Rita Hayworth married Orson Welles in September 1943. She was 25, he 28. They were young, talented, and celebrities.
They say that opposites attract, and you could hardly get more opposites than Orson and Rita.
Orson was born into a wealthy family and brought up by his mother, who indulged his every whim and encouraged him to see himself as a genius. By age 23, he had made a name for himself on stage, founded his own repertory company (Mercury Theatre) and hit the headlines with his radio play based on H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which made some listeners think Earth was under Martian attack (an event recalled in Woody Allen’s brilliant movie, Radio Days). Famously, in 1940, having been invited by RKO to make his first movie, he exclaimed: “This is the biggest electric train set any boy ever had.”
Rita was born into a family of dancers and brought up by her father, a Spanish immigrant, who took her out of school and on the road to be his partner in vaudeville acts and submitted her to sexual abuse. Age 19, she married Ed Judson, a sometime car dealer who, like her father, saw her as “an investment” and treated her as such. He set her on the path to stardom, changing her appearance, whoring her out to those who could influence her career and threatening to beat her up if she disobeyed him.
So he was full of confidence, she was plagued with insecurity. He thrived on chaos and improvisation, she had been taught discipline and obedience ever since she was a small child. He was by nature a maverick and wedded to his creative work (but not to the exclusion of a series of affairs), she was lonely, craved a conventional relationship and would have been happy to renounce her career. And ironically, as one the biggest stars in the world, she was pulling in the dollars while he kept losing money with his various projects.
Of course they fell for each other. And of course it couldn’t last. Latterly, the marriage traded financial dependence on his part with emotional dependence on hers.
The way in which the press treated the marriage was pretty much a blueprint for how they would pontificate on Marilyn Monroe’s to Arthur Miller –Beauty and the Brain. The relationship was under scrutiny and pressure from the off.
In March 1946 Rita officially separated from Orson and moved into a rented house in Brentwood with their daughter, Rebecca.
The couple got back together again to make The Lady from Shanghai (the subject of an upcoming piece on aenigma). But working together on the movie failed to revive their flagging relationship. Once filming was complete, Orson’s erratic behaviour, prolonged absences and obsessive dedication to his work kept on taking him away from his wife and daughter. Finally, in November 1947, the couple were divorced. On the witness stand Rita declared that:
Mr. Welles showed no interest in establishing a home. Mr. Welles told me he should never have married me in the first place, as it interfered with his freedom in his way of life.
A few months earlier, Hedda Hopper (along with Louella Parsons Hollywood’s leading gossip columnist) interviewed Rita for the June 1947 issue of Modern Screen. It’s clear whose side she’s on and that she resents Orson for his mercurial genius (for Louella Parsons, genius equates to half-crazy outsider status – Orson must have made her feel so shallow and stupid). It’s pretty vitriolic stuff but it’s also interesting for the insights it provides into Rita’s and Orson’s personalities, their relationship and, not least, their home.
He’s fiery, unpredictable, cursed with the mark of genius — yet Rita Hayworth loved and lived with Orson Welles for 3 years . . . before she admitted defeat BY HEDDA HOPPER.
Rita Hayworth was at the Racquet Club in Palm Springs, and I was in my Hollywood home, but what she said over the telephone was crystal clear.
She said, “Orson and I are through, Hedda. This time it’s for keeps. I just can’t take it any longer!”
Rita sounded tired; her voice was flat. Not angry, not excited, not tearful, not sad. Just tired – a fugitive from genius, fed up and through. I thought, “So it’s over – the second honeymoon of the Man from Mars and the pretty dancing girl – and I wondered out loud to Rita, “For how long this time?”
“For keeps,” she repeated. “Forever.” “I’d like to make a bet on that,” I said, and we did. I bet that in six months she would return to Orson and she bet that she wouldn’t.
Maybe. Only a few days before, I had walked onto a Columbia Studio set with some questions up my sleeve and I’d got some very different answers about one of the maddest marriages the Fates ever dreamed up for a Hollywood pair. Love was in bloom then for Orson and Rita.
“What a tender and touching finale to a second honeymoon!” I told Rita. At least Mr. Magic wasn’t sawing Rita Hayworth in two, he was just plain killing her with a gun when I walked on the set of The Lady From Shanghai. Rita died a dozen times before my eyes, until Orson stepped out of the scene and panted, “Cut – that’s it – that’s the picture!”
Because that’s what it was – before the love song died in the second chorus – a six-months long love tour for Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, making The Lady From Shanghai, the picture they teamed in the minute they made up the first time as man and wife. I’d walked in on the very last scene. It was all over. Under her bleached and bobbed platinum curls, Rita Hayworth grinned wearily. “And for a second wedding present,” I observed, “he makes you a dramatic actress. Happy?”
Rita nodded. It was a silly question. And Orson was still courting Rita as he never courted anyone before, since they kissed and made up – and went right to work.
There’s a rock, El Morro, in Acapulco Bay down in Mexico, that’s a spot of forever Hollywood. Orson had all the barnacles that scratched and the sea anemones that stung hacked off until it was smooth and soft as a rock can be. All because Rita had to climb on that rock and lie down for a scene. He hired the Olympic champ swimmer of Mexico to hover just out of camera range in every ocean shot in which she appeared to scare away hungry barracuda. When they plunged into the jungles to shoot, he hired a bodyguard of fierce Pancho Villas complete with mustachios, bull bandilleras and blunderbusses to scare off snakes and alligators with designs on a hunk of Hayworth. Orson followed Rita around in person, bearing oils and unguents every time she had a brief encounter with the tropical sun. He had special rope-soled shoes flown down from Hollywood so she wouldn’t slip and smack her sacroiliac on Errol Flynn’s yacht deck when it rolled.
get that story…
The reason I had tracked Orson and Rita down on the set the day they completed Lady From Shanghai was because I had gotten a phone call from Al Delacorte back in. New York.
“Can you pierce the Wall of Steel that surrounds Orson and Rita,” Al inquired, “and give an inimitable Hopper sketch of their home life?”
I repeated that to Rita. Her hairdresser said, “Please, Rita, I almost stabbed you. Don’t shake so!” Rita was laughing, a little bitterly, it seemed to me.
“Our Wall of Steel,” scoffed Rita, “is either a sound stage or a sun reflector – and as for our home life – just look around. It’s this set.”
“Sometimes,” sighed Rita, “we have breakfast together, but it’s usually dinner for Orson. He’ll work 24 hours straight without eating. Then he comes home and wants three steaks and a couple of pies. Steaks for breakfast – pies – ugh!”
Orson and Rita lived – at odd hours – in a small, ranch type house out in Brentwood. Rita bought the place for herself and baby Rebecca after the last time Orson left his happy home. It wasn’t exactly a match for the little love nest they started housekeeping in when they first married. That was something you’d have to see to believe.
A Los Angeles sports promoter owned it. He’d built the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, a showy sports arena in Hollywood, and he must have told the architect, “Now build me a house to match.”
It had neon lights — honest — and three or four floors. A swimming pool with a tropical island in the middle. Mirrors and glass and colored lights everywhere and – well – I won’t go on. That’s where Mr. and Mrs. Orson Welles started housekeeping. Orson used to broadcast his radio thriller-chillers from the first floor. Rita reclined in her bed up on the third and listened in. Where career left off and home life started, I’m sure she never exactly knew.
I was out there once when Orson was broadcasting. Radio people swarmed all over. The only touch of domesticity that crept in that evening was a cocker pup of Rita’s, who wandered into Orson’s temple of art and darned near busted up the broadcast before they could shoo him out!
It took more than a puppy to break up the marriage of Orson and Rita the first time – and the second time, too. It took the most uniquely exasperating driving temperament that ever hit show business. People who work with Orson often idolize the guy like GIs worshipped Ike Eisenhower. But they can’t stand him long. He consumes them. No one can keep up with him – let alone a wife.
I also know, of course, how warm-hearted Orson Welles can be when he wants to. Years ago, before I had a column, before Orson came to Hollywood and set it on its ear with the picture they dared him to make, he charmed me where a mother is always charmed easiest. My son, Bill, had ideas then that he wanted to be an actor. He’s reformed now – he’s a business man. But then Bill promoted himself a walk-on job in the Katherine Cornell Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet. Orson had a big role. He had no idea who the shy, awkward, hopelessly unactorish kid was. But he took him under his wing; couldn’t have been more kind and helpful.
Okay. Orson’s charming, appealing, sweet when he wants to be – and also exhausting, temperamental and mad. So what made Orson and Rita separate in the first place? And then, what made them come back together again? I asked Rita all this, rapid fire, sticking my inquisitive nose – leave it to me – directly into the confusing business. Rita answered them all with one shrug and a couple of sentences.
“We’re in love, Orson and I,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Begging Rita’s pardon, I don’t think it’s quite as “simple as that.” Nothing about O. Welles is simple, not even love. He’s as complex as a jig-saw puzzle. Rita Hayworth knew that when Orson first found himself smitten and went a’wooing. He had a tough time getting a date, believe me, because Rita was scared. She didn’t want any more domineering mates. Her first husband, Ed Judson, had bossed her around and made her life pretty miserable. Orson’s genius made Rita shy as a mouse, when Romance peeped around the corner.
she stood him up…
Orson wrote her fan letters at first, from South America. When he got back, he called her up, almost every hour on the hour. She hid out, finally made a date, and stood him up! Did that discourage Welles? Not a bit. He came back for more, and then rashly Rita agreed to go out for dinner and this time kept her word. They went to Chinatown and ate chow mein. When Orson told her good night, she was in love, lost in the spell that Mister Influence wove like a web.
Rita was set to make Cover Girl then, a very swell musical you’ll remember. It was a big production for Columbia with Technicolor and tricky dances. They’d borrowed Gene Kelly from M-G-M; rehearsals were starting. Time was a-wasting and big money, too. That’s why Harry Cohn shouted “No” when Orson wanted Rita to stooge for his magic act in the tent show he was putting on for GIs in Hollywood. But Orson said that was the thing for Rita to do. So she did it. For a hard-headed show girl like Rita, that was love, or hypnotism or something.
Orson could have used any one of a dozen willing stars in Hollywood in his USO carnival act. Marlene Dietrich stepped in when Rita finally had to go to work, and filled the bill beautifully. But Orson is selfish. Nobody counts but Orson once he takes off on an airy flight of genius. But that’s the kind of a daffy divinity Rita Hayworth fell for and married.
Well, at least, she does have a child! Little Rebecca, “Becka” as she’s already named herself, looks exactly like Orson, black curls and all. But she’s Rita’s darling. Every gurgle and gasp and baby memento has been recorded in a huge picture book Rita keeps.
For all Orson loves his little Becka, Rita knows that nothing else in the world really matters to him once he’s lost in one of his creative trances. Not a wife or a baby or anything except those ideas buzzing about in his brain. One week-end during shooting, Rita talked Orson into a trip to her beloved Mexico. They went just to Rosa Rita Beach, across the border. But Orson hauled along his typewriter and rewrote the whole finish of the picture!
One of the fuses that set off their second marital blow-up was Orson’s refusal to regard Rita as a human being and a wife. She was dog-tired after her exhausting marathon acting ordeal. After that last scene I saw, she begged Orson to go away with her for a rest. “Tomorrow,” he answered, day after day, and whisked right in to the cutting room to pore over his precious film. He tomorrowed himself out of a wife at last. “I had to get away or I’d have collapsed,” Rita told me. “So I walked out.” How else?
Actually, this final split wasn’t too different from the first one – when Rita had consoled herself with Vic Mature and Tony Martin, while Orson spent his time back East with the arty Broadway boys and girls – producing a play.
Oddly enough, that play he lost his shirt with on Broadway, Around the World in 80 Days, was what brought Orson back to Hollywood and a big factor, I suspect, in bringing Orson and Rita back together for a second try at love. To help finance it, Orson charmed Harry Cohn, head of Columbia, out of $80,000, advanced against an Orson Welles picture job. When that went down the box-office drain, along with another $300,000 of Orson’s (and some other people’s), Orson, flat broke, faced making a Hollywood comeback whether he wanted to or not.
a role for rita…
Orson brought his pet Mercury Theater actors out from New York (most of them have never made a picture before) and prepared to shoot. If I Die Before I Wake they called it then, and it was a man’s picture tailored to Orson and his Mercury pal, Everett Sloane. Then, one night Orson went out to the house to see Rita and daughter, Becka. The next week his production was The Lady From Shanghai and the picture was Rita’s. Orson rewrote it in eight days, gave her the co-star part. Then they announced their official reconciliation.
Rita was happy at first, working and learning from her favorite maestro.
They spent most of the time cruising around in Mexico on Errol Flynn’s yacht, the “Zaca.” And they acted like a pair of newlyweds.
One night, for instance, Rita was ashore while Orson was out in the bay doing some night scenes with Errol (Flynn was skipper – at $750 a day on this job.) But Rita couldn’t stand to be apart from her maestro even that long. So she trekked around Acapulco with Errol’s wife, Nora, and rounded up a native Mariachi band. They found a fisherman with a boat and slipped out in the bay, circled the yacht in the dark, then had the guitars and swarthy crooners cut loose with a serenade. Then they climbed on board into their loving husbands’ arms.
When Rita’s birthday came up they were still in Mexico. Orson tossed a banquet for Rita at Las Americas Hotel with all the Mexican big shots there, the really high brass of the land. They all toasted the lovely lady and that night on her pillow she found a diamond pendant from her thoughtful hubby.
Orson might be a lovable, livable husband, if he didn’t have that spur of genius eternally prodding him out of all normal social interests. He has absolutely no relaxing interests to sop up his atomic energy.
His daughter, Becka, usually sees him on the gallop. Orson had to fly to Hollywood on business while making a street scene for The Lady From Shanghai, up in San Francisco. He flew down and flew back. “Did you get to see Rebecca?” Rita asked him.
“Oh, yes,” said Orson. “Had a nice visit. She rode with me to the airport to catch the plane!”
Opposed to Orson’s genius and dynamic qualities, Rita’s really a very normal, unspectacular girl with simple tastes and normal yearnings. She’s a model mother, both with Becka and Christopher, Orson’s nine-year-old daughter by his first wife. Christopher is always welcome at Rita’s.
I had hopes that this time the noble experiment of Svengali with Love would work. I hoped it more for Rita’s sake than Orson’s. After all, he’s got his genius to keep him warm.
I hope, above all, now that she’s had a taste of the astral spheres of acting, Rita won’t be spoiled for her musicals, whether The Lady From Shanghai hits or misses the box-office bus. That would be a shame; Rita has such a wonderful, adoring public for her songs and dances, her pretty face and figure. And it could happen. A friend of mine who knows Orson as well as I do, maybe better, was laying odds that if Orson stuck around long enough, Harry Cohn would lose his musical queen.
I, myself, might place a cautious bet that if Orson sticks around where Rita is very long, or vice versa, he’ll have her back in his spell and there’ll be kissings and makings up and a third inning of Svengali vs. Love. That guy Orson is Dick Tracy’s “Influence” without the glass eyes, and he’s still the father of Rita Hayworth’s child.
But if Rita and Orson do try it again, I’d like to suggest a good text for that needle-point sampler they may want to hang over their mantelpiece.
It’s an old gag we used to plant around Hollywood – only in this case I wouldn’t be exactly kidding – and it reads, “Danger — Genius at Work!”
Want to know more?
You can see the article as it was originally published in the June 1947 issue of Modern Screen at Fan Magazines Collection. You can find out more about how Rita was exploited by the men in her life in Susan Braudy’s review for The New York Times of Barbara Leaming’s book, If This Was Happiness A Biography of Rita Hayworth. Or you could go the whole hog and read John Kobal’s Rita Hayworth: The Time, the Place and the Woman.