Popularly known for her stunning explosive sexual charisma on the silver screen, American film bombshell Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Cansino on 17 October 1918, in New York City. Her father, the Spanish-born Eduardo Cansino, was a dancer and her mother Volga, an American of Irish and English descent, had been a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl. It is said that Margarita was sexually abused by her father at a very early age, while her mother, supposed to be sleeping in the same bed, did nothing to stop him. Though the girl did not like to dance, she had to attend dance classes every day, as her father wanted her to become a professional dancer.
As she was engaged to learn her steps for dancing, Margarita Carmen could never complete graduation, but she completed the ninth grade at Hamilton High in Los Angeles. In 1927, Eduardo took his family to Los Angeles and in 1931, he partnered his mature looking 12-year daughter to form an act called the Dancing Cansinos. Her name was shortened to Rita Cansino and she joined her father on the stage in nightclubs in Tijuana, which was a popular tourist spot for people from Los Angeles in those days. In 1934, she also took a bit part in the film Cruz Diablol.
It was on a stage show in Agua Caliente, Mexico that Winfield Sheehan, the head of the Fox Film Corporation, spotted the 16-year-old dancer and signed her temporarily for a six-month contract. After appearing in unremarkable roles in two films, Rita Cansino, aged 16, performed a dance sequence in Dante's Inferno (1935), starring Spencer Tracy. During the same year she bagged three roles with dialogue, an Argentinean girl in Under the Pampas Moon, an Egyptian girl in Charlie Chan in Egypt and a Russian dancer in Paddy O'Day.
However, her contract was not renewed after six months, as by that time Fox Film had merged into 20th Century Fox and they favoured Loretta Young in place of Rita Cansino. Nevertheless, with the help of Edward Judson, an oilman turned promoter, she managed to get a role in the Columbia Pictures Meet Nero Wolfe(1936). Consequently, the studio head, Harry Cohn signed her to a seven-year contract and also tried her out in some other small roles. On his advice and Judsons encouragement, she had her eyebrows plucked, had electrolysis to raise her hairline and broaden the appearance of her forehead and changed her hair colour from a raven-haired Latin to an auburn-haired cosmopolitan. Apart from that, as her last name sounded too Spanish, Rita Cansino became Rita Hayworth.
At the age of 18, Rita Hayworth married Edward Judson in 1937, who was more than twice her age. The shrewd businessman became her manager for months before he proposed. He played a vital role in launching her career, as he hired press agents to get the name and picture of Rita Hayworth in newspapers and fan magazines and eventually, his untiring efforts and insistence helped her to get a seven-year contract with Columbia Pictures.
But, in spite of everything, she had to remain unsatisfied for about two years with few disappointing minor roles and low-budget B movies, until she landed a small but important role as an unfaithful wife in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), opposite Cary Grant. It was the secondary female role, but the one that got her first good critical notices and she was showered with more movie offers. As she featured in the cover story of Life magazine in 1941 and was called the 'Great American Love Goddess', she caught the publics fancy and emerged as one of the most gorgeous and glamorous stars of Hollywood.
In the same year, on loan to Warner Brothers, Rita Hayworth appeared opposite James Cagney in Strawberry Blonde(1941) and as she came back to Columbia, she was given the full star status and was cast as the dancing partner of Fred Astaire in You'll Never Get Rich, a 1941 hit that got her a Time magazine cover article, with an iconic photograph, in which she posed in a sensational negligee with a black lace bodice that created ripples. The film was so successful that the studio produced and released another Astaire-Hayworth picture the following year, titled You Were Never Lovelier (1942). Astaire later called Hayworth as his favourite dance partner.
On 24 February 1942, Rita filed for divorce from Edward Judson on the charge of cruelty. She also alleged Judson of hiding the fact that he had previously been married twice.
As a cultural ambassador for the Good neighbor policy of the Roosevelt administration, Hayworth visited Brazil in March 1942. In that year she also gifted three hit movies to the film world, My Gal Sal, Tales of Manhattan and You Were Never Lovelier. During the run of The Mercury Wonder Show, she married Orson Wells on 7 September 1943 and had a daughter, Rebecca, born on 17 December 1944. However, despite best efforts on the part of Rita, the marriage failed, as Orson never showed any interest in establishing a home and confessed that he should not have married, since it interfered with his freedom in his way of life. Finally, during the filming of The Lady from Shanghai, Hayworth filed for divorce from Welles, which was granted on 19 November 1947 that became final the following year.
Cover Girl(1944), the Technicolour musical, established Hayworth as Columbia's top star of the 1940s and it gave her the distinction of being the first of only six women, who had the opportunity to dance on screen with both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. But, her stardom peaked as her glamorous and alluring appeal was most noted in Charles Vidor's film noir Gilda (1946) with Glenn Ford, in which she wore black satin and performed a controversial one-glove striptease that made her an icon as a femme fatale. Her next film with Glenn Ford, The Loves of Carmen (1948), was Columbia's biggest moneymaker that year. As the film was co-produced by Columbia and Hayworth's Production Company, she received a percentage of the profits from it and all her subsequent films until 1954, when she dissolved her company to pay off debts.
Hayworth had an irregular affair with Glenn Ford, which they started in 1945 during the filming of Gilda. Later it was revealed by Glenn's son, Peter Ford that during the filming of The Loves of Carmen, Hayworth was impregnated by his father and she travelled to France to get an abortion. In 1960, Glenn Ford moved next door to her in Beverly Hills and they continued their relationship for many years until the early 1980s
Unfortunately, Rita Hayworth never found a right man in her life. After a year-long courtship, she married Prince Aly Khan, a son of Aga Khan III, on 27 May 1949, which marked the first time when a Hollywood beauty became a princess. After the marriage Hayworth left her film career at the height of her fame and sailed for France, breaking her contract with Columbia and gave birth to Princess Yasmin Aga Khan on 28 December 1949. However, Aly Khan was known in circles as a playboy and it was suspected that he had been unfaithful to Hayworth. In 1951, he was spotted dancing intimately with the actress Joan Fontaine in the nightclub where he and Hayworth had met. His flamboyant lifestyle and duties proved too difficult for Hayworth and at the same time, she was anxious to start a new life away from Hollywood. Ultimately, in early May, Hayworth moved to Nevada to establish legal residence to qualify for a divorce and filed for divorce on 2 September 1951, on the grounds of extreme cruelty, entirely mental in nature, which was granted in January 1953.
Rita Hayworth returned to Hollywood to star in her comeback film, Affair in Trinidad (1952), pairing again with Glenn Ford, which ended up grossing $1 million more than her previous blockbuster, Gilda. In 1953, she appeared in two films, Salome and Miss Sadie Thompson. After that, she was conspicuously absent from the silver screen for four years, mainly because of her tumultuous marriage to the singer Dick Haymes. Haymes was badly in need of money, because two of his former wives were taking legal action against him for unpaid child support. At that time, Hayworth was also fighting a severe custody battle with Khan, yet she paid up most of the debts of Haymes. The two were married on 24 September 1953 and after a tumultuous two years together, one day, when Haymes struck Hayworth in the face in 1955 in public at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles, Hayworth broke into tears, walked out and never returned to Dick Haymes. They were officially divorced on 12 December 1955.
It was a tough time for Hayworth, as she was very much short of money. She failed to gain child support from Aly Khan. She sued Orson Welles for back payment of child support, but as her effort proved to be fruitless, it added extra strain to her stress. By the time she returned to the screen for Fire Down Below (1957), the public has found their new diva in Kim Novac and she had become Columbia's top female star. After completing her last musical, Pal Joey (1957), Hayworth left Columbia for good.
After a short romance, Hayworth married film producer James Hill on 2 February 1958, who put her in one of her last major films, Separate Tables (1958) with Burt Lancaster and David Niven. However, Hayworth filed for divorce on 1 September 1961, alleging extreme mental cruelty. Much later, it was suggested by Hill that their marriage collapsed because Hayworth wanted both of them to retire from Hollywood, while he wanted Hayworth to continue making movies.
Before retiring from acting, the 54-year-old Hayworth agreed to the suggestion of Robert Mitchum to film The Wrath of God (1972), which sadly exposed her poor health and her worsening mental state. As she was unable to remember her lines, her scenes were shot one line at a time. Though it was preliminary considered that, severe alcoholism was responsible for her diminished skills as an actress, she was actually suffering from the first stages of Alzheimer's disease. Her deteriorating state made headlines in January 1976, when she was escorted off a plane, as she appeared disheveled and out of sorts. Rita Hayworth was declared legally unable to care for herself by a court in Los Angeles in June 1981 and was put in the care of Princess Yasmin, who took her to New York to live. In 1983, Princess Yasmin testified that the disease had reduced her mother to a state of utter helplessness.
Rita Hayworth lapsed into a semi-coma in February 1987 and died three months later on 14 May 1987, at the age of 68. In 1999, Hayworth was acknowledged as one of the top-25 greatest female stars of Classic Hollywood cinema.