The life story of Rita Hayworth is a tragedy of epic proportions. Beauty, talent, fame, intelligence: She had it all. And yet she remained unhappy and unloved until the day she passed. The men in her life often used and damaged her, and ultimately her failed relationships broke her spirit. Grab some tissues as we traipse down memory lane and read about the sweet, sad girl who was wanted by all, but cherished by none.
Rita Hayworth was born Margerita Carmen Cansino in Brooklyn, New York, in 1918. Her Spanish-American father, Eduardo Cansino had been one half of a famous duo on vaudeville: The Dancing Cansinos. Her mother, Volga Hayworth was part of the Ziegfeld Follies. With so much dance talent in the family, it’s no surprise Rita went on to dance divinely. But unfortunately, she didn’t have much choice in the matter.
When most kids are leading a carefree existence and spending their days playing and exploring, Rita Hayworth had a strictly regimented life revolving around strenuous dance lessons. Her mother wanted her to become an actor, but her father only had one dream: To see her as a professional dancer. His wish prevailed and she started dancing “as soon as [she] could stand on [her] own feet.”
Sadly, that wasn’t the worst thing he would do to her.
The hard work did pay off: Rita Hayworth was part of a Broadway production before she even turned five. Warner Bros (no less!) noticed her and cast her in a short film, La Fiesta, when she turned eight. Dad Eduardo, moved the family to Hollywood, thinking she might find more films this way. He opened a dancing studio, and taught stars how to shake a leg.
You’d think he’d chill out and focus more on his studio and less on how to make his daughter’s life miserable at that point. But you’d be wrong.
Hayworth’s principal from school recalled her as being “one of the kindest, most motherly girls” she’d ever known. In spite of this, the poor thing never got to make any friends. She didn’t even play with her younger brothers or the other kids on her street. Instead, little Rita would just sit on the steps of her home and watch the other kids have fun until it was time for her to dance again.
Rita Hayworth never graduated from high school and I’m sure you can guess why. Her dad made her quit school at 12 because he wanted to revive the “Dancing Cansinos,” with her as his partner. He moved the family to Chula Vista, near Mexico, so he could dance with her in nightclubs in Tijuana. But Hayworth's father's mistreatment went far deeper than making her leave school.
Eduardo Cansino was an out and out villain and he treated his daughter horrendously. His addiction to the bottle and gambling meant he spent whatever he earned from dancing. He made Rita catch fish for their dinner. If she couldn’t, he beat her up, but strategically, so no marks would show on her face. His constant criticism ripped her self-esteem into shreds, but would you believe? This still wasn’t the most horrible thing he did.
As part of their show, Rita Hayworth had to dress provocatively to appear older than she was. Eduardo not only called her his “wife” in front of the crowds, he treated her like his wife in private too. He cruelly abused his own daughter. Rita's mother tried to intervene by bringing Rita to her bed to sleep with her, but by this point, she was becoming an alcoholic.
She could barely take care of herself, nevermind her daughter. In the end, Rita bore her father's brutal abuse until she finally ran away.
Despite all the sordid drama in her life, Hayworth's talent was undeniable. During her teenage years, she booked small roles in two Mexican films. She also caught the eye of the head of Fox Film Corporation, Winfield Sheehan, and he signed her for a six-month contract with Fox. As she splashed into show business, "Margerita Cansino" changed her name. She was now "Rita."
Tragically for Rita Hayworth, Fox merged into 20th Century Fox and the new head of the company had no interest in renewing her contract. Her creepy father Eduardo became upset that he couldn't get more money out of his daughter, so he found another awful man (takes one to know one, eh?) to guide Rita's career. The new guy's name was a salesman named Edward C. Judson, and boy was he a piece of work.
He did help young Hayworth get freelance work, but she paid a hefty price for her new opportunities.
History’s most fascinating stories and darkest secrets, delivered to your inbox daily. Making distraction rewarding since 2017.
Judson played his cards right and managed to get Rita a seven-year contract with Columbia. Studio Head, Harry Cohn, saw her potential, but there was just one problem. He felt that the young starlet looked too Mediterranean, and the audience needed someone more American. The first step to achieving a new white-washed image was swapping her dad's Spanish surname for her mother’s maiden name, Hayworth.
The second step was far more painful.
Hayworth had to go through the lengthy, painful process of electrolysis to push back her hairline and give her face a new shape, which according to her new boss would help her look less exotic. She also had to go on a strict diet to slim down her curves and, not even content with that, the studio also made Rita dye her naturally dark hair a bright, crimson red to seal her new look as an all-American star.
No one can blame Rita Hayworth for wanting to escape her villainous father’s clutches. Unfortunately, she did it in the worst way possible: By eloping with her greedy, manipulative manager, Judson. He was three times older than his new bride and in the years before he met and married Rita Hayworth, he'd gotten up to more than a few dicy activities. Of course, Hayworth only found out the truth after she walked down the aisle with Judson.
It turned out that not only had Judson already been married to another woman before Rita, he had actually been married twice. This was a huge scandal back in 1937, when the couple wed, which explains why Judson lied to Hayworth and let her believe she was his first bride. Unfortunately for Rita, Judson's betrayals didn't end there.
In the years to come, she learned that he was only interested in her money, and he was willing to go to any lengths to get it.
Poor Hayworth. It seems like she was always surrounded by evil men. Judson pushed her father Eduardo out of the picture, but the swap changed almost nothing. Like her father, Judson was determined to make Rita into his personal meal-ticket. He had no qualms about making Hayworth sleep with other men if it meant she’d get a better movie deal. He even insisted that she romance Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Studios.
At the time, people thought Cohn was a brilliant studio executive, but the way he treated Rita was monstrous.
Hayworth hadn’t had much practice saying “no” to the men in her life, but thankfully, she finally reached her breaking point. When Judson ordered her to sleep with Cohn, Hayworth stood up for herself and refused. A furious Judson threatened his wife and even sent her on a yacht to be with her boss, but her answer did not change. As you can imagine, Hayworth's refusal angered Cohn no end.
Cohn took revenge by bugging Hayworth’s dressing room and stationing a maid outside her door to report all comings and goings to him. He also had no shame in using the bathroom in her presence either. He constantly yelled at her, belittled her, and made her life miserable, but our girl Rita stood her ground. What’s more, she didn’t make any secret of what she thought of Cohn and his lackies either. You go girl!
Hayworth portrayed several minor characters for Columbia over the next three years, from 1937-1940. She got a small but important role opposite stars like Cary Grant and Jean Fisher in Only Angels Have Wings and, with her big break just around the corner, she finally started to get noticed. After a cover story in Life magazine, Hayworth was officially an It Girl.
Soon enough, Rita Hayworth was an A-list actress. She appeared in hit films and was especially successful in musicals. After years of hard work, she finally got to play lead roles in musicals opposite Fred Astaire. With such divine dancers, it was no surprise that the films were hugely successful. Hayworth's career was finally taking off, but her personal life was as atrocious as ever.
Success opened Rita’s eyes and she realized there was no need for her to put up with her slimy husband any longer. Unfortunately for her, Judson was even more evil than she knew. He refused to let her go, not because he loved her, but because he loved the money she brought in. He threatened to maim and disfigure her if she tried to leave him.
Sounds like a swell, stand-up guy, that one.
When you think of famous dancing duos, the first name that comes to mind is “Fred and Ginger.” However, when pressed to name his favorite dancing partner of all time, Fred Astaire said it was Rita Hayworth. He said she was the perfect dance student. Astaire only had to show her a routine before lunch, and she’d have it down pat when he came back from his break. Fans saw how she lit up while dancing and noticed that her exuberance brought out Astaire’s uninhibited side out too.
In spite of his threats, Judson left Hayworth alone because of two reasons. Her boyfriend of the moment, Victor Mature, was a strong man and Judson didn’t want to get beaten up. The bigger, more potent reason was that Rita had agreed to give everything she had to him. She honored her promise so completely, that she didn’t even have money to buy herself a meal, and had to ask a friend, Hermes Pan, if she could eat at his place.
Thankfully, Hayworth was still very much in demand, so she was able to recover some of the money she’d lost to Judson quite quickly. Her work with Gene Kelly in Cover Girl won her accolades, but it was a photo-spread in Life, in which she wore a satin negligee while kneeling on bed, that made her super popular, especially with army officers during the Second World War.
That picture would bring about another big change in her life.
After she dumped Judson, Hayworth met the man she’d call “the great love of [her] life:” Orson Welles. On his part, he’d been raring to meet Hayworth ever since he saw the Life photoshoot that made her pinup royalty. The two began dating, and soon enough, Welles made a dispiriting discovery. He learned that the real Rita was vastly different from her sensual, confident persona she projected on screen.
Welles discovered that it wasn’t easy to draw Hayworth out from her shell, and he’d pretend to read her mind to discover what she was really thinking. She was happy with the attention and care he lavished on her and enjoyed spending time with him and his friends from the theater. The couple married in 1943, but unfortunately, their happiness was short-lived.
Hayworth tried her best to be the kind of wife Welles wanted. She read the books he loved, backed the causes he advocated for, and supported him in his quest to pursue a political career. Sadly, there were some aspects of her personality she could not change, and her neediness and insecurity drove Welles to seek refuge in work, and in other women’s arms.
Sigh. Poor Rita.
Sultry siren, femme fatale: There’s a reason Hayworth’s remembered with those titles, and the reason was Gilda. Charles Vidor had the foresight to cast her as the title character in his 1946 film and it became the role that defined her from that point onwards. Hayworth was sadly all too aware of her seductive image. Sadly, she once said, “Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda and woke up with me.”
Although Welles’ indiscretions and affairs with various women, famous and not, were widely known, Hayworth refused to give up on the marriage. She knew he was romancing the likes of Judy Garland and Gloria Vanderbilt, but she still got pregnant, perhaps hoping that a child would save her marriage. Spoiler alert: It didn’t.
The United States tested some nuclear devices on Bikini Atoll between 1946 and 1958. Allegedly, one of these had the nickname “Gilda” and an image of Hayworth on one side. She flew into a rage when she found out and insisted on calling a press conference. Studio head Harry Cohn forbade her, worried people would consider her unpatriotic.
Unfortunately, Welles was uncomfortable at what he thought was his wife’s over-the-top reaction. It became yet another thing that drove them apart.
Rita Hayworth gave her marriage one last chance when she appeared in Welles’ film, The Lady from Shanghai. She cut and dyed her hair a platinum blonde for her role, a move that infuriated Cohn (because he hadn’t been consulted) and may have been the reason the film flopped at the box office. After all, the audience loved Hayworth’s trademark red hair.
It was the final straw. Between the flop and Welles’ adulterous ways, she'd had enough. Hayworth filed for divorce in 1948.
Although she filed for divorce, Hayworth found it difficult to move on from Welles. She went to a Christmas party with actress, Shelley Winters, who later found her fast asleep in bed, with a number of fur coats draped on her. Apparently, she’d been so lonely and bored that she’d cried herself to sleep. Fellow star Ava Gardner had covered Hayworth with the coats to give her some privacy.
Actor Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth shared a tumultuous on-screen relationship in the classic film Gilda. So much so that Hayworth actually knocked out two of Ford's front teeth in the film's fight scene! Given their fiery chemistry and Hayworth's unending need for love, are you surprised to learn that their relationship went far beyond the silver screen?
Hayworth and Ford had an on-again, off-again relationship. They were together, and yet apart, for over 40 years. Towards the end of his life, Ford bought a house in Beverly Hills and became her neighbor. He would often come over to give her company when she was unwell and confused. He wasn’t the only man she had an affair with though.
Regarding her many unsuccessful marriages and affairs, Hayworth just had one thing to say, “I’m a good and gentle person, but I am attracted to mean personalities.” Apart from Ford and Mature, Hayworth also had short-term affairs with Anthony Quinn, Howard Hughes, Errol Flynn, and Tony Martin among others. None of these lasted too long, and it seems sadder when you think of her words: “All I just wanted…was to be loved.”
One of Hayworth's affairs ended on a terrible note for her. She became pregnant and had to flee to France to get an abortion. It pretty much signaled an end to a celebrity’s career to have a child out of wedlock in those days. Because of this, Hayworth was already in a dangerous situation when things suddenly became much, much worse. The procedure almost claimed her life.
You know how they say, “third time’s a charm?” Not for Hayworth unfortunately. Her third husband was an exotic Muslim prince in Europe, Aly Aga Khan, a man known for living life in the fast lane, passionate about women, racehorses, and hunting. He wanted Hayworth before he even met her, having watched Gilda several times.
It was fate that brought her to Cannes, and Khan secured an introduction to her at a party, which she almost didn’t attend. Once she came, he never left her side.
Khan pursued Hayworth with a fervor she found hard to resist. When she refused to marry him initially and returned to Hollywood, he rented the house opposite hers and plied her with gifts, flowers, and attention. In time, she was worn down by Khan's gifts and started to believe that she was in love with him. Soon, both Khan and Hayworth divorced their spouses and planned to wed.
Although Hayworth didn’t want to leave her old life behind, she decided to go through with the marriage for one huge reason: She was pregnant.
After finalizing the wedding date, Hayworth had all but said goodbye to Hollywood when she started getting cold feet. The prince’s reputation of being a womanizer scared her, and she’d really loved Welles. He was in Rome at the time and rushed to her when she telegraphed him to meet her urgently. What he found was heartbreaking.
Hayworth had called Welles back to ask him to remarry her. She’d tried to make her proposal as attractive as possible, by setting the stage with candles and champagne and waiting for him in a negligee. Sadly, her appeal didn't work. Welles convinced her to go through with the wedding, explaining to her that their getting back together wouldn’t work out at all.
He knew Khan wasn’t the right man for her, but he assuaged his conscience by saying she could always get a divorce if things didn’t work out.
Hayworth’s life with Khan was never a bed of roses. She had her second daughter, Yasmin Aga Khan, in Switzerland, but soon afterwards she realized her husband just couldn’t stay away from other women. This upset her so much that she’d jealously question him whenever he went out and threw a tantrum even when he went for something as small as a haircut.
As you can imagine, this did not bode well for their relationship together. Just over a year after Hayworth's marriage to Khan, she reached her breaking point. The actress fled to the United States and initiated divorce proceedings against the prince.
One of the reasons Khan won over so many women was because he was, by many accounts, extremely skilled in bed. Rita was a passionate lover herself, however, the reasons for this are simply horrific. Hayworth's biographer Barbara Leaming attributes it to her unnatural relationship with her dad. She felt the only thing lovable about her was her body, because that was the only thing that got her father to show her some love. Twisted, yes; tragic, terribly so.
Hayworth came back to America and battled Khan for the custody of her daughter. She wanted to give her daughter the freedom to live in the United States and raise her as a Christian. Eventually, Hayworth won her case. Just three years old at the time, Yasmin played around in court during the hearing, eventually climbing in the judge’s lap.
Although Hayworth wanted to be a good mother, her past affected her in ways that resulted in her being the very opposite. She neglected her children, leaving them with a babysitter while travelling with her fourth husband. Social Services finally stepped in when someone complained that Rebecca wasn’t in school and both girls were playing in the trash.
Hayworth got a second chance—the court decided to supervise the girls for the next few months but didn’t take them away from her—but she blamed herself terribly.
After her marriage ended with Khan, Hayworth was on a downward spiral. She wed singer, Dick Haymes, also known as Mr. Evil. He was knee-deep in debt and addicted to the bottle. Rita married him and immediately entered a world of pain. She ended up paying all his debts and her career nosedived because Haymes insisted Columbia could only cast her in movies with him.
She finally walked away from him when he gave her a black eye in public one day.
Poor Hayworth. She kept trying to find a good man and she kept ending up with jerks. Her fifth, and final husband was no better. James Hill was a producer who cast his wife in some serious films such as Separate Tables. He claimed Rita wanted them both to quit Hollywood and left him because he wanted her to continue acting.
There’s of course a more horrifying part that he left out.
Hill was just as bad as Rita’s previous husbands. Charlton Heston recounted a dinner when he, his wife, and some other people met up with the couple. Hill had such terrible things to say about his wife in front of everyone that Heston left the table, disgusted, with his own wife in tears. He said it was a lifelong regret that he’d left Rita alone at that time.
Most people put down Hayworth’s public outbursts and tantrums as an effect of too much drinking. She started having trouble remembering her lines for films, and in one of her last ones, The Wrath of God, her condition was so bad that the scenes were filmed, one line at a time. She signed up for another movie in the same year but left the set when she realized she couldn’t do it.
It took two decades for doctors to realize that alcoholism wasn’t the root cause of her condition.
It turned out that Hayworth wasn't an alcoholic. Instead, she was battling Alzheimer’s. Although the disease is common now, there wasn’t much knowledge about it at the time. In fact, it had largely been ignored since its discovery in 1906, which is why it took 20 years for the doctors to diagnose her correctly. Rita became the first public face of the disease.
It wasn’t the love of a man though, but her daughter’s that ultimately helped Hayworth. Yasmin Aga Khan took Hayworth under her care and was a loving and considerate companion to her mother until she breathed her last.
She may not have known it, but Hayworth helped destigmatize Alzheimer’s and gave the condition the publicity it needed to garner funds that would go into its research. Yasmin Aga Khan is president of Alzheimer’s Disease International and hosts the Rita Hayworth Gala for the Alzheimer’s Association every year.
In her biography of Hayworth, the writer Barbara Leaming made a shocking revelation. When she interviewed Hayworth's great love, Orson Welles, he broke down and revealed Hayworth's secret: That she had been abused by her own father. Because of this, Leaming's book was critical to understanding why Hayworth became the person she was, and why she made the choices that shaped her life.
Hayworth had truly loved Welles, and she’d confessed she’d been the “happiest in her life” with him. This phrase would haunt him until his final days and he admitted to Leaming, that “if this was happiness,” he couldn’t imagine what terrors and miseries she’d suffered otherwise. He called her “one of the dearest, sweetest women that ever lived” in an interview before he passed.
Hayworth may not have been a part of it in person, but her pinup was a part of The Shawshank Redemption. In fact, the movie was based on Stephen King’s novella, titled Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. The producers dropped Hayworth’s name from the title of the film because actresses started sending in their resumes, thinking it was a Hayworth biopic!
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
Want to tell us to write facts on a topic? We’re always looking for your input! Please reach out to us to let us know what you’re interested in reading. Your suggestions can be as general or specific as you like, from “Life” to “Compact Cars and Trucks” to “A Subspecies of Capybara Called Hydrochoerus Isthmius.” We’ll get our writers on it because we want to create articles on the topics you’re interested in. Please submit feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for your time!
Do you question the accuracy of a fact you just read? At Factinate, we’re dedicated to getting things right. Our credibility is the turbo-charged engine of our success. We want our readers to trust us. Our editors are instructed to fact check thoroughly, including finding at least three references for each fact. However, despite our best efforts, we sometimes miss the mark. When we do, we depend on our loyal, helpful readers to point out how we can do better. Please let us know if a fact we’ve published is inaccurate (or even if you just suspect it’s inaccurate) by reaching out to us at email@example.com. Thanks for your help!
The Factinate team
If you like humaverse you may also consider subscribing to these newsletters: