploded on Bikini Atoll, nicknamed ‘Gilda’ after Hayworth’s latest movie. This dubious tribute horrified her.
She was dubbed ‘the California Carmen’ by Time magazine, but it was Life who, in 1947, gave Hayworth her most enduring epithet – ‘the love goddess of America’. And yet for all her beauty and spark, there was a sadness about Rita that many fans assumed was just part of her mystique.
Marilyn Monroe, who would become a ‘love goddess’ herself, spoke frankly about this ‘special burden’ in her final interview. ‘I never quite understood it, this sex symbol – I always thought symbols were those things you clash together!’ she quipped. ‘That’s the trouble, a sex symbol becomes a thing,’ Monroe added ruefully. ‘I just hate to be a thing. But if I’m going to be a symbol of something, I’d rather it be sex than some of the things we’ve got symbols of!’
Margarita Carmen Cansino was born in Brooklyn in 1918. Her father, Eduardo, had emigrated from Spain five years before, as one half of The Dancing Cansinos. With his sister Elisa as partner, they became one of Broadway’s most popular acts. Eduardo was newly married to Volga Haworth, a teenage showgirl from a respectable Irish-American family, who had run away from home in Washington to join Ziegfeld’s Follies.
After Margarita’s birth, Volga gave up her career. She went on to have two more sons, Eduardo Jr. and Vernon, neither of whom showed any flair for the family trade. But by the age of four, Margarita was having daily lessons at Carnegie Hall. Her first public performance soon followed. In 1927, the Cansinos moved to Hollywood, where Eduardo established a dance studio.
At thirteen, Margarita left school and replaced Elisa as her father’s dancing partner. As she was underage and therefore prohibited from working in venues that sold alcohol, the duo performed mainly on offshore gambling boats and in Mexican nightclubs. Her parents would lock her in the dressing room while they socialised.
‘Honey, they had me dancing as soon as they could get me on my feet,’ Rita told author John Kobal in 1973. ‘It was a family tradition but the reason I had to do it professionally was that we were broke…I learned a certain kind of discipline. I just don’t think it’s very good to have to learn it so young.’
In her 1989 biography, If This Is Happiness, Barbara Leaming claimed that Margarita was a victim of incest. Her second husband, Orson Welles, is reported to have told Leaming that Rita was repeatedly abused by her father, Eduardo. Sceptics have pointed out that Welles was a raconteur, who tended to exaggerate. Leaming does not quote Welles directly, and her book was published shortly after both Welles and Rita died. However, it seems unlikely that Welles invented such a shocking claim outright – especially as he had remained fond of Rita long after their divorce, and had no axe to grind. And the allegations have never been directly challenged.
Leaming also interviewed Loretta Parkin, who was a neighbour of the Cansinos as a child. While Eduardo’s show-business peers found him charming, Parkin thought of him as ‘a petty little tyrant’. She described Margarita as very timid, and recalled that she slept with her mother, while Eduardo and the boys had their own bedrooms. Volga would often accompany Margarita on excursions to Mexico, leaving her sons unsupervised. It is possible, Leaming suggests, that these were efforts on Volga’s part to protect Rita. Leaming also claims that Volga was also an alcoholic – a condition referred to by the family as her ‘illness’.
Raising Norma Jeane
Norma Jeane Baker was born in 1926, and when the Cansinos came to Los Angeles a year later, she was living with foster parents just outside the city. She never knew her father, and lived only briefly with her mother Gladys, who had worked as a film cutter before suffering a nervous breakdown. Gladys spent most of her later life in sanatoriums, while her daughter was intermittently cared for by friends and relatives. She grew up under the opposing influences of movies and religion. In later life, Marilyn Monroe feared that she would inherit her mother’s insanity.
In her 1954 memoir, she admitted to having been sexually abused by a boarder in one of her many childhood homes, and this may not have been an isolated incident. She became one of the first celebrities to speak openly about molestation, although her memoir was not widely published until after her death. She occasionally referred to the abuse in interviews, but was usually dismissed as a fantasist. In conversation with journalist W.J. Weatherby, Marilyn said she regretted ever mentioning it.
‘She Didn’t Play the Game’
In 1934, Grace Poggi – an actress and dancer, who was then dating movie mogul Joe Schenck – helped the Cansinos to secure a stint at the Agua Caliente Casino in Tijuana, Mexico which lasted for seven months. Between shows, Eduardo urged his daughter to mingle with the guests, who included many Hollywood executives. Columnist Louella Parsons, who met fifteen year-old Margarita one evening, found her ‘painfully shy…hardly, it seemed to me, the material of which a great star could be made.’
Margarita had already played bit parts in a few movies, and Max Arnow, then casting director at Warner Brothers, arranged a screen test. Then Joe Schenck’s friend, Winfield Sheehan – then Vice-President of the Fox Film Corporation – was so impressed by Margarita’s beauty that he offered her a short-term contract. In her first credited roles – including Under the Pampas Moon (1935), based on an O. Henry story – she was billed as Rita Cansino.
Her first lead role was in Paddy O’Day. ‘She got to the top on her own,’ said co-star Pinky Tomlin. ‘But it couldn’t have been easy.’ Typecast in Latina roles, Rita was being groomed as another Dolores Del Rio. Sheehan wanted her to star in a remake of Ramona, a hit for Del Rio in 1928. But when Fox merged with Twentieth Century Pictures in 1936, Sheehan was ousted by Darryl F. Zanuck, and Rita was dropped.
‘That Darryl F. Zanuck was to drop her is puzzling if one accepts his reputation as a star-spotter,’ John Kobal wrote in his 1977 book, Rita Hayworth: The Time, the Place and the Woman. ‘But this is another of those carefully calculated myths. He also dropped Marilyn Monroe because he saw nothing in her…A more likely reason for Zanuck dropping Rita,’ Kobal believed, ‘was his disagreement with his predecessor, and since Rita was Sheehan’s protégée, this was his way of showing it.’
‘The only reason I can think of why she was dropped was because she didn’t play the game,’ said Allan Dwan, who directed Rita in Human Cargo (1936.) ‘A lot of the big guys didn’t like girls who couldn’t come to their parties and if a girl said “no” they could exercise their power by dropping her and getting somebody more congenial.’
Hollywood Merry Go-Round
Marilyn Monroe’s early film career would be equally inauspicious. She had left school at sixteen to marry boyfriend Jim Dougherty. Her legal guardian, Grace Godard, was moving away, and the marriage was partly arranged to prevent Norma Jeane from being placed in an orphanage. In 1945, nineteen year-old Mrs Dougherty was spotted by an army photographer while working in a munitions plant. She was signed to a modelling agency, and rapidly became a magazine pin-up.
By 1946, the marriage was over, and she had joined Twentieth Century-Fox as a contract player. Her new identity was inspired by former Broadway star Marilyn Miller, and her mother Gladys’s maiden name: Monroe. But by the summer of 1947, Marilyn Monroe had been dropped by Fox. That October, the unemployed starlet was pictured in Screen Guide, lying under a sun lamp. Entitled ‘Hollywood Merry Go-Round’, the feature was shot by Bob Landry, who had immortalised Rita Hayworth six years before.
‘Some Kind of Fairy Tale’
Aged seventeen, Rita began dating Eddie Judson, a thirty-nine year-old businessman who claimed to represent a Texan oilman, looking for investors in Hollywood. Judson had seen her screen test for Ramona, and quickly recognised her potential. Her family disapproved of the romance, and not just because of the age gap.
After they married in 1937, Judson demanded the Cansinos give him a full accounting of eighteen year-old Rita’s earnings since she began making movies. And it was only on their wedding day that Rita discovered Judson had been married twice before. Ironically, while Rita may have married Judson to escape her father, she had fallen into the arms of an equally ruthless, manipulative man.
Barbara Leaming described this pattern as ‘repetition compulsion’ – the tendency to re-enact childhood trauma throughout one’s adult years – explaining that women who have been sexually victimised in childhood often fail to develop adult mechanisms of self-protection.
In February she had signed to Columbia, the ‘Poverty Row’ studio headed by Harry Cohn. Although Columbia had benefited from several commercial hits – including Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night – it lacked the roster of stars that had proved so profitable for rival studios like MGM.
Judson asked Columbia’s chief hair stylist, Helen Hunt, to give Rita a makeover. Hunt was unimpressed – ‘she looked just like a Spanish dancer’ – but finally agreed to help out. Over the next twelve months, Rita’s hairline was raised by a series of painful electrolysis treatments. Her black hair was later dyed auburn. As John Kobal observed, Hunt played a major part in ‘the Americanisation of Rita’, who was now going by the last name of ‘Hayworth’ (a modification of her mother’s maiden name.) Hunt was also close to Harry Cohn, and Judson cultivated her goodwill.
The cost of these cosmetic improvements was deducted from Rita’s salary, and Judson pocketed the rest. She spent her days working at the studio, and her nights dancing in Hollywood clubs. Despite her natural reticence, Judson insisted it was necessary for her ‘to be seen’. After a few more forgettable B-movies, Rita landed her first important role, opposite Cary Grant and leading lady Jean Arthur, in Howard Hawks’ aviation epic, Only Angels Have Wings (1939.)
‘It was a difficult picture for me,’ Rita admitted. ‘Mr Hawks asked me to do certain things that I was very unhappy about, but between Cary and Hawks I did it. Cary is more genteel about things. Hawks is quiet. You can hardly hear him speak when he talks to you, but he’s kind of hard.’
At the first preview, the audience broke into whistles and applause at Rita’s entrance. John Kobal compared its impact to Jean Harlow’s in Hell’s Angels, or later, Marilyn Monroe’s in The Asphalt Jungle. ‘I have a theory that the camera likes certain people and not others,’ Hawks told him. ‘Well, she had a face I knew I could photograph, no problems about that. She was very attractive, very nervous but she got over that during filming. She moved so easily and she listened to every blooming thing you’d tell her.’
‘At her best Rita was slightly unreal,’ Hawks added. ‘She belonged in some kind of fairy tale story – she had that kind of beauty, which isn’t the sort of film I make, so there was never a part for her in any of my other films.’
Shrewdly, Judson hired a publicist to capitalise on Rita’s rising fame. Henry Rogers circulated a (fictitious) story about Rita being named ‘most stylish actress in Hollywood’, and incredibly, it worked – just six weeks later, she graced the cover of Look magazine.
‘She had a tremendous magic back then,’ said bandleader Fred Karger. ‘She used to come into a club with Judson where I was working with an orchestra – that was around ’39. I had never seen anything so beautiful in person and you’ve got to remember this town was full of beautiful women.’
Realising he had a valuable property on his hands, Harry Cohn loaned her out to Warner Brothers for The Strawberry Blonde. In 1940, she went to MGM to play opposite Joan Crawford in Susan and God. ‘She was a real creature of the movies, possessing the quality of involving the audience in her problem,’ director George Cukor commented. ‘And she possesses a great deal of style, a quality of femininity and womanliness that is rare. The studio couldn’t make what she had that attracted the public. They could sustain it and produce it and help it along but only if it’s there in the first place.’
She was then cast as another ‘icy heartbreaker’ in Blood and Sand. In reality, of course, Rita was nothing like the ruthless, seductive Dona Sol. But her Mediterranean blood made her an ideal choice for Rouben Mamoulian’s bullfighting epic. And so Darryl F. Zanuck, who had previously fired her from Fox, was prepared to pay five times her current salary at Columbia.
Rita was breathtakingly lovely, and her withdrawn nature gave her an enigmatic aura that none of her peers could match. Nonetheless, fan magazines of the time – under the studios’ direction – persisted in depicting her as a manufactured star, a ‘girl next door’ whose success could be achieved by anyone. It was an illusion, of course. Rita had been working in show-business since childhood, and – despite the callous exploitation she had suffered – her talent was genuine.
But while her career continued to soar, Rita’s marriage had turned into a nightmare. Judson pressurised her to sleep with studio executives, and when Harry Cohn invited the couple to join him and his wife for a weekend on their yacht, Judson urged her to go alone with the purpose of seducing Cohn. This was the last straw for Rita. Her refusal had the double effect of antagonising both her husband and her boss, as after Cohn learned of the incident, he was enraged by her rejection. For now, however, she was content to let Cohn supervise her career, as even his presence was preferable to Judson’s.
She began dating actor Victor Mature, and prepared to divorce Judson. He had cut off her finances, and she was forced to eat meals at her colleagues’ homes. Judson had made important press contacts, and there was a chance he could ruin her. He threatened to mutilate or disfigure Rita, and she feared for her safety. FBI records show that he was also blackmailing her with an obscene letter she had supposedly written. The letter was never found, but set the tone for an ugly, protracted divorce.
Playing the Reality
After being sacked by Fox, Marilyn Monroe was introduced to Joe Schenck. At sixty-nine, Schenck was still a power player in Hollywood, and one of many paternal figures in Marilyn’s life. In early 1948, she signed to Columbia. Now a platinum blonde, her hair was styled by Helen Hunt, long and lustrous like Rita Hayworth’s. She also got the ‘beauty treatment’ from Rita’s make-up artist, Clay Campbell. While playing the lead in a B-movie musical, Ladies of the Chorus, Marilyn met two people who would change her life: dramatic coach Natasha Lytess, and Columbia’s Head of Music, Fred Karger. He encouraged her to develop her fine singing voice, and a romance began. But he was often cruel, undermining her self-esteem.
Marilyn also incurred the wrath of Harry Cohn, refusing to join him for a weekend alone on his yacht. The seduction scenario devised by Eddie Judson had now been adopted by Cohn himself. But like Rita before her, Marilyn despised Cohn. She was quickly dropped by the studio – a decision Cohn would live to regret. (In 1951, Marilyn accompanied Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller to a meeting with Cohn, disguised as a secretary. When he recognised her, Cohn blew his top. But he would later exploit her success, reusing one of her musical numbers in the 1952 film, Okinawa. She retaliated by sending him a photo of herself, sarcastically inscribed ‘To my great benefactor, Harry Cohn.’)
In 1949, Marilyn found a more congenial lover in Johnny Hyde, who became her agent. He helped her to find significant roles in two highly regarded films: The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve. Like Joe Schenck, Hyde was something of a father figure to Marilyn. But although he asked her to marry him, she refused. She wasn’t in love with him, and neither was she swayed by the promise of financial security.
Marilyn’s transformation had started when she dyed her hair blonde, and (reluctantly) changed her name. There were other, more subtle alterations: prior to filming Ladies of the Chorus, her front teeth, which protruded slightly, were straightened; also while at Columbia, her hairline may have been levelled via electrolysis, like Hayworth’s; and in 1950, Marilyn was said to have undergone minor surgery on her nose and chin.
Shortly after securing a seven-year contract for Marilyn at Twentieth Century-Fox, sixty-five year-old Hyde died of a heart attack. Although she was devastated, Marilyn’s career was finally taking off. After several more B-movies, she won better parts in Clash by Night (produced by Jerry Wald, who would cast Rita in Miss Sadie Thompson), Don’t Bother to Knock, and O. Henry’s Full House (opposite the great Charles Laughton, who would subsequently play King Herod to Rita’s Salome.) Even the revelation of a nude calendar didn’t hurt her image, and in early 1952, she starred alongside Cary Grant in Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business.
Hawks’ impression of Marilyn was strikingly similar to his verdict on Rita Hayworth. ‘Monroe was never any good playing the reality,’ he told Peter Bogdanovich. ‘She always played in a sort of fairy tale. And when she did that she was great…Monroe was frightened to come on the stage – she had such an inferiority complex – and I felt sorry for her.’
‘If This Was Happiness’
As the nation entered World War II, the exotic vamp was finally supplanted by a throng of morale-boosting, all-American glamour girls: including Lana Turner, Betty Grable, Ann Sheridan and, of course, Rita, who would lead a fleet of sailors in a conga at the Hollywood Canteen. A series of wartime musicals allowed Rita to show off her warm, vivacious side, and flair for dance. (However, her singing voice was dubbed: ‘I wanted to study singing,’ she explained, ‘but Harry Cohn kept saying, Who needs it?’)
Despite her background in dance, Rita was wracked with nerves when she was paired with the legendary Fred Astaire in You’ll Never Get Rich (1941.) She needn’t have worried, however: Astaire would name her as his most congenial partner, and they worked together again in You Were Never Lovelier (1942.) ‘For me she used to light up everything,’ he recalled. ‘She was such a beautiful girl to be around. That’s why she shines so. That’s why she’s a star.’
In Cover Girl, an early Technicolor musical, Rita was joined by another of Hollywood’s finest dancers, Gene Kelly. ‘She had great modesty about her own abilities but a great regard for a lot of creative people who had put things together to help her,’ said Fred Karger, recalling an incident when Rita walked off the set because director Charles Vidor had berated a bit player. ‘She cared about the way others were being treated,’ Karger observed, ‘yet she let them walk all over her.’
During filming of Cover Girl, Rita met Orson Welles at a party for actor Joseph Cotten. The most brilliant, controversial man in Hollywood, Welles had shaken America with Citizen Kane (1941), his thinly-veiled portrait of the all-powerful newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst. He had also seen Bob Landry’s famous photo of Rita in Life, and had vowed to marry her.
After Rita agreed to be sawn in half for Welles’ Mercury Magic Show, an unlikely romance began – much to the chagrin of Harry Cohn. Columnist Louella Parsons even wrote an article warning Rita not to marry Welles. Of course, this only made Rita love him more. For perhaps the first time in her life, Rita knew what it was like to love, and be loved.
After their lunchtime wedding in September 1943, Rita returned to work. She later accompanied Welles to a political events, and encouraged his ambition to run for office – mainly as an opportunity to escape the clutches of Harry Cohn. Under Welles’ influence, Rita began to catch up on her education, and loyally aligned herself to her husband’s left-wing causes. In doing so, she was closely monitored by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.
In early 1944, Rita became pregnant. She was delighted, but Welles had no interest in children or domesticity; and though he adored Rita, his career would always come first. When he agreed to campaign for President Roosevelt’s re-election, Rita feared being left alone. She was also terrified that Orson would leave her for another woman. The death of Rita’s mother in January 1945 – just weeks after the birth of her own daughter, Rebecca – also depressed her terribly.
In Tonight and Every Night, a 1945 musical set in London’s Windmill Theatre during the Blitz, Rita was choreographed by Jack Cole. Fred Karger remembered him as ‘one of the most inspiring people I ever worked with, but was he a taskmaster!’ However, Cole had a strong affinity with women. ‘I evolved a working routine with [Rita] that I used a lot later, when working with Marilyn Monroe,’ Cole told John Kobal. ‘So I rehearse with Rita a couple of times around and we’re ready to start. Well, baby, I don’t know what hit me when they turned the camera on. Monroe was the same way – when it was for real, it was like look out!’
‘Rita was a lonely person, you always felt that about her,’ Cole said. ‘She’d sit around with the girls during rehearsals, but mostly by herself, not stand-offish, just lonely. But always a lady…Rita’s problem was that everybody mistook her for Rita Hayworth, movie star – when actually she was just a dancing gypsy girl who would have been very happy working in a chorus, happily married to some average-type husband…’
‘The only thing she got worked up about was Harry Cohn,’ Cole remarked. At Columbia, he said, ‘they didn’t treat Rita the other way other studios treated a star…Zanuck was that way with Monroe,’ he added. Fred Karger agreed: ‘Harry just treated people as possessions, like his horses.’
By 1946, Rita had separated from Welles, but was reluctant to get a divorce. She had also started making a film that would change the course of her career. A definitive film noir, Gilda told the tale of a wild, free-spirited dancer who runs into an old flame. She was working once again with her favourite director, Charles Vidor, and her chemistry with co-star Glenn Ford made them one of the great screen couples of Hollywood’s golden era.
While many critics found Gilda immoral, the public loved it. Rita would forever be associated with the role, confiding sadly to a friend, ‘Every man I have ever known has fallen in love with Gilda, and awakened with me.’
Rita was cast in another musical, Down to Earth (1947), as Terpsichore, goddess of dance. On the advice of her agent, Johnny Hyde, Rita asked Harry Cohn for a 25% share in the net profits of this and all her future films. When he refused, she went on suspicion and formed an independent production company – becoming one of the first women in Hollywood to do so. Cohn was forced to concede.
Adele Jergens, who played a minor role in Down to Earth, would soon be cast as Marilyn Monroe’s mother in Ladies of the Chorus – despite being only nine years her senior. ‘Harry would have girls around the studio as a standby if Rita should make trouble and they needed to replace her, but really to sort of cow her,’ Fred Karger told John Kobal. ‘But that sort of thing, like later on with Kim Novak, never bothered Rita.’
Cohn was further aggrieved by Rita’s attempts to reconcile with Orson Welles. He ordered employees to spy on her, and Rita now believed her dressing room was bugged. Nonetheless, Cohn agreed to allow Welles to star alongside his wife in The Lady From Shanghai. It was another classic film noir, but in an even darker vein. Cohn was infuriated when Rita’s long, red tresses were bleached blonde, and cropped by Helen Hunt, at Welles’ request.
‘It’s intriguing to speculate on how much Welles the artist draws from Welles the husband,’ John Kobal wrote in 1977. ‘Does the secret of Rita’s introversion rest in this cold, comfortless, frigid goddess? Does the artist understand where the husband failed or is this a husband’s vengeance – or just what the part demanded?’
By October 1947, Rita had filed for divorce. Leaming claims that shortly after their final separation, Welles enjoyed a brief fling with a young Marilyn Monroe. ‘I wanted to try and promote her career. Nobody even looked at Marilyn,’ Welles told filmmaker Henry Jaglom, many years later. He claimed that he had pointed her out to Darryl F. Zanuck, who instantly dismissed her. A few months later, Welles said, everything changed – Zanuck had reinstated Marilyn on a higher salary, and suddenly everyone wanted her.
Although his chronology was wrong – Marilyn did not work for Zanuck again until 1950 – there may be a grain of truth in Welles’ story. Ironically, he had left Rita only to fall for another fragile actress, and it’s unsurprising that their alleged romance didn’t last.
The Girl Upstairs
By 1952, Marilyn Monroe was – in the words of Life magazine – ‘the toast of Hollywood’. Bob Landry photographed a briefly auburn Monroe for See magazine that spring. As with Rita, Marilyn’s hair – usually blonde, tousled and quite short – would soon become key to her image. As a new war raged in Korea, she had become the troops’ favourite pin-up. In January 1953, the first major movie in which she would command top billing was released. Niagara was a late film noir, shot in Technicolour, with Marilyn playing the murderous wife of Joseph Cotten.
But it was her second collaboration with Howard Hawks, the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which would change the course of Marilyn’s career. As a gold-digging, not-so-dumb blonde, Marilyn revealed a gift for comedy that endeared her to the public. Many of her subsequent roles would be variations on this character, and Marilyn began to resent being reduced to a joke.
For her signature number, ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, Marilyn wore a strapless sheath gown and long gloves – similar to Rita Hayworth’s attire when she danced to ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ in Gilda. Marilyn was choreographed by Jack Cole, and would work with him again in any film where dancing was required.
Later that year, Marilyn was photographed by Milton Greene in a white negligee with black lace overlay, similar to the garment worn by Rita in her famous pin-up. With Greene’s support, Marilyn began plotting an escape from her restrictive studio contract.
In How to Marry a Millionaire, Marilyn held her own against more established co-stars. The press expected fireworks between Marilyn and Betty Grable, Fox’s biggest female star for over a decade, but the two women bonded. But Marilyn was frustrated at being cast in films she disliked, such as River of No Return (with Robert Mitchum.) In early 1954, she rejected a script and was suspended by Fox. But after her wedding to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, the studio backed down. DiMaggio was a jealous, possessive husband, and loathed Marilyn’s sexy image. The marriage lasted just nine months, but they would remain close friends until her death.
In The Seven Year Itch (1955), Marilyn’s character was known only as ‘The Girl’. Like Rita Hayworth before her, she was becoming an archetype. In protest at her low pay and lack of artistic control, Marilyn abandoned Hollywood and moved to New York, where she established an independent production company and attended the Actors’ Studio.
Although Marilyn was not the first star to have rebelled, it came as a shock to those who considered her, at best, a manufactured sensation. In New York, she was reunited with an old acquaintance, Arthur Miller. The Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist now faced prosecution for alleged Communist affiliations.
As Marilyn attempted to negotiate with Fox, executives advised her to break with Miller. The FBI also monitored their romance. She ignored them all, and the couple married in June 1956. By then, she had a won a new contract, and was enjoying critical acclaim for her role in Bus Stop.
The Story on Page One
In 1948, just as Marilyn Monroe prepared for her short tenure at Columbia, Rita Hayworth was, yet again, at odds with the studio. Her next project was not ready and she had little enthusiasm for it. Still hoping for a reconciliation with Orson Welles, she sailed to Europe. The spark was not rekindled, but at a party in Cannes, Rita was introduced to Prince Aly Khan by the American socialite, Elsa Maxwell.
Prince Aly Khan was son of the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Muslim world. Although married, Aly had been separated from his wife since the war. He was far more attentive towards Rita than Welles had ever been, and showed great kindness towards her daughter, Rebecca. Rita was swept off her feet – but scandal was brewing, and a rapacious press hounded the couple as they travelled through Europe.
Back in Hollywood, Harry Cohn spread the word that Rita was involved with a married playboy, and refused to work. This was hurtful, as she had always been a consummate professional. In May 1949, after Aly’s divorce was finalised, they were married in Cannes. After the local authority ruled that the wedding must be held in the town hall, it became a media circus – with cabaret singer Yves Montand instructing the guests via loudspeaker. Seven years before Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco, Rita became Hollywood’s first princess – but the wedding was immediately denounced by the Vatican.
Their daughter, Yasmin, was born in December. However, marriage to Aly Khan did not bring the security Rita had hoped for. They were constantly on the move, accompanied by Aly’s entourage. Despite his grand title and extravagant lifestyle, Aly had little money of his own. Like Orson, he had fallen for Rita Hayworth, the love goddess – not the insecure woman she really was.
They separated in 1951, and a lengthy battle for custody of Yasmin ensued. Rita returned to California, and briefly dated Charles Feldman, a powerful agent then representing Marilyn Monroe. Her roles during this period reflected her growing legend, including a Latina belle (The Loves of Carmen, 1948); a biblical temptress (Salome, 1953) and a modern anti-heroine (Miss Sadie Thompson, 1953.) Affair in Trinidad (1952), again with Glenn Ford, was essentially a retread of Gilda.
‘Most of her important films are negligible without her,’ John Kobal remarked. ‘One regrets the broken contracts and films never made.’ Rita was considered for the lead in Born Yesterday (1950), but the tale of a rebellious gangster’s moll seemed to echo her own battles with Harry Cohn. Screenwriter Garson Kanin recalled that Marilyn Monroe also tested for the part, before newcomer Judy Holliday was chosen instead.
In 1953, Rita met Dick Haymes, a former big band singer now down on his luck. Born in Argentina, Haymes had registered in the US as an alien in 1942 to dodge the draft. Now he was facing deportation, as well as being chased by the IRS, and by two ex-wives for alimony and child support. No stranger to trouble herself, Rita fell for Haymes’ dubious charms, and they married in September.
With her daughters left in Connecticut under the care of a nanny, Rita allowed Dick to parade her around New York’s nightclub scene, exploiting her star status to revive his ailing career. In 1954, a reporter from Confidential magazine found her daughters wandering unsupervised (and unkempt) outside a house in White Plains, New York. A formal neglect petition was filed against Rita, although later dropped.
The couple were both drinking heavily, and Haymes became abusive. After guests at the Coconut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles saw him strike Rita, she filed for divorce in November 1955.
Back at Columbia, another fraught relationship was coming to an end. After Fire Down Below (1957), with Robert Mitchum and Jack Lemmon, Rita started work on her last movie for the studio. Pal Joey had been in the works for over a decade. Originally, Rita was set to play the lead opposite Gene Kelly, with music arranged by Fred Karger.
At thirty-nine, Rita had matured from a bubbly ingénue into a delicate, yet regal beauty. However, her long reign as a box office queen was nearly over, and she knew it. Pal Joey’s female lead was given to rising star Kim Novak, with Frank Sinatra cast as Joey. The third main part was offered first to Marlene Dietrich, and then Rita.
Although her part was smaller than Novak’s, Rita showed no bitterness towards her younger rival. Despite playing the title role, Sinatra ceded top billing to Rita. ‘To me, Hayworth is Columbia,’ he said gallantly. ‘They may have made her a star, but she gave them class.’
Harry Cohn, who made a rare visit to the set while Rita filmed a dance number, would die of a heart attack in 1958. By then, Rita had left for Europe. ‘You want to know something about him?’ she recalled years later. ‘I think if he could ever have been in love with someone, he was secretly in love with me.’
‘Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield can have all the headlines,’ she said cheerfully in 1958. ‘I’ve had enough! From now on the only headlines I want are on my acting.’ Her first role after leaving Columbia was in Separate Tables. In this adaptation of a Terence Rattigan play, Rita’s performance earned praise amid a cast of prestigious British actors. ‘I had a great sense that a lot of the truth of that performance came from Rita herself,’ said director Delbert Mann.
One of the film’s producers, James Hill, became Rita’s fifth husband in 1958. A year later, she starred in They Came to Cordura, opposite another veteran star, Gary Cooper. Later that year, she played an abused wife in Clifford Odets’ The Story on Page One, a role first offered to Marilyn Monroe.
Rita’s final marriage was marred by bitter arguments, and excessive drinking on both sides. She divorced James Hill in 1961.
A Happy Girl
After her wedding in 1956, Marilyn Monroe flew to England to film The Prince and the Showgirl. Based on Terence Rattigan’s romantic comedy, The Sleeping Prince, it was the first (and only) movie produced by her own company. Her co-star, Sir Laurence Olivier, also directed and they did not get along. But as Olivier – considered the greatest English stage actor of his generation – later admitted, her performance outshone his.
Marilyn would spend the next year away from the limelight, hoping to start a family with Arthur Miller. But a series of miscarriages sent her into a deep depression, and she was becoming dependent on prescribed drugs.
In 1959, her most successful film – the farcical Some Like it Hot – was released. Although director Billy Wilder and actor Tony Curtis publicly slated her erratic behaviour on set, she would win a Golden Globe for her role as Sugar Kane. ‘I found that I couldn’t really get to know what was inside her, despite a good working relationship,’ Jack Lemmon said later. ‘Anyone looking at her in retrospect could see that she was never really happy, never really fulfilled, never able to live with being Marilyn Monroe.’
During filming of Let’s Make Love (1960), Marilyn had a messy affair with co-star Yves Montand. Her marriage was falling apart, which made The Misfits – written for her by Miller – a harrowing experience. Marilyn felt that Miller had turned her private turmoil into public spectacle. She was also devastated by the death of her leading man, Clark Gable, weeks after filming ended. She had idolised Gable since childhood, and blamed herself for his fatal heart attack. In 1961, she had a nervous breakdown and was briefly committed to a psychiatric ward. After undergoing gallbladder surgery that summer, she returned to Los Angeles.
Although she wanted to star as Sadie Thompson in a television adaptation of Rain – the same role played by Rita Hayworth on the big screen, a few years before – Monroe was still tied to Twentieth Century-Fox, and began shooting Something’s Got to Give in April 1962. Unfortunately, she fell ill again with acute sinusitis. The studio was on the verge of bankruptcy, and Marilyn – their most profitable star for a decade – was made a scapegoat. She was fired in June, and would die of an overdose just two months later. At the time of her death, she was on the verge of being reinstated by Fox, and was making plans for her future career (including a musical version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, with Frank Sinatra.)
‘It’s nice to be included in people’s fantasies,’ she said in her last interview, ‘but you also like to be accepted for your own sake.’ John Kobal includes this quote in his biography of Hayworth. ‘Monroe had tried to come to terms with her success,’ he commented. ‘In the end, the burden became more than [she] could bear.’ Rita, he believed, ‘though perhaps unable to verbalise her situation as well, was stronger.’
‘But planned death, the deliberate taking of [Monroe’s] own life – that is the one conclusion it would be wrong to make,’ Kobal wrote in his 1974 book, Marilyn Monroe: A Life on Film. ‘She stood for life. She radiated life. In her smile hope was always present. She glorified in life, and her death did not mar this final image. She had become a legend in her own time, and in her death took her place among the myths of our century.’
Hayworth’s other major biographer, Barbara Leaming, had a bleaker view. ‘On screen Marilyn Monroe invented a character who was a happy girl: innocent, funny, with an extreme but unthreatening sexuality,’ reads the blurb to Leaming’s Marilyn Monroe (1998.) ‘The real woman was the opposite: self-loathing, tormented by past degradation, desperate for love and respect, yet aware that sexuality was her only dangerous weapon.’
‘Marilyn? Marilyn wasn’t put on,’ Rita concluded, in a 1970 interview for the New York Times. ‘That’s why she was so good. Her femininity was real, and there are very few who are really women on screen – I like to think I was. But I never met Marilyn, so I don’t really know…Sure, they gave it to her, just like they gave it to me, honey, just because she posed in the nude! What is that?! Like all those American church magazines yellin’ at me because I married a Muslim! Sometimes I wonder why I ever came back.’
During filming of Circus World (also known as The Magnificent Showman) in 1963, Rita often forgot her lines. Co-star John Wayne, and Henry Hathaway (who had directed Marilyn Monroe in Niagara) were bewildered by her erratic behaviour. It seemed out of character for such a conscientious actress. She was later asked to replace Lauren Bacall in Applause (the hit Broadway musical based on All About Eve, Joe Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning satire of the New York theatre, which had featured a young Monroe in a supporting role.) This seemed like an ideal opportunity for Rita, but she backed out at the last minute.
She continued making movies – including The Money Trap (1965), in which she was reunited with Glenn Ford, and the star-studded The Poppy is Also a Flower (1966) – but her roles were marginal, and her personal problems (including alcoholism, and claustrophobia) made her unpredictable. After starring with Robert Mitchum in The Wrath of God (1972), she began filming Tales That Witness Madness in London. In the middle of shooting, she fled to America. This unfinished project was a sad coda to a magical career. Though she wanted to work, Rita would never make another film.
As her condition deteriorated – she often vanished without explanation, and lashed out at old friends – Rita continued giving interviews and appearing on talk shows. ‘It is a grotesque commentary on the Hollywood star system,’ Barbara Leaming wrote, ‘that although she was no longer functional as a performer, Rita remained a marketable commodity.’ In 1976, newspapers across the world published photographs of a frightened, dishevelled Rita, after she was carried off an airplane in London.
Soon afterward, a boyfriend took Rita to a California hospital, where she was diagnosed with chronic alcoholism and detained as a ward of state. In 1977, Rita’s attorney acted on her behalf to regain control of her affairs. Rita stopped drinking, and began making public appearances again. She seemed to recover, but soon relapsed. Doctors noticed that her behaviour remained erratic even when she was sober. Ex-husband Orson Welles spotted her at a hotel in 1980, and was shaken when she failed to recognise him.
In 1981, Rita was finally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Friends and colleagues who had been frustrated with her behaviour now realised the truth of her situation. Rita’s daughter, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, was appointed her legal guardian. Rita moved into a New York apartment adjoining her daughter’s. Yasmin became a prominent spokeswoman for the Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Association, organising annual galas in her mother’s honour.
In 1984, Gladys Baker died aged eighty-one, having survived her daughter, Marilyn Monroe, by twenty-two years. Having spent most of her adult life in psychiatric institutions, Gladys had been released in 1967. She was unwilling – or unable – to acknowledge her famous offspring, telling author James Haspiel, ‘I never wanted her to go into that business.’
Rita died in 1987, aged sixty-eight. Although she never knew it, in those final years she was a beacon of hope for fellow victims of dementia. ‘I admired her so much because she was such a gentle person,’ Yasmin said. ‘She loved to laugh and joke, and to me she was always just herself. We had a close mother-daughter relationship filled with mutual respect and love. She was actually a shy, very private person. She loved books and read a lot of [Spanish poet and playwright] Garcia Lorca. She painted still-lifes and flowers. Some of her oil paintings hang in her apartment, which was next to mine, two steps away.’
Like Marilyn, Rita was over-worked and under-appreciated during her studio heyday; but as time passed, her myth grew. In Joe Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa (1954), Ava Gardner played a Spanish peasant transformed into a movie star – and her fate closely resembled Rita’s. Kim Stanley would play a version of Marilyn in Paddy Chayevsky’s The Goddess (1958.) Unlike Marilyn, Rita lived long enough to become, as John Kobal put it, ‘a character goddess’. But she was ultimately overcome by the human frailty Marilyn had always feared.
After her death, Marilyn was immortalised by artist Andy Warhol, and would inspire literary works by Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates. 1968, Argentine novelist Manuel Puig made his debut with Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, a novel about a young boy infatuated by movies. She also featured in his later book, The Kiss of the Spider Woman. TV star Lynda Carter – best-known for her role as Wonder Woman – also starred in a 1983 biopic, Rita Hayworth: the Love Goddess.
Hayworth and Monroe are both named among the roll-call of Hollywood icons in Madonna’s 1990 hit, ‘Vogue’, and in 2008, actress Amy Adams would recreate Rita’s pose for Bob Landry, and other images inspired by Gilda, in Vanity Fair. Dazzling colour photographs of Rita, taken during the 1940s (as well as a young Monroe) were included in David Wills’ 2013 book, Hollywood in Kodachrome. In the acclaimed 1994 film, The Shawshank Redemption, one scene shows the hero, wrongly imprisoned for murder, gazing at his only possession – a poster of Rita.
‘Rita was a harbinger of a type the cinema would not come to terms with until the fifties when a more mature, less inhibited public attitude to sex combined with a decline in receipts at the box office eased a relaxation in the strict censorship governing movies,’ John Kobal wrote of Hayworth’s screen persona. ‘When the new wave came, the parts they brought were played not by Rita Hayworth but by European stars like Anna Magnani, Sophia Loren and Jeanne Moreau. But Rita had prepared the way.’
Rita Hayworth: The Time, the Place, the Woman. John Kobal, 1977.
If This Was Happiness: A Biography of Rita Hayworth. Barbara Leaming, 1989.
Rita Hayworth: A Photographic Retrospective. Caren Roberts-Frenzel, 2001.
Being Rita Hayworth: Labour, Identity and Hollywood Stardom. Adrienne L. McLean, 2004.
Marilyn Monroe: A Life on Film. John Kobal, 1973.
Marilyn Monroe. Barbara Leaming, 1998.
‘Candid New Biography Tells of Shocking Childhood.’ Andrea Chambers, Lee Powell, People, 1989.
‘In Search of the Real Rita Hayworth.’ Gaby Wood, The Telegraph, 2013.
‘LIFE With Rita Hayworth: Hollywood Legend, Pin-Up Icon‘. Photo gallery at Life-Time.com.