Princess Yasmin Aga Khan
June 01, 1987 12:00 PM

She was perhaps the most alluring of Hollywood’s extraordinary pantheon of love goddesses in the 1940s, a smoldering temptress whose hardly private private life, which included five marriages, seemed as exciting as any of her 61 movies. Born in New York City in 1918 to Latin dancer Eduardo Cansino and Ziegfeld showgirl Volga Haworth, she was christened Margarita Carmen Cansino and later became Rita Hayworth, dancer, actress and fantasy vision for millions of World War II servicemen. Her world seemed charmed—until things took a sad twist in the late 1970s. Amid rumors of alcoholism, her behavior became increasingly erratic. In 1980 she was diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s disease, the debilitating neurological illness (see story, p. 83) that claimed her life on May 14 at 68. For the past six years Hayworth had been lovingly cared for by Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, 37, her daughter by her marriage to Prince Aly Khan. “She stuck by her mother through thick and thin,” Rita’s pal Ginger Rogers said of Yasmin. “Very few daughters today do those things.” In an exclusive interview, Yasmin recalls the public joy and private sorrow other mother’s life.

Much of the legend surrounding my mother is true. She was a beautiful, talented, warmhearted woman who had the greatest sense of humor. At the same time, she was a sharp, fiery lady who was full of spunk and had a flashy temper. I think she was probably too nice for Hollywood—she wasn’t tough enough.

I admired her so much because she was such a gentle person. She loved to laugh and joke, and to me she was always just herself. We had a close mother-daughter relationship filled with mutual respect and love. She was actually a shy, very private person. She loved books and read a lot of [the Spanish poet and playwright] Garcia Lorca. She painted still lifes and flowers. Some of her oil paintings hang in her [New York] apartment, which was next to mine, two steps away.

I remember growing up in Beverly Hills and spending a lot of time with her just sitting by the pool at our home and talking. We would swim, laugh and giggle, and talk just like two close friends. We really enjoyed being with each other, sharing experiences and love. Sometimes she would take me with her to the set when she was making a movie. I was always in awe when I watched her perform. I particularly remember when she was making Pal Joey [in 1957]. Frank Sinatra was a popular star, but he was always so sweet and friendly to me that I was excited just to be next to him. To be part of that, to see her fans gather around her, clamoring for an autograph, was truly amazing. Mother was very good with her fans, very giving and patient.

At home she was quite strict. She allowed me to watch television only on weekends when there was no school. In my early teens I wasn’t allowed to go out on dates, but could have my boyfriends and girlfriends over to the house. Mother wasn’t judgmental, but she would give my visitors a subtle once-over before she would allow me to spend more time with them. I think that instinct came from her own strict, Catholic background. I wasn’t allowed to go on a date alone until I was 16.

My father, Prince Aly Khan, and mother divorced when I was only 3. I used to spend summers with him in the South of France. He’d also take me horseback riding on the beach in Deauville, and other times we would go swimming or boating. Or sometimes he’d take me to the races in Paris or Chantilly.

My earliest memories of my mother and father together were when I was 8 or 9. There were always good feelings between them, and although their marriage didn’t work, theirs was a truly good relationship. I was 10 when my father was killed in a car accident in France. His death was a deep emotional shock to Mother, and probably it was at that time that the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease began.

As I was growing up I was aware of her fame, but the publicity surrounding her didn’t disturb me. I guess when it is a part of your life, you get used to that kind of thing and it all seems natural. However, in 1976, the press wrote about her getting off a plane in London drunk, agitated and confused. It certainly would have been easier and less embarrassing if it had been known that she really was just ill. Her condition would have been out in the open rather than the subject of spurious speculation. Of course there still would have been heartache, but I think it would have been much easier to cope with it if the truth had been known. I didn’t learn that Mother had Alzheimer’s disease until 1980. Two years earlier she had had a real alcoholic breakdown. I later learned that drinking often accompanied the onset of Alzheimer’s. Not everyone always reacts the same way, but when the mental capabilities diminish, when there is memory loss or disorientation, the victim sometimes turns to alcohol out of sheer frustration.

Looking back to when I was younger, I realize that Mother and I had some unpleasant experiences when she hadn’t been drinking at all. Once, when I was 19, we were driving to dinner and she jumped the curve on Sunset Boulevard, and the car suddenly jolted up the incline and down again. It was frightening. Then there were times Mother would step out of an elevator and not know which way to go. You could see her panic because she was so confused and disoriented. Sometimes, when I would tell her about something that happened at school or something about my friends, she would look at me like I was a stranger and say something completely irrelevant.

She also developed paranoid tendencies. She claimed to hear things in the Beverly Hills house and would insist someone was breaking and entering. No one could convince her that nothing was wrong, and she would call for the police.

I was young and didn’t really know how to cope with this strange behavior. But I knew it wasn’t all because of alcohol. She was my mom and I felt protective of her and wanted to watch over her. I was old enough to know she needed help, and since I couldn’t give it to her, I thought she should see a doctor. But Mother had a strong denial mechanism. She would never discuss her behavior and always firmly insisted that nothing was wrong. I’m sure that she must have had a lot of fear too. She was afraid of facing the possibility that she was ill. I didn’t want to upset her, so eventually I would let her go on her own way.

After she finally had that complete alcoholic breakdown, I went to see various doctors. Some of them dismissed her illness as alcoholic dementia and just wrote her off. Then I found Dr. Ronald Fieve, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York and medical director of the Foundation for Depression and Manic Depression, Inc. He was the first doctor to suspect that it might be something other than alcoholic dementia and possibly that it was Alzheimer’s.

It was so very painful to realize she was a victim of an illness. But at the same time, I must admit there was a sense of relief—relief in being able to label her problem and know it was a neurological disorder.

It must be remembered that then Alzheimer’s was virtually unheard of and that very little was known about it. I, like millions of people, had never even heard the name. But I started asking questions and fortunately got some good advice and an understanding of what to expect as a result of the disease. I think the most helpful thing for me was learning to understand her mood changes. Even that took a couple of years. Mother would go from being seemingly normal one moment to being intensely angry and frustrated the next. At times she could be insulting and abusive to others. It helped me a lot to finally recognize that the victim cannot help being out of control. It is really the care giver who has to learn to do the coping.

Naturally all of this was emotionally draining. I was upset, deeply upset, but each time I understood more about the disease, I got stronger. To help myself I would go to the movies, visit friends, give myself pep talks and play a lot of tennis. I think the physical activity helped tremendously. During one especially difficult period, I was playing tennis three and four times a week. Even with all that, I was constantly feeling different emotions. Anger, helplessness, guilt. I kept asking myself, “Am I doing enough, is there more I can do, and why can’t I do more to relieve her anguish?”

Then, through some good friends, I was introduced to the Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Association (ADRDA). Through it I found a family of caring, sympathetic people dedicated to finding the cause and cure of this disease. It was then a young organization that was trying to do something about making the public aware of Alzheimer’s disease. They were forming effective research, advocacy and educational programs. In fact it had a direction that was compatible with what I thought should be done to awaken the world to this heartrending, debilitating illness, and I wanted to join them in that effort.

Now, of course, I can offer advice to others who have family members afflicted with Alzheimer’s. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that relatives of victims talk to others who are also providing care to Alzheimer’s sufferers. It is much less painful when you know what to expect, to be prepared for the slow regression of the body and mind. Expressing your own frustrations with other care givers helps to release the anxiety and strain of coping. Fortunately, today there are Alzheimer’s groups all over the United States.

My suggestion is to contact the ADRDA national headquarters (see box). They will give you the name and number of the chapter closest to you. Talking to others going through the same experience can be very helpful. You don’t feel so alone. You learn ways to make life easier for yourself and the patient, and you get some very helpful hints. Like how to mark things to remind the patient of the use of objects, or where he or she is. How to minimize straying. How to cope with the sense of isolation. Those kinds of things. Oh, I could go on, but suffice it to say that communicating can really make a difference in your life.

With the knowledge of the scope of my mother’s illness and the course it was going to take, I decided to change the focus of my life. My emotional involvement and my desire to do the best that I could for her gave me no other choice but to start working with the organization that was doing the most. It was not a major decision, just a natural one.

My sense of responsibility and duty to my mother was strong. So the desire to further my musical career, which I was pursuing then, was sublimated. I had been training my voice in classical singing since I was 16. But I felt that, through my Mother, I could help millions of people. Alzheimer’s disease is the fourth-leading cause of death in this country. There are more than 2.5 million victims in the United States alone, and no one really knows how many worldwide. If I could make even a tiny difference in the lives of these people, there was no question in my mind that that was the route I would take. The music world is just a small sphere on our planet. Alzheimer’s transcends all vocations.

Yes, I have fears of inheriting the disease. Definitely. Every family member has them. It’s normal. I’ve learned to live my life day by day. There is so much illness and disease in this world you have to resist giving in to your fears, but there is beauty and joy too, and that is what you have to concentrate on. You have to use every ounce of will power you have to live as freely as possible without wasting energy on fear.

It has been seven years since Mother was diagnosed. The last stages of Alzheimer’s are especially painful. You never know how long before the end. It can be weeks, months, possibly even years. Near the end of Mother’s illness, she was bedridden. There was not even a glimmer of recognition of anyone the way there once had been. She was not alert in 1985 when her only grandson was born.

My 81-year-old nanny, Marie Walla—I call her “granny nanny”—lived in the apartment with my mother, who, of course, had her own room. Mother also had two nurses who were with her round the clock, and since she was in the apartment next to mine I could be with her.

My son, Andrew, who is now 1½ years old, used to visit her daily. I think he understood. He would play in her room and give her a kiss. I think it was important to give him a sense of family, to let him know that he had a wonderful grandmother who was sick but knew he was here in this world. Whether Mother did or not, I’ll never know. I always hope that she did.

I know my mother will be remembered for her beauty, her talent, for giving so much of herself. My mother was a very loving, very lovely lady. I will miss her very much, but her spirit will be with me always, and I know by making this transition she will be at rest and in peace.

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