Her father was Spanish dancer and teacher Eduardo Cansino and her mother Volga Haworth was a Ziegfeld girl of Irish-English parentage. Her paternal grandfather, Antonio Cansino, was the most renowned exponent in his day of Spain's classical dances; he made the bolero famous. His dancing school in Madrid was world famous.
As a young girl, she attended dance classes every day for a few years in a Carnegie Hall complex under the instruction of her uncle Angel Cansino. When she was eight years old, her father moved his family west to Hollywood, where he established his own dance studio. Famous Hollywood luminaries, including James Cagney and Jean Harlow, received specialized training from Cansino himself. Her rise to fame was a silver lining of the Great Depression. The family's investments were wiped out instantly. Musicals were no longer in vogue. Interest in her father's work collapsed as dancing classes were no longer prioritized during difficult economic times. But, when his nephew's dancing partner in a theater play broke a leg, her mother suggested her daughter could replace him: "Margarita can do it!"
Her mother's idea led to her father having an epiphany. He saw his daughter could be his partner in a dancing team called "The Dancing Cansinos." Since Hayworth was not of legal age to work in nightclubs and bars according to California state law, she and her father traveled across the border to the city of Tijuana, Baja California Norte, Mexico, a popular tourist spot for Los Angeles citizens in the early 1930s. She performed in such spots as the Foreign Club and the Caliente Club.
It was at the Caliente Club where she was first discovered by the head of the Fox Film Corporation, Winfield Sheehan. A week later, she was brought to Hollywood to make a screen test for Fox. Impressed by her screen persona, Sheehan signed her (who was now being referred to as Rita Cansino) to a short-term six-month contract.
During her time at Fox, she appeared in five pictures, in which her roles were neither important nor memorable. By the end of her six-month contract, Fox had now merged into 20th Century Fox, with Darryl F. Zanuck serving as the executive producer. Taking little concern for Sheehan's interest in her, Zanuck decided not to renew her contract.
By this time, she was eighteen years old and she married businessman Edward C. Judson, who was twice her age. Feeling that she still had screen potential, despite just being dropped by Fox, Judson managed to get her the lead roles in several independent films and finally managed to arrange a screen test for her with Columbia Pictures. Studio head Harry Cohn soon signed her to a long-term contract, slowly casting her in small roles in Columbia features.
Cohn argued that her image was too much of a Mediterranean style, which caused her to be cast into stereotypical Hispanic roles. She began to undergo a painful electrolysis to broaden her forehead and accentuate her widow's peak. When she returned to Columbia, she had transformed into a redhead and changed her name to Rita Hayworth (Hayworth from her mother's maiden name).In 1937, she appeared in five minor Columbia pictures and three minor independent movies. In 1938, Hayworth appeared in five more Columbia B films. In 1939, Cohn pressured director Howard Hawks to use her for a small but important role as a man-trap in the aviation drama Only Angels Have Wings, in which she played opposite Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. A large box-office success, fan mail for Hayworth began pouring into Columbia's publicity department and Cohn began to see her as his first and official new star (the studio had never officially had large stars under contract, except for Jean Arthur, who was trying to break out of her Columbia contract). Cohn began to build her up the following year, in features such as Music in My Heart, The Lady in Question and Angels Over Broadway. He even loaned Hayworth out to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to appear in Susan and God, opposite Joan Crawford.
On loan to Warner Brothers, she appeared as the second female lead in The Strawberry Blonde (1941), opposite James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland. A large box-office success, her popularity rose and she immediately became one of Hollywood's hottest properties. So impressed was Warner Brothers that they tried to buy her contract from Columbia, but Harry Cohn refused to release her.
Her success in that film led to an even more important supporting role in Blood and Sand (1941), where she played the first of many screen sirens as the temptress Doña Sol des Muire. She acted in two films opposite Fred Astaire in the musicals You'll Never Get Rich (1941), and You Were Never Lovelier. It was during this period that Hayworth posed for a famous pin-up in Life Magazine, which showed her in a negligée perched seductively on her bed. When the U.S. joined World War II in December 1941, Hayworth's image was admired by millions of servicemen, making her one of the top two pin-up girls of the war years, the other being Betty Grable. In 2002, the satin nightgown she wore for the picture sold for $26,888. She was then called the "Love Goddess."For three consecutive years, starting in 1944, she was named one of the top movie box office attractions in the world. In 1944, she made one of her best-known films, the Technicolor musical Cover Girl (1944), with Gene Kelly. The film established her as Columbia's top star of the 1940s. She was adept in ballet, tap, ballroom, and Spanish routines. Cohn continued to effectively showcase Hayworth's talents in several Technicolor films.
Her erotic appeal was most notable in the classic film noir Gilda (1946), with Glenn Ford, which encountered some difficulty with censors. This role–in which Hayworth in black satin performed a legendary one-glove striptease–made her into a cultural icon as the ultimate femme fatale. It is also noteworthy to report that she was also the first dancer to partner with both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly on film.She delivered one of her most acclaimed performances in then-husband Orson Welles's The Lady From Shanghai (1947). Its failure at the box office was attributed in part to director/co-star Welles having had Hayworth's famous red locks cut off and the remainder of her hair dyed blonde for her role. This was done without Cohn's knowledge or approval and he was furious over the change.
She was married five times and divorced five times. She had two daughters, Rebecca Welles and Yasmin Aly Khan. She was married to businessman Edward Charles Judson, actor/director Orson Welles, Ismali Prince Aly Khan, actor Dick Haymes, and film producer James Hill. She once said, "Basically, I am a good, gentle person, but I am attracted to mean personalities." Another famous quote from her is "I naturally am very shy... and I suffer from an inferiority complex. [M]en fell in love with Gilda, but they wake up with me." With typical modesty she later remarked that the only films she could watch without laughing were the dance musicals she made with Fred Astaire. "I guess the only jewels of my life," Hayworth said, "were the pictures I made with Fred Astaire."
In later years, she had difficulty in learning lines. That, along with a dependence on alcohol, led to many years before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She lapsed into a semicoma in February 1987. She died a few months later on May 14, 1987 in her Manhattan apartment. She was interred in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California, U.S.A. Her headstone includes the inscription: "To yesterday's companionship and tomorrow's reunion."
Today, one of the major fund raisers for the Alzheimer's Association is the annual Rita Hayworth Gala, held in New York City and Chicago. Hayworth's daughter, Yasmin Aga Khan, has been the hostess for these events and a major sponsor of Alzheimer's Disease charities and awareness programs. Since 1985 they have raised more than U.S.$42 million for the Association.
Rita Hayworth performing "Put the Blame from Mame" and "Amado Mío" from the classic film Gilda.