Readers, Rita Hayworth had something. And by something, I mean everything. This little girl from Brooklyn, exploited at the hands of her domineering father, forced to change her name and her hairline to get rid of her pesky Latinness, had the sort of beauty and verve that unite to form charisma. She’s gorgeous, but so are many classic Hollywood stars. What sets her apart is the alacrity in her eyes, the persistent bounce in her step — when you see her onscreen, it seems like everyone else is just sleepwalking.
But Hayworth’s story is also a tragic one: in addition to undergoing a very public and very graphic (and very literal) erasure of her heritage, she also endured mental abuse and manipulation at the hands of multiple men. But Hayworth also managed to galavant across the globe in the 1940s with a man who was not her husband — at the exact time when Ingrid Bergman was busy being denounced on the Senate floor as an “instrument of evil” for doing the same thing. And Hayworth’s man was not only not her husband — he wasn’t even Christian! HE WAS A ‘MOSLEM’! FROM ARABIA! (I am not making these words up — they were in the gossip columns.)
But because this man was a prince, and Hayworth would (hopefully, fingers crossed, please don’t show as pregnant before this happens) be made a princess, it was somehow forgivable. She had endured a life of transformation and heartbreak, all of it very much in the public eye, and so there were things that audiences wanted for her — happiness, a family, princess-dom — that made them willing to forgive pesky technicalities. But the lustre of royalty did not last, and Hayworth moved on: to a string of moderate hits, to more husbands, to relative obscurity.
But for a brief period in the late ’40s, she was the closest thing America had to a Cinderella.
Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Cansino, in Brooklyn, to two showbiz parents. Her father, Eduardo, was a Spanish dancer; her mother, Volga, had been a Ziegfield girl. (Ziegfield Girl = Chorus Girl. Think ’30s version of a Pussycat Doll.) Margarita’s grandfather had been a HUGE DEAL in Spanish dancing — he brought the bolero to American audiences — and it was he who gave Hayworth her first dance lesson at age three.
From then on, Hayworth was in constant dance training. Her family moved to Hollywood when she was eight, and her father began giving personal lessons to big studio stars. But the Depression tightened belts both in and outside of Hollywood, and dance instruction was one of the first luxuries to go. But Eduardo Cansino had a plan: he would make Rita his dance partner, and they could go dance in Tijuana clubs as “The Dancing Cansinos.” Nevermind that this arrangement suggested Rita to be her father’s wife — the pair was a HUGE HIT. And it was in one of these Tijuana nightclubs that Hayworth was spotted by a talent scout for Fox Studios, who quickly signed her, under the name Rita Consuelo, to a six-month contract.
But Consuelo was nothing special, at least not yet. She appeared in very small parts in a number of very small films, and at the end of her six month contract, Fox unceremoniously let her go. At all of 18, she eloped to Vegas with Edward Judson, a businessman-turned-talent-manager as old as her father. Judson helped land Consuelo a string of bit parts, eventually winning her a screen test with Columbia Pictures in 1937. Columbia signed her to a seven-year contract, but Consuelo spent her first months with the studio typecast as sultry, dancing (bit-part) Latinas. Columbia wanted a new star — someone to rival MGM’s glamour. But to turn Cansino into such a star, drastic measures were apparently necessary.
How do you de-Latinize a beautiful woman? Take away her widow’s peak. And get rid of her black hair. Cansino went into seclusion, underwent extensive hairline electrolysis, dyed her hair flaming red, and re-emerged as Rita Hayworth.
What’s most remarkable about this transformation isn’t how blatantly racist it is. Rather, it’s that it wasn’t a secret. Columbia didn’t try to cover up what it was doing to its star; rather, they publicized the shit out of it.
As Adrienne McLean explains in Being Rita Hayworth (if you have any interest in Hayworth, or in star transformation in general, this book is an absolute must), Columbia collaborated with various publications to create an image for Hayworth as a Spanish dancer working hard to “overcome her type,” namely, that of a Spanish dancer. One fan magazine has Hayworth explaining “That’s one reason I changed my name… I didn’t want to be known only as a dancer.” She dieted, took voice lessons, dyed her hair, learned to act, and made a decision to always dress glamorously at all times. It’s as if Vanessa from Gossip Girl suddenly became a Blair/Serena hybrid.
Hayworth appeared, in short order, on the cover of both Look and Life, and became known for her “love” for the press — “Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and Margaret Sullavan may appear in dungarees and polo coat and scowl at the camera boys as though they were boogey men, but not Rita. She gives them their money’s worth,” according to one fan magazine. More likely: Columbia told her to ham it up whenever possible because the studio, always a “minor” compared to the Big Five (MGM, Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros, RKO), needed a glamour girl.
By 1940, there were 3,800 stories and 12,000 pictures of Hayworth in circulation. Girl was visible. Appearances in gradually more high-profile films — with Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), with Joan Crawford in Susan and God (1940), and a big hit in Strawberry Blonde with James Cagney and Olivia De Havilland (1941) — made it clear: Hayworth was a true star.
Throughout this period, Columbia labored to make it clear that Hayworth was not a dancer, because the Rita who danced was exotic, black-haired, doomed to type-casting, and a failure as a star.
But in 1941, Columbia loaned Hayworth to Fox for the role of Doña Sol des Muire, a “sultry Spanish socialite” who seduces bullfighter Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand. SPANISH HERITAGE COMES IN HANDY WHEN YOU NEED IT! But unlike her other films, in which Hayworth played the Spanish dancing lady because that was the only thing she could play, her role in Blood and Sand was sold in the spirit of masquerade. In other words, Hayworth showed that she could act Spanish, even though she was now thoroughly Anglicized.
The film was a smash, and Columbia cast her in a series of happy happy dancey dancey films with the master of the happy dancey films, Fred Astaire.
During this period, Hayworth became one of the most popular pin-ups for soldiers during World War II. To put it more bluntly: hundreds of thousands of soldiers regularly used her photo for masturbatory purposes between the years of 1941 and 1945. I mean, that’s what a war pin-up is, and we might as well say it: government-sponsored soft porn, distributed en masse to relieve sexual tension.
Remember how Morgan Freeman gave Tim Robbins Hayworth’s poster in Shawshank Redemption? There’s a Wikipedia entry entitled “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.” That’s how crucial she was to so many people’s narratives in the 1940s. And I mean, holy shit, look at the photo — it’s more than looking good in negligee, which she obviously does. It’s all about the expression on her face, a cross between a question and an invitation. And it’s that face — that ability to make each person who saw it seem personally invited — that differentiates the lingerie models from the stars, and that separates, say, Megan Fox sucking on her finger from Rita Hayworth in a coy kneel.
After years of enduring mental abuse and threats of physical violence from her first husband, Hayworth walked out on him in 1942, filing divorce on grounds of cruelty. He had stolen all of her money, but she was free. At least for a year, at which point she married Orson Welles, known, at this point, for his arrogance and brilliance.
The wedding was low-key — Hayworth wore a blouse and skirt — and surprised most of their friends. A suitable number of months later, Hayworth and Welles had a baby and posed for a lot of ridiculously cute photos.
BY THE HAIRPIN
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