Fiery Facts About Rita Moreno, The Hollywood Survivor

June 23, 2020 | Rachel Seigel

Fiery Facts About Rita Moreno, The Hollywood Survivor

During her rise to stardom, Rita Moreno faced down the many wolves in Hollywood—and walked away with the most disturbing stories imaginable.

1. She Is The American Dream

Many have said that, of all the Old Hollywood actresses, Rita Moreno’s life is the finest example of the “American Dream". She is completely self-made, having immigrated to America from Puerto Rico, in search of a “better life". But though she clawed her way to the very top and donned a glamorous celebrity mask, Moreno undoubtedly has one of the darkest backstories in the industry.

Rita MorenoSilver Screen Collection, Getty Images

2. She Loves Being The Center of Attention

Born in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Rita Moreno wanted to be the center of attention right out of the gates. Her grandfather would put on records and encourage Moreno to dance for him. Her youth was undoubtedly a simpler time, filled with barefoot adventures and swimming in the creek—but that was all about to change.

Not long after her parents divorced, her mother made a shocking decision that tore her world in two.

Rita MorenoCorbis Historical, Getty Images

3. She Had A Tough Childhood

In 1936, Rita Moreno’s mother decided to move to New York City, but made a chilling sacrifice in doing so—she left Moreno’s brother, Francisco, behind. It was just Moreno and her mother against the world, but New York City was a terrifying place to be. On every corner, there was the threat of discrimination and segregation—and this affected Moreno in a heartbreaking way.

Rita MorenoMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

4. She Didn't Value Herself

Growing up in a city that looked down on her origins, Moreno never believed that she was worth very much. By the age of 16, she was providing for her family by dancing in nightclubs. She survived by delighting others—but more than anything, she wanted to become an actress. Thanks to an unbelievable twist of fate, her wish came true.

Rita MorenoSilver Screen Collection, Getty Images


5. She Had A Lucky Start

While performing in a dance recital, Moreno caught the eye of an MGM talent scout. He met her backstage and arranged for her to meet the head honcho himself, Louis B Mayer. Moreno was over the moon. This was a dream come true. However, she knew she had to make the best first impression imaginable—and to do so, she knew exactly who she had to look like.

Eddie Mannix FactsLos Angeles Times, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

6. She Looked Up To Elizabeth Taylor

At the time, Rita Moreno looked up to Elizabeth Taylor: “She was my role model because there were no role models for people like me in those days. Nobody”. So, with the help of her mother, Moreno tried to transform herself into the spitting image of Taylor: She tied in her waist, shaped her brows, and styled her hair just so…Louis B Mayer’s reaction was unforgettable.

Portrait Of Montgomery Clift And Elizabeth TaylorJohn Springer Collection, Getty Images

7. She Instantly Won Him Over

Rita Moreno didn’t have to do anything but stand in front of Louis B Mayer in the Penthouse suite of the Waldorf Astoria—and she landed a contract with MGM. After looking her over, he exclaimed, “My God, she looks like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor”. It was a thrilling moment that changed everything.

However, when it came to working for film studios, Moreno soon learned that there was a very high price to pay.

Montgomery Clift And Elizabeth Taylor Lying In The GrassPicture Post, Getty Images

8. They Treated Her Like An Object

Rita Moreno may have had the face of an angel, but because she was Latina, the studio didn’t treat her very well. Even more heartbreakingly? She expected it. In the documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, she confessed, “I was very often treated like a sex object”.

Her first harsh dose of reality came quickly—and it made her realize that powerful men could be downright despicable.


9. The Studio Controlled Her

Studios often set up their contract players on dates for the sake of publicity. And on one occasion, Moreno found herself at an afternoon, cocktail party. It seemed like a respectable crowd, but amid the revelry, she endured two disturbing encounters. 

To begin with, the host of the party introduced her to the head of Columbia pictures, Harry Cohn, who Moreno later described as “a distinctly vulgar and crude man”—and for good reason.

Rita MorenoGAB Archive, Getty Images


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10. A Studio Executive Propositioned Her

Upon meeting Moreno, Cohn came onto her in the most twisted way. He told her that he wanted to sleep with her. Completely taken aback, Moreno could only giggle in response. However, the worst was yet to come.

The host of the party himself—a man in charge of a whiskey distillery—asked Moreno to dance with him. While holding her close to him, he took the most disgusting liberties imaginable.

Rita MorenoArchive Photos, Getty Images


11. She Fled From A Terrifying Situation

While on the dance floor, the host began rubbing up against Moreno without her consent. He began breathing heavily in her ear and even went so far as to call her a derogatory name. That was the last straw. Moreno fled to the nearby garden, where she pleaded with the Mexican gardeners for help. She later said, “They didn’t need an explanation, they kind of knew”.

Sadly, Moreno’s dangerous path through Hollywood was just beginning.

Rita MorenoSilver Screen Collection, Getty Images

12. She Hated The Roles She Played

At first, Rita Moreno accepted the fact that she was typecast as “Native girls” or “Island girls”. But as time wore on, and she realized that these were the only roles she could land, and this harsh reality began to sting. “I hated being Hispanic because I learned very early that it was not a good thing”.

Hollywood had put Moreno in a box, making her feel unbelievably trapped—but even then, the greatest nightmares happened off-screen.

Rita MorenoArchive Photos, Getty Images

13. Her Agent Was Despicable

In her 2021 documentary, Rita Moreno made a shocking confession: Her own agent forced himself on her without her consent. But even to Moreno, that’s not the most chilling part of her story. She also revealed that, at the time, she still kept him as an agent for the sake of her career.

She admitted, “That’s what astonishes me—that I thought so little of myself”. Moreno tried to repress these distressing incidents as best she could, and then she met someone who saw all her pain, and more.

Rita MorenoKeystone, Getty Images

14. She Fell For A Bad Boy

Enter: Marlon Brando. Brando was the biggest actor of the 1950s—the kind of magnetic, Hollywood bad boy, whose “ungettable” nature made him even more irresistible. Moreno met Brando in 1954. She was 22 and he was 30. The first time she laid eyes on him on the set of Désirée was a moment she never forgot.

Eva Marie Saint Marlon Brando On The WaterfrontColumbia, Wikimedia Commons

15. She Had Instant Chemistry With Him

In her 2013 memoir, Rita Moreno described first meeting Marlon Brando: “Just meeting him that first day sent my body temperature skyrocketing as though I had been dropped into a very hot bath, and I went into a full-body blush”. It was the beginning of one of the most tumultuous and passionate romances Hollywood had ever seen.

Vikki Dougan factsBob Sinclair, Flickr

16. She Never Forgot Him 

Marlon Brando proved himself to be an expert in the lovemaking department, and down the road, Rita Moreno had no qualms about spilling all her dirty secrets: “To say that he was a great lover—sensual, generous, delightfully inventive—would be gravely understating what he did not only to my body, but for my soul”.

But though they burned red-hot for one another, there was a wild, nefarious side to their relationship.

Val Kilmer factsoneredsf1, Flickr


17. She Obsessed Over Him

Moreno and Brando had an on-again, off-again relationship for eight years—but it was filled with countless betrayals. Though Moreno desperately wanted to marry Brando, his head was on a constant swivel. In fact, he strung her along and kept her hopes up while cheating on her with other women. But in a deranged way, his infidelity only made Moreno obsess over him more.

She later admitted, “I was becoming addicted to the challenge of winning him over and over again”. This was a recipe for disaster.

Sophia Loren factsA Countess from Hong Kong (1967), Universal Pictures

18. She Was Never His Priority

Though Rita Moreno was ready and willing to be Marlon Brando’s bride, he always chose other women over her. In 1957, he married Anna Kashfi, and in 1960, he wed again, this time to Movita Castaneda. Rita Moreno was always his back-up girl—never “The One”—and this pulverized her heart. However, she wasn’t quite ready to throw in the towel.

Marlon Brando and Grace KellyLos Angeles Times, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

19. She Had A Famous Admirer

On one nasty occasion, Moreno discovered lingerie at Brando’s house—but the very next day, a scandalous opportunity presented itself. She received an unforgettable phone call from Elvis’s manager, Colonel Parker. Apparently, the hunky crooner had noticed Moreno and “liked what he saw”.

In Moreno’s twisted game of love, this was exactly the kind of hand she needed to play.

Ed Sullivan FactsThe Ed Sullivan Show(1948-1971), CBS Productions

20. She Wanted To Make Him Jealous

Moreno decided to give Brando a taste of his own medicine. To get his attention, she’d simply make him wildly jealous by seeing other men—and in this case, she’d harnessed the attention of the King of Rock n’ Roll himself. She agreed to meet Elvis and ended up going on several dates with him. But what Moreno had to say about Elvis was downright jaw-dropping.

Jenny Maxwell and Elvis  in Blue Hawaii (1962)Paramount, Blue Hawaii (1962)

21. She Found Elvis Boring

Elvis may have seemed like the ultimate catch—but according to Moreno, he simply couldn’t hold a flame to Brando. She later called him “sweet but boring”. Still, that wasn’t the worst part. Reportedly, the actress couldn’t help but feel that Elvis loved eating more than he enjoyed being with her—especially after she watched him wolf down one of his famous peanut butter, bacon, and banana sandwiches.

It was a short-lived, underwhelming romance—but it ended with a bang.

Elvis in Blue Hawaii (1962) in green shirtParamount, Blue Hawaii (1962)22. She Finally Got His Attention

In the end, Elvis was nothing more than a pawn in the incendiary affairs of two messed-up actors. When Brando found out that Moreno had been kicking back the sheets with Elvis, he lost it. The news enraged the actor, who ended up hurling chairs in front of her. It was exactly what she wanted and she later described the entire fiasco as “wonderful”.

Unfortunately, the darkest chapter of this warped saga was yet to come.

Elvis Presley Publicity Photo For The Trouble With Girls 1968MGM, Wikimedia Commons

23. She Made A Shocking Discovery

Rita Moreno’s world turned upside-down when realized she was pregnant. However, when she told Marlon Brando that he was going to be a father, he had the most horrifying response. Instead of being excited, he shocked Moreno by hastily scheduling an abortion for her. But this was only the beginning of the nightmare.

Marlon Brando Streetcar 1948Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia Commons


24. She Couldn't Stop Bleeding

To add insult to injury, Brando didn’t even plan to be there for Moreno. Instead, he arranged for somebody else to bring her home. Unfortunately, even after the abortion, things went south fast. In the days following the procedure, Moreno couldn’t stop bleeding. Her roommate at the time was worried for her, insisting that this wasn’t normal…She was right.

Marlon Brando 1948Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia Commons

25. She Ended Up In The Hospital

Tragically, Moreno’s “doctor” hadn’t actually performed a proper abortion, the actress was still pregnant. Due to the botched procedure, the terrified actress found herself in the hospital, where her feturs was removed via surgery. Even then, Brando couldn’t extend her a shred of his compassion, feeling that he had been betrayed by the person he’d trusted to do the abortion.

Marlon BrandoParamount, Wikimedia Commons

26. They Were Both Intellectuals

With so much chaos swirling between these two, it may be hard to see what exactly made them click—but they did have one very special thing in common. You see, Marlon Brando was very much a part of the civil rights movement—something actually quite uncommon for stars of his calibre. And Moreno? Well, she was on the same page, becoming an activist in her own right.

So, intellectually and physically, they stimulated one another—but as we’ll soon see, this still wasn’t enough.

Marlon Brando In The MenUnknown Photographer, Wikimedia Commons

27. She Looked Up To Her Character

In 1961, Rita Moreno encountered something brand new when she landed the role of Anita in West Side Story. Looking back, Moreno shared, “She was a girl who respected herself who had a certain amount of dignity”. She had never played such a strong character before, and absolutely adored playing a role for the first time in forever.

But as much as the West Side Story was a game-changer for her career, Moreno had unresolved traumas in personal life.

Rita MorenoErnst Haas, Getty Images

28. Her Lover Betrayed Her

When Brando jetted off to star in Mutiny on the Bounty, he dealt Moreno another awful blow. He sparked an affair with his co-star Tarita Teriipaia. Even though Moreno was coming off the high of her successful role, the knowledge of Brando’s continued philandering drove her right off the edge—and she did the unthinkable.

Rita MorenoJohn Springer Collection, Getty Images

29. She Tried To Take Her Own Life

Rita Moreno’s relationship with Marlon Brando tormented her so badly, she attempted to take her own life by overdosing on sleeping pills. In her memoir, she wrote, “I went to bed to die. This wasn’t a revenge suicide, but a consolation, an escape-from-pain death”. However, thanks to a lucky twist of fate, she survived.

Rita MorenoHerbert Dorfman, Getty Images

30. She Was Deeply Unhappy

Thankfully, Moreno’s assistant came to her aid and made sure she received the medical attention she needed. At the hospital, doctors pumped her stomach and saved her life. She later confessed, “It was humiliating and I was letting him step all over me... I wanted to get rid of myself because I didn't think I deserved to live”.

Rita MorenoBettmann, Getty Images

31. She Went To Therapy

After this chilling close call, Rita Moreno went back to therapy in an attempt to erase Marlon Brando from her life. She broke things off with him completely, and Brando went on to marry Tarita Teriipaia. But though she thought she’d healed and moved on, Rita Moreno learned the hard way that some memories never really fade away.

Rita MorenoBettmann, Getty Images

32. They Were A Dangerous Combination

Seven years later, fate brought Moreno and Brando back together in a shocking way. They became co-stars, working on the film The Night of the Following Day. But this was a dangerous combination. After the reunion dinner, Rita Moreno awoke from her slumber—and made a chilling realization. Brando’s mouth was close to her neck. He was breathing on her.

Rita MorenoSankei Shinbun Co., Ltd, Wikimedia Commons

33. She Turned Him Down

Clearly, everyone at the reunion dinner had had their fair share of drinks, and Brando may have also been a bit unstable, because he propositioned Moreno. After she woke up, he surprised her by saying, “That’s all I want, to sleep with you”. But this time she was prepared. She completely rejected him—but she wasn’t done getting even.

Rita MorenoArchive Photos, Getty Images

34. She Got Physical With Him

During an unforgettable scene from The Night of the Following Day, Rita Moreno and Marlon Brando’s dialogue drifted into uncharted territory. With her personal demons on high alert, Moreno went ahead and slapped Brando on camera. But that wasn’t all. Brando retaliated and slapped her back.

According to Moreno, “That opened an old scar of when he would take advantage of me, when he had other women…”

Rita Moreno (1963)Jack de Nijs for Anefo, CC0, Wikimedia Commons

35. She Threw A Fit

After Brando’s slap twirled Moreno around, she saw red. With the cameras still rolling, she unleashed years of anger and heartbreak on Brando. She lunged at her old lover, screaming her head off and crying. It was a real breakdown with real emotions. Later, Moreno described this cathartic explosion as a way for her to get “closure” and “get even with him”.

Rita MorenoJack de Nijs for Anefo, CC0, Wikimedia Commons

36. Hollywood Failed Her

Although Rita Moreno took home an Oscar for her performance in West Side Story, she struggled to find work in the following years. She no longer felt satisfied by the stereotypical roles she usually played. Instead, she branched out and tried her hand in television and theater, and even landed the lead role in a Broadway play. Moreno was thrilled by the opportunity—but it crushed her expectations.

Rita MorenoBettmann, Getty Images

37. Broadway Was A Bust

The play The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window had a devastatingly short run on Broadway—less than a week. This was surely a disappointment for Moreno, yet there was a heartwarming, silver lining. Through a mutual friend, she met a doctor named Leonard Gordon. Whatever Marlon Brando was, Leonard Gordon seemed to be the opposite.

Rita MorenoJohn Storey, Getty Images

38. She Met A Good Guy

After being introduced to Rita Moreno, Leonard Gordon was smitten—and so he asked her out on a date to celebrate New Years Eve. She told him to meet her at the theater at 10:30, but there was one thing Gordon had not clued in on: He didn’t realize that Rita Moreno was a famous actress. When he went to pick her up, he thought she’d stood him up.

Rita MorenoMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

39. Her Date Didn't Realize She Was Famous

After waiting around for Moreno for 30 minutes, Gordon disappointedly decided to head home—and that's when he saw it. Glancing back at the theater, he noticed the sign for The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window with Rita Moreno’s name up in lights. That’s when it clicked. Running back into the building, he raced to Moreno’s dressing room.

When the door opened, he exclaimed, “Are you the Rita Moreno?”

Rita MorenoErnst Haas, Getty Images

40. She Walked Down The Aisle

Leonard Gordon’s complete obliviousness warmed Rita Moreno’s heart—and he ultimately won her over. Six months later, she married a man who genuinely wanted to devote his life to her. The cherry on top? He didn’t love her for her fame. For the first time, Moreno experienced a relationship that wasn’t filled with betrayal and disappointment.

But oddly enough, Marlon Brando was still in her life.

Rita MorenoMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

41. She Couldn't Escape Him

Marlon Brando just kept weaseling his way back into Rita Moreno’s timeline. Somehow, they managed to maintain a friendship despite their tumultuous history. Brando even visited with Moreno’s husband and children. In a 1975, the actress revealed that her daughter called Brando “the man with the drums” because she’d watched him play the congas during one of his visits.

But that wasn’t all.

Marlon BrandoScreen Archives, Getty Images

42. Brando Encouraged Her To Go To Therapy

Although Brando was the one who dragged Moreno into such a dark place, he was also the one to recommend therapy to her: “And at one point he said to me, ‘You need help,’ which now makes me really laugh hard because it’s one loony telling the other loony that they need help”. Moreno credits therapy for much of her healing.

Marlon Brando On The WaterFrontJohn Springer Archive, Getty Images

43. Her Happy Marriage Was A Lie

Although Rita Moreno’s marriage to Leonard Gordon seemed like a fairy tale from the outside, the truth of their relationship was heart-wrenching. In her 2021 documentary, Moreno confessed, “We were really not a good couple”. In a way, they played the part of a doting husband and loving wife perfectly—but Moreno was not happy.

Rita MorenoBettmann, Getty Images

44. She Has Regrets

Gordon was a very controlling husband to Moreno. And even worse? He was never quite content with her overwhelming, loud personality—which, to this day, is one of her favorite things about herself. Though she doesn’t regret marrying him and having a child with him, she does have a single regret.

Rita MorenoRachel Murray, Getty Images

45. She Stayed With Him For Too Long

Rita Moreno married Leonard Gordon in 1965 and she stayed with him until his passing in 2010. In her documentary, she admitted, “I regret that I stayed way past the time I should have” and that she even felt relieved when he finally closed his eyes forever. At the hospital, she decided to take one last memento from him.

Rita MorenoEmma McIntyre, Getty Images

46. His Passing Set Her Free

When Gordon passed, Moreno took a clipping of his grey hair: “He was so small and slender and white, and I thought: ‘How is it that little wizened person made me so unhappy?...’” For decades, Moreno had kept her unhappiness close to her chest and now, for the first time in long time, she felt free.

Rita MorenoErnst Haas, Getty Images

47. She Discovered Brando's Secret

When Marlon Brando passed in 2004, Rita Moreno experienced a shocking revelation. She discovered that she had meant more to the actor than she’d ever known: “Ultimately I found out after he died that I was the love of his life. Not just the lust of his life but the love of his life. I was told there was only one picture of him and a woman in his bedroom, and it was him and me in that film [The Night of the Following Day]”.

Marlon BrandoSilver Screen Collection, Getty Images

48. She Almost Quit "West Side Story"

While West Side Story may be the film Rita Moreno is best known for, few know that almost walked out on the project. The original lyrics for the number "America" were so offensive to Moreno's culture, she thought to herself, "I can't do this. I can't do this to my people".

The lyrics Moreno referred to were "Puerto Rico, you ugly island / Island of tropic diseases". However, this wasn't the only aspect of the musical she disagreed with.

Rita Moreno FactsRobert Sullivan, Flickr

49. She Hated Her Make-Up

In addition to the distasteful lyrics, Rita Moreno also questioned the fact that all of the make-up used for the Puerto Rican characters came in the same shade of brown. However, when she tried to explain to the make-up artist that there was a diverse range of skin tones for Puerto Ricans, he asked her if she was prejudiced. This shocked her so badly, she couldn't even come up with a proper comeback.

West Side StoryPiano! Piano!, Flickr

50. She Is An EGOT

Rita Moreno may have had a trying time in the entertainment industry, but that didn't stop her from reaching unbelievable heights. In fact, she is the third-ever "EGOT," meaning she has won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony—a milestone that many performers chase after their entire lives.

Even now, at the age of 91, Rita Moreno is still going strong—as feisty and opinionated as ever.

Rita MorenoAxelle / Bauer-Griffin, Getty Images

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