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Who is Rita, What Was She?

Movies & TV

Who is Rita, What Was She?

Rita Hayworth

Who is Silvia? what is she,
That all our swains commend her?

— William Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona

The other day I parked my car a block from a local Staples store and walked to it along Wilshire Boulevard. For some years now, UCLA’s medical school has been erecting a new Center. The construction site’s walled round with a gray-painted, 9-foot high, plywood boarding that’s decorated by a line of poster-sized photographs on zinc that offer images illustrating the history of the Santa Monica hospital that once stood there. I stopped, momentarily transfixed, to contemplate the 1954 image displayed above, a PR shot of four persons reviewing a model of the demolished buildings. A nurse in starched white, severe-enough looking to have played Nurse Mildred Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” stands to the right of a man who may have been some official or the architect; he is pointing at the maquette on the table. On his left there’s a tailored type whose nose might be one belonging to an ex-lightweight pug, a studio bodyguard-chauffeur, or mobster-bagman, or all three in one … and … Gilda!

There she is, Rita Hayworth herself sixty years later, resurrected and glowing in broad daylight, dressed in a bare-shouldered, black satin gown — just like the one she’d worn in that decades-old movie when performing her bombshell cabaret shtick — “Put the blame on Mame, boys!” Long ago and far away, when I was a just a 21-year old grad student at the University of Michigan, and notwithstanding I was already married, I’d fallen for Gilda, just like what they used to call a ton of bricks. That flick “Gilda” made a super-star of the Brooklyn-born Margarita Carmen Cansino, talented daughter of Eduardo, a Spanish dancer. I wasn’t possessed very long though, because she soon married Aly Khan, the billionaire playboy and descendant of an Ismaili the British Raj raised to an ennobled rank in 1850 as a reward for his help in putting down a Muslim rebellion in India. How wonderful our horrendous 20th Century proved for all sorts of parvenu on the international glamour and celebrity-circuits of the West — financial, political, theatrical — and its newly-invented movies embodied them all. Curious also, how often their scripts mirrored the background of leading men and ladies. “Gilda” was scarcely an exception.

Three decades were to pass before I encountered — in the actual flesh! — my quondam, fantasy femme fatale. We’d been invited to dinner by friends, successful and well-known Hollywood folk. A small-enough group gathered at their table, with them Rita Hayworth. Lots of laughter and chatter; yet she spoke not a word, only poked at her plate now and then as if she were unwilling to suffer mere bores. Myself heroic, self-contained, I refrained from looking at her after one furtive glance. Came dessert-time, we removed to settees for coffee in a corner of the high-ceilinged Cali-Mex salon. Miss Hayworth however took herself to the far end, where there was an alcove like those in glitzy 30s and 40s films, and in it a bar set at the top of three or four steps. We remained with the rest around the tea cakes, to be regaled with anecdotes our hostess was in a mood to provide, as were she replaying outtakes from studio history then long behind her.

During those early 80s years, when Ronald Reagan was in his first term as President, after-dinner talk was frequently politics. After the usual heated dissection of his programs and policy, fueled by the rancor expressed from the hostility still harbored undiminished and hung like a miasma over veteran film folk — that cohort left from the generation of the notorious “Hollywood Ten” — our hostess, Margo Albert, remarked casually, and rather ruefully, how much she now regretted her folly of years ago, when she had been a honcho in the Screen Actors Guild.

“Oh, and what was that?” I asked.

“I’ll never forget what happened that night! And I certainly can’t forgive myself!”

All ears, we waited. And what she had to say turned out one hell of a surprise. It seems that at some critical juncture, when “Ronnie” was president of SAG, the Screen Actors Guild, there took place an all-night meeting arising from a fracas that ended in near disaster for their union. Out of the blue, he’d suddenly announced his intention to hold a Party card! Whereas she and her close colleagues were firmly opposed to any such action. Their argument was not uncommon: of all people their president had to remain free of the least taint or suspicion that linked him to the Communist Party. Otherwise the upshot would be not only prestige lost but his use to them in the role of their union’s leader. No matter what the cost to his conscience and self-respect, clean and clear he should and must remain for his sake as well as theirs. It might be okay for a writer like Howard Fast, but not for them. They couldn’t go up against their studio bosses. In those days, they called it “boring from within.” So they argued back and forth, batting around his pro ideals and their practical cons into the dawn, until Reagan gave in and agreed to accept their demand. No Party card.

“What a fool I was! And to think he’s been elected President of the United States of America? Biggest mistake of my life!”

That was one stunning revelation. We laughed in amazement and commiserated with her humorous self-reproach as she slapped her forehead, bemoaning that incredible twist history had taken, in wonder at the strange parts people often played in the major events of our time. Then talk resumed desultorily — gossip about children and local affairs. I got up to stretch, and went over to the bar where Rita sat perched on a stool, smoking idly, still seeming quietly bored and detached, staring into the dark mirror before her. I took the next stool. We were served brandy.

When she turned to hold her snifter up in a shallow toast, she showed me a flaccid countenance; her hair was a faded, reddish-brown, cut fairly short — nothing like her splendid former glorious waves. There wasn’t much to say after some comment about the dinner and company. When she asked what I did — out there somewhere — the best I could muster was, “I teach English at UCLA.” Which failed to elicit even a glimmer of response.

She took that in with a sigh. Then she swiveled around to face me and laid a hand on my shoulder. Rather intimate her touch felt; or so I thought. Over her shoulder, I could see our hosts at the other end of the room looking at us oddly, even somewhat anxiously. Rita murmured in that, silky, sultry voice from so very long ago, “Enough crap, big boy. Let’s get out of here!” She slid off her stool and thrust her arm under mine.

I heard whispered words somewhere inside my head, O, heart, be still! The best I could manage was a stammered, “Miss Hayworth, I came with my wife. That’s her there, with Margo and Eddie.”

“Don’t tell me that bitch has you on her leash? Look, Johnny, this is the best chance you’ll ever get. Let’s see what you can do with a real woman! Take me home now! Okay?”

At that point our hosts stepped up to rescue me, or Rita, or, judging by their alarmed expression, both of us, announcing loudly their driver was waiting for Rita. Transmogrified into a block of wood, I stood there, agog. Gently, Margo loosened Rita’s grip on my arm as Eddie put her fur over her shoulders and turned her away. She, though, protested, dreamily, drunkenly — just like Gilda when Glenn Ford’s Johnny dragged her from that dance floor before those tuxedoed nightclub drunks could unzip her from that sheath of a gown ….

I still see in my mind’s eye Rita: helplessly looking back, her eyes sad, imploring me and yet contemptuous as she was firmly led outside. Was it Gilda I saw then … Gilda I see now?

Meanwhile, my wife, conversing with the other guests, was unaware of the brief scene just played out. My part seemed to me awkward, a painful, comedy. But it was merely pathos. I hadn’t an inkling that Rita Hayworth, the very Gilda redux who so late in her life had fallen for me — like that old ton of bricks! was not even Miss Hayworth. That knowledge was provided the next morning when the Alberts phoned to explain our Rita — my Rita! The poor thing was lost, wandering in the dark forest of Alzheimer’s.

Jascha Kessler
Professor Emeritus of Modern English & American Literature, UCLA
Santa Monica, CA



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