At the end of TV’s version of her life, Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess, the actress dumps Prince Aly Khan, a playboy who kept playing even after they married. She’s finally stood up to cigar-chomping Harry Cohn, who made her a star and made her miserable. She’s on her own at last. It’s a happy ending, of sorts.
If only it were true. The rest of Hayworth’s life has been sadder than any movie, with two more unhappy marriages, a failing career and now Alzheimer’s disease, which has left her senile at 65, unable to speak or remember her triumphs.
Rita (at right, in 1941) never did have luck with men. First husband Ed Judson, a hustler and car salesman, treated her like a Chevy with good resale value. After an affair with Victor Mature (in the TV movie, they met on a date set up by Judson, and she left him at the insistence of boss Cohn), she married Orson Welles. After four years, she left him, taking their 2-year-old child, Rebecca. Next came Aly Khan, father of her other child, Yasmin, born in 1949; then crooner Dick Haymes in 1953; and finally producer James Hill in 1958. In his book, Rita Hayworth: A Memoir, Hill admits that they divorced after three years because he forced Rita to make movies when she wanted only to play golf, paint, tell jokes and have a home. “Most men fell in love with Gilda,” Rita once said of her trademark temptress role, “but they woke up with me.”
The TV movie has her triumphantly leaving Cohn, but within five years Rita returned to work for him, playing second banana to Kim Novak, as the older woman in Pal Joey.
In the ’70s rumors of her alcoholism abounded. In 1977 a doctor told a conservatorship hearing that she was “gravely disabled as a result of mental disorder or impairment by alcoholism.” The case was dismissed, but later Rita checked into Silver Hill, an exclusive Connecticut sanitarium where Joan Kennedy, Gary Crosby and Truman Capote have been treated. A year earlier, after a transatlantic flight, a disheveled and visibly shaken Rita faced the press, and there were some erroneous reports that she was drunk. Booze was not her problem. Rita quit drinking in 1977, according to her former personal manager, Judy Ault.
Hayworth’s problem was Alzheimer’s disease. It snuck up on her slowly. Her eyesight seemed to be failing, along with her memory (though she never was good at remembering lines from scripts, so friends weren’t too worried). Then her coordination deserted her. “When you look at the gracefulness and fluidity of this woman,” says friend Gloria Luchenbill, “imagine the contrast when suddenly she couldn’t maneuver.” Friend and choreographer Hermes Pan, who had worked with Rita on Pal Joey and other films, recalls dancing with her at a party at that time: “Everything seemed to be fine, and suddenly she’d go off, and you were conscious that what you were saying to her wasn’t quite registering. In other ways, she was fine, laughing and having fun. Then, at times, she would go off into a dream world.”
Finally, four years ago, Luchenbill came across a seven-line item in a Beverly Hills newspaper describing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. They were all too familiar. She gave it to Rita’s lawyer, Leonard Monroe, who gave it to Rita’s daughter Yasmin (now a national spokeswoman for Alzheimer’s). Within weeks, Rita was in New York for tests. The diagnosis was clear.
“If it weren’t for Yasmin,” Monroe says, “Rita wouldn’t be alive today.” Her daughter bought a spacious apartment near her own in Manhattan and moved Rita there two years ago, after she was appointed conservator of Rita’s affairs.
For a while, Rita’s friends—June Allyson, Ann Miller, Ault, Monroe, Luchenbill and Pan—tried to keep in touch. But in the last two years her condition has deteriorated; she’s now cared for by nurses round the clock. Monroe last saw her this summer. “She can’t communicate, can’t talk, can’t open her eyes, zero,” he says sadly. “I was so upset about seeing her, I decided not to go again. Every other year, I sent flowers to her on her birthday [Oct. 17], but this year I didn’t. No point in sending them to the nurses.” Luchenbill used to write to her, but now sends only flowers. Hill has not seen her in two years because of the ravages of the disease. “I don’t want to know that about her,” he says. “I dream about Rita a lot, always at the same age. I don’t like to think about her illness. It’s just somebody fading away.”