While most recognise the name Grace Kelly when discussing Americans who became royal, many do not know that there was another American actress who gained a royal title just under a decade earlier.
Margarita Carmen Cansino, or Rita Hayworth as she was more commonly known, was born on 17 October 1918 in Brooklyn, New York. Later on in her life, she would add her name to the list of Americans who married into royalty.
She was the oldest child of a Spanish-born father and an American mother – both of whom were dancers. The New York native had two younger brothers: Eduardo and Vernon.
With two dancers as parents, Rita was destined to follow in their footsteps. She later said, “From the time I was three and a half … as soon as I could stand on my own feet, I was given dance lessons.” She admitted she was not fond of dancing but did it to please her father. She began publicly performing at age six, and by the time she was eight, she was featured in the short film La Fiesta.
When Rita was nine, the family moved to Hollywood as her father believed that his family, with their skills in dance, could be featured in Hollywood films. Just a few years later, he formed an act called the Dancing Cansinos with the then 12-year-old Rita, where they performed in Tijuana, Mexico (Rita was too young by US law to perform in nightclubs in the States).
Rita attended Alexander Hamilton High School in Los Angeles; due to her dance schedule, she only completed the ninth grade.
She got her acting start in Mexican films like Cruz Diablo and In Caliente before signing a short-term, six-month contract at Fox. At this point, she started using Rita Casino as her stage name. Her acting career, at first, was not very notable, with only small roles in films where she often appeared as a foreigner.
When Rita’s short-term contract had run its course, Fox had merged to become 20th Century Fox; the executive producer chose not to renew her contract. Later she was signed to a seven-year deal with Columbia Pictures thanks to studio head Harry Cohn who advised her to change her Spanish last name to something more American-sounding; she chose to use her mother’s maiden name of Hayworth. She also altered her appearance slightly by dying her hair red and having her hairline raised with electrolysis.
She married her first husband, Edward Judson, in 1937 (divorced in 1942), and her career continued with minor roles and then moving on to B movies. However, in 1939, she had a small and important role in Only Angels Have Wings which resulted in fan mail for Hayworth pouring into the studio; Cohn chose to make her the studio’s new star. She went on to appear in films like Music in My Heart, The Lady in Question, The Strawberry Blonde and Blood and Sand.
She starred opposite Fred Astaire in what was one of the most highly budgeted films the studio had made. You’ll Never Get Rich was a box office success, and another film featuring the duo was created the following year. Rita would marry Orson Welles in 1943, but just like her first marriage, it would not last. They divorced in 1947 after having a daughter in 1944.
Her career and star continued to rise with starring roles in Gilda, Down to Earth, The Lady from Shanghai, and The Loves of Carmen, among others.
Rita, known to fly into anger regularly, became infuriated and deeply offended when she became aware that her image was going to be used on test atomic bombs to be dropped in the Pacific in a nod to her bombshell Hollywood status. She wanted to hold a press conference to condemn the use of her image, but the studio head would not allow it.
The Hollywood royal would soon become a real-life royal after meeting Prince Aly Khan – the son of Sultan Mahommed Shah, Aga Khan III – in 1948 in Cannes. A relationship began, and the pair dated for a year before marrying on 27 May 1949 without Rita converting to Islam. The wedding and courtship garnered much press attention at the time due to her star status; not all the attention was positive, however. Not surprisingly, she broke her contract with Columbia.
Their only child, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, was born on 28 December 1949.
After finding out that the Prince, a royal playboy, was spotted dancing with actress Joan Fontaine in a nightclub leading to Rita threatening to divorce him in 1951. She would move to Nevada with their daughter to establish legal residence so that she could file for divorce the same year. She filed for divorce from Prince Aly Khan on 2 September 1951 on the grounds of “extreme cruelty, entirely mental in nature.” A custody battle for their daughter would ensue.
The Prince argued that he wanted his daughter to be raised a Muslim like him, but Rita opposed it. Instead, she wanted Princess Yasmin to be raised as a Christian. Aly Khan offered $1 million to Rita to raise Yasmin as a Muslim beginning when Yasmin was seven. He also requested she travel to Europe to see him two or three times a year.
Rita rejected the offer by saying, “Nothing will make me give up Yasmin’s chance to live here in America among our precious freedoms and habits. While I respect the Muslim faith and all other faiths, it is my earnest wish that my daughter be raised as a normal, healthy American girl in the Christian faith. There isn’t any amount of money in the entire world for which it is worth sacrificing this child’s privilege of living as a normal Christian girl here in the United States.”
The divorce was granted on the grounds of extreme mental cruelty in 1953. Rita would reenter the acting world with Columbia Pictures when the marriage broke down. Her comeback film was the successful Affair in Trinidad.
Rita would add an array of other successful films to her resume and marry two more times during her life. Her fourth marriage was to Dick Haymes in September 1953; they divorced in 1955 after he publicly hit her in the face at a nightclub. She would marry for a final time in February 1958 to James Hill. She filed for divorce in 1961, citing mental cruelty.
Hayworth retired from acting in 1972. After the death of her two brothers, her alcoholism intensified, which hid the fact that she was suffering from Alzheimer’s; she was not diagnosed with the disease until 1980. By the following year, she was no longer able to take care of herself and was put in the care of her daughter, Yasmin.
The American, Golden Globe-nominated actress and former Princess died from complications of Alzheimer’s on 14 May 1987 at home in New York. Rita Hayworth was 68, and she was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City.