–by Jennifer Kellow-Fiorini
Rita Hayworth met Orson Welles when both were rising stars in Hollywood. In 1941 Welles was making a name for himself in experimental theater and innovative radio productions like “War of the Worlds.” He had directed “Citizen Kane” which barely survived a boycott by William Randolph Hearst. Although his next film, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” was botched by the studio resulting in the cancellation of his contract, Welles was still regarded as a young visionary talent.
While working in Brazil, he saw Hayworth on the cover of Life magazine and started telling everyone he was going to marry her. Welles had never met Rita, so when she heard about his obsession with her, she thought he was making fun of her. Rita still saw herself as the chubby girl forced to quit school in the ninth grade to support her family and wondered why he’d want to meet her. When they finally met, she wasn’t what Welles expected. “Her love goddess persona was a total impersonation, like Lon Chaney or something. She didn’t have that kind of sex appeal at all, her quality was sweetness – very unlike a movie star,” said Welles. He spent five weeks calling Rita to ask her out until she finally said yes. Little by little, for the first time in her life, she lowered her guard to Welles.
Rita hated being a movie star, even though she blossomed into a great actress, performing was just a job she’d been doing since she was 12 years old. She didn’t know how to make a living doing anything else. She was still trying to divorce Eddie Judson and owed him alimony. Protective of her, Orson and Rita kept their romance quiet. Although Welles doted on her, Rita was insecure and convinced she would never be pretty enough or smart enough for Welles. Even before they married, she accused him of looking at or seeing other women.
With Rita and his theater friends, Welles created the Mercury Wonder show to entertain troops, and Rita trained to be his magician’s assistant. She was finally able to pay off the alimony she owed Judson and hoped to start a new life with Welles. All of this was going on while Rita was shooting the musical “Cover Girl” with Gene Kelly. Columbia forbade Rita from performing in the Mercury Wonder show, and Welles had to replace her with Marlene Dietrich. To cheer her up, Welles asked Rita to marry him, and so, on a lunch break from shooting “Cover Girl,” Welles and Hayworth married in 1943.
While pregnant with their first child together, Welles left Hollywood to help Roosevelt with his re-election campaign. An insecure Rita was sure he wasn’t coming back. This became a turnoff to Welles, who immersed himself in work to avoid problems in the relationship. After their daughter’s birth, the marriage was in crisis. Lacking coping skills, Rita started drinking heavily — sometimes while suicidally speeding through the Hollywood hills. While starring in her signature film, “Gilda,” Rita filed for divorce from Welles but held off signing the papers. She hoped he would come back, but he didn’t. Meanwhile, Welles, in financial trouble, pitched “The Lady from Shanghai” to Columbia. When Rita heard about it, she lobbied hard for the lead. Welles was reluctant, but Cohen saw publicity potential from the pairing, and Rita was cast.
Post “Gilda,” Rita’s image as a sex object was at its apex. When GIs wanted to name the atomic bomb Gilda, she was furious. More than ever, she felt everyone controlled her image but her. Though themes of her image distortion are found in “The Lady from Shanghai,” the film didn’t bring Welles back to her as she’d hoped. After it wrapped, they divorced, and Welles left Hollywood for Europe.
Rita rebounded with Prince Aly Khan, but before they married, Rita sent Welles a telegram asking him to meet her in Cannes, hoping he would talk her out of it. Unable to meet her, at the last moment she married Khan. The marriage produced a daughter, Princess Yasmine Khan, but an unhappy Rita divorced him forcing her to return to Hollywood to support her two children.
By her late 40s, Hayworth was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Formally diagnosed in 1980, she succumbed to the disease at age 68. Her daughter, Princess Yasmine Khan, is the president of Alzheimer’s Disease International.
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Jennifer Fiorini holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from The Fashion Institute of Technology where she minored in film studies, Italian film and language. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, she divides her time between New York City and Torino, Italy. She is part of Creative Oxygen’s New York team, writes for eCurrent Magazine, and contributed to Troy Howarth’s book, Murder By Design – The Unsane Films of Dario Argento.