Above: Rita Hayworth as the Love Goddess and dancing with Fred Astaire in "You Were Never Lovier" photographed by George Hurrell.
I was reminded by a documentary on Turner Classic Movies recently that the beautiful actress Rita Hayworth (1918-1987) was a victim of Alzheimer’s Disease, which took her life at the young age of 68.
Hayworth’s story sounds like the plot of a Hollywood melodrama. Born Margarita Carmen Cansino, she began dancing with her father, Spanish born Eduardo Cansino, at the age of twelve. Performing one weekend in Tijuana—the Mexican border city where the movie people came to party, gamble, drink and engage in various other kinds of behavior they didn’t want covered by the Hollywood press—she was spotted by a talent scout from Fox and signed to a contract.
She played small parts in small movies—you can see her at the age of seventeen in a bit part in Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935)—but after just a few years it appeared she was headed for obscurity. Then, an L.A. car dealer twenty-two years older than she, mentored her, married her, and wrangled her a contract at Columbia Pictures. At Columbia, Harry Cohn changed her name, lightened her hair, slimmed her down, raised her hairline and made her a star.
When World War II broke out, she was a gorgeous 23-year old. A photograph of her in Life magazine sitting on a bed wearing a black negligee, became one of the most popular pin-up pictures of the war. As Eli Wallach put it (he was a soldier when he first met her, several years before the beginning of his own successful movie career): “Just looking at that picture helped us all better understand what we were fighting for.”
At Columbia, her marriage to the car dealer ended when she fell in love with co-star Victor Mature. But when Mature entered the service, actor/director Orson Welles entered Rita’s life and the two married. Her famous black dress in Gilda (1946), in which she sings “Put the Blame on Mame” is designed with a large gathered bow just below the waist line, allegedly to hide the tummy she had not yet lost after the birth of her first child, Rebecca Welles (1944-2004). Orson Welles seemed to have a voracious appetite for everything but his beautiful wife and their marriage also ended in divorce, but not before he starred her in the truly strange Lady from Shanghai, for which he cut her beautiful hair and bleached it blonde.
Like many movie stars of her era she had worked hard to achieve fame and fortune and seemed unequipped to handle its consequences in her life. “They went to bed with Gilda,” she is reported to have said, “but they woke up with me.”
In 1948, she fled Hollywood and fell right into the arms of playboy Aly Khan. Once the two were divorced from their spouses, they married, but marriage didn’t end his on-going moveable feast, and Hayworth eventually fled back to Hollywood with her new baby, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan. Harry Cohn put her back under contract. She was only in her thirties, but she looked somewhat older and her real stardom had come to an end.
She still had some good parts ahead. She was only thirty-nine when she played the “older woman” in Pal Joey who loses Frank Sinatra to Kim Novak. And just forty when she played the “aging” beauty in Separate Tables with Burt Lancaster. But she was fragile and life and fame had been hard on her.
There were several more marriages and then her friends began to observe what they called her erratic behavior. Ann Miller said Hayworth invited her and choreographer Hermes Pan to dinner at her house one night and then came to the door brandishing a knife and scared them off. Her nephew said when she came to his birthday party he prayed that “Aunt Rita wouldn’t get drunk that day.” “Late in the day was her worst time,” said her daughter Yasim.
Unknown to them it was not alcohol that was affecting her, but the early onset of a terrible disease. Alzheimer’s victims have difficulty in the afternoon in behavior doctors have now labeled “sundowning.” I’ve noticed this in my father, who is also an Alzheimer's victim.
She was just fifty-three when she attempted a comeback on Broadway, but she found she could not remember her lines. At the age of fifty-nine she was put in the care of her daughter Yasmin, because she could no longer care for herself. In the 1970s, as her disease became apparent, information about Alzheimer’s was just coming to light. Her family, friends, and some of her fans somehow believed that she had brought this problem on herself. She had not.
Researchers are studying the connection between Alzheimer’s disease and family history. Between Alzheimer’s disease and alcoholism. Between Alzheimer’s disease and the use of cigarettes. No one really yet knows if or how a person’s behavior can impact Alzheimer’s. What we can say is that this beautiful, fragile, talented woman was forced to suffer her disease as a public figure. That seems to me to be an ignominy that shouldn’t have to be endured by anyone.
What she could not have known is that changes in technology would eventually introduce Only Angels Have Wings, Gilda, You Were Never Lovelier, and the rest of her films to new generations of fans. The love she always sought was not nearly as ephemeral as she thought.
And her daughter Yasmin has used her wealth and fame to work to find a cure for Alzheimer’s. She serves as Vice Chairman of the United States Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders Association, and she is president of Alzheimer’s Disease International. That’s a legacy Rita Hayworth could be very proud of.