When Work is Your Only Friend – Lessons from a Legend

rita-faceEvery man was in love with her – every woman wanted to be her. Rita Hayworth, who could sing, dance and act like no other, was on top of the world in the 1940s.

The bombshell actress from New York City led a turbulent life that ended in tragedy. But along the way, she derived her happiest moments from doing her job – being an entertainer.

No other star of her time (or since) looked as alive or as energized while performing as Rita Hayworth.

Today, as millions suffer through jobs they hate, Hayworth is brought back to life here, guiding us on how to smile, even when we’d rather not be working.

“When you’re in love, you’re living – you matter.”

Perhaps happiness at work isn’t related to work at all, but the general state of our lives. When our relationships are good, life at home is peaceful and our personal affairs are strong – work can seem good too, no matter what we’re doing. And when the going gets tough, we’re more resilient. Rita Hayworth always loved her job, but never more so than when life overall was great, saying of her third marriage: “It was the happiest time I’ve ever known. When we were a family, there was a sense of continuity, of calm and belonging, which is terribly important to me.” If we’re not happy at work, let’s focus on making non-work better.

“I’ve had a lot of unhappiness in my life — and a lot of happiness. Who doesn’t? Maybe I’ve learned enough to be able to guide my daughters.”

Just because we’re experiencing a go-nowhere position today, doesn’t mean we always will be. Times change. Hayworth knew that and it allowed her to keep going despite some very rough spots in her life. She knew also that every experience was a learning opportunity, as well as a chance to help others – passing on her experience to her daughters. Today’s less-than-desirable job is part of a process.

“I always thought that if I ever got good reviews I’d be happy. It’s so empty. It’s never what I wanted, ever. All I wanted was just what everybody else wants, you know – to be loved.”

In my early days of working, making little money and struggling, I admired people who were rich and famous. Today, I treasure what many of them do not have – a loving, stable family life. Regardless of our plight in the working world, if we have that, we have wealth. This knowledge allows me to smile, even when work is drudgery.

Rita Hayworth could light up a room and make everyone else look like they were sleeping. That in itself was a miracle given how she started out in life.

She had an abusive father. Not only did he abuse her sexually, but he had the nerve to introduce her to others as his wife. (Rita looked much older when she was only 12). The father, Eduardo Cansino, was a Spanish-born dancer who wanted desperately to make it big in the movies. But his strong Spanish accent prevented that from happening.

He tried to use Rita as a way in, forcing her to dance with him on stage and dressing her in sexy clothes.

Hollywood flatly rejected Eduardo. But it fell in love with Rita, giving her a dance sequence in the 1935 film “Dante’s Inferno” starring Spencer Tracy.

Rita would marry five times in her life, looking for a savior – someone who was the opposite of her vile father. But she was attracted to the wrong men.

The first husband, Eddie Judson, was a car dealer with Hollywood connections who referred to Rita as “an investment.” He was 41, she only 18. Judson offered to sell Rita’s body to any movie executive who would hire her, and he then planned to take the money for himself. He demanded she sleep with Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures.

Cohn was obsessed and secretly in love with Rita. He would have jumped at the chance. Rita refused, but Cohn hired her anyway – signing Rita to a seven year movie contract.

Next in the line-up of husbands was actor Orson Welles, but Welles found Rita too emotionally demanding. (It was discovered that Welles cheated on Rita with prostitutes). Even though Welles spent much of his time ignoring Rita, she would say later that he was the love of her life. Welles, on the night before he died, reciprocated the affection, saying that Rita was “one of the dearest and sweetest women that ever lived.”

Rita Hayworth enjoys a rare moment of playfulness with husband Orson Welles (pretending to be a bull while Rita acts as the matador). Welles, who had little time for his wife during the marriage, would praise her years later. (Credit: AP photo)

It seemed that work was Rita’s only friend. At the height of her fame, she was everywhere – appearing on the cover of Life magazine five times. Her picture was even attached to bombs in World War Two.

Husband number three was Prince Aly Khan who owned several homes in Europe. Known as a playboy, the wealthy Khan decided to court Rita even though he was still married. The Prince’s father, the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of 15 million Ismaili Muslims, rejected his son because of that and assigned his grandson to succeed him. (During the courtship, Rita was also still married to Welles).

Rita left Hollywood for Khan and the two married in 1949 in Cannes, France, making Rita a Princess. (Movie mogul Harry Cohn tried to sue Rita for leaving Hollywood). The marriage lasted only a few years. While Rita had some happy moments, the union came to an end when the Prince engaged in numerous affairs. (The Prince offered Rita a million dollars to allow their daughter to be raised in Europe. Rita said no and brought 7 year old Yasmin to America). Several years after the divorce, Khan died in a car accident.

It was in the summer of 1941, a few months before Pearl Harbor was attacked, that LIFE magazine ran this famous photo of Rita Hayworth. The photographer, Bob Landry, was doing a photo shoot and took this picture by accident. But he liked it and submitted it to LIFE anyway. The snapshot was turned into one of the most popular pin-up posters of World War Two. It also caught the eye of Orson Welles and Aly Khan, two of Hayworth’s husbands.

Rita’s rocky marriages were hard on her. Lacking confidence and desperate to find someone she could trust, she ended up with a man whose nickname was “Mr. Evil.” Singer Dick Haymes, as it turns out, just wanted Rita’s money. Haymes was in debt and in trouble with the IRS. After two years of fighting, Haymes hit Hayworth in the face in front of everyone at a Los Angeles nightclub. She slowly walked out and never looked back.

Fame and fortune increasingly meant nothing to Rita Hayworth who simply wanted to be loved.

The year was 1946 and Rita Hayworth’s glamour was on full display in the movie “Gilda”. Her effortless dancing and big smile left audiences in awe. During filming, Rita was so enthusiastic about the scenes in which she struggles with actor Glenn Ford, that she accidentally struck him. The movie would catapult Hayworth into becoming the most famous actress in the world. 

In 1958, Rita married her 5th and final husband – but again, no luck. Film producer James Hill wanted Rita to become a comedienne and hurled insults at her when she resisted. Actor Charlton Heston recalled the night he and his wife had dinner with Rita and Hill, and was horrified when Hill heaped “obscene abuse” onto Rita. Heston the gentleman said he almost got up and slugged Hill. The incident frightened Heston’s wife Lydia so much, she came close to bursting out in tears.

It was around 1961 when Rita gave up on marriage and instead turned to the bottle.

She came across former husband Orson Welles but couldn’t remember who he was. (She would eventually recognize him at which point she burst out crying).

Rita had trouble remembering her lines.

Everyone around her believed that drinking was ruining her mind.

In fact, “the Goddess of Love” as she was called in Hollywood, was experiencing the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Her behavior would become more and more erratic, with an angry outburst on an airplane in 1976, causing her to be removed from the flight. Rita’s friend, the late actress Ann Miller, said Rita did not recognize guests she invited for dinner, threatening them with a butcher knife.

It would not be until 1979 that one of her doctors made the official diagnosis (which was then made public 2 years later). Rita died 30 years ago this month at the young age of 68.

Rita Hayworth found happiness in her work. Through much of her life, it was her only true friend – reliable and comforting. Rita taught us that it’s not so much about what we do, but rather, how we do it – with love, passion and…a smile.

Despite her illness, Rita Hayworth outlived all of her husbands except for James Hill who died in 2001. She had two daughters, Rebecca (who died at age 59), from her marriage to Orson Welles , and Yasmin, from her marriage to Aly Khan. It was Yasmin Aga Khan who cared for Rita in her final years. Sadly, Yasmin described the last two decades of Rita Hayworth’s life as “a living hell.” Today, at age 67, in memory of her famous mother, Yasmin spends her time raising public awareness of Alzheimer’s disease.


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