Well, hello, Miss Rita…
As we’ve talked about on this blog before, Hollywood threw itself into doing its part during the Second World War. All efforts were vastly appreciated, but some stood out more than others, and one of those was Rita Hayworth.
In the early nineteen forties, Rita’s star was on a rapid ascent, and the public was absolutely fascinated with her. She was often referred to as some variant of “goddess,” and it’s only natural that she would be seen as a link with home and Americana. Like many Americans, Rita’s involvement in the war was personal, both from patriotism and having two brothers, Eduardo and Vernon, in the Army.
What most people default to when they think of Rita’s war effort is her famous pin-up, which was taken on her own bed at home. The also-ran to Betty Grable’s infamous over-the-shoulder shot, Rita’s photo was distributed and reproduced countless times throughout the war. What many people don’t know is that the photo predates Grable’s by two years. The photographer, Bob Landry, snapped it prior to Pearl Harbor, and it first appeared in the August 11, 1941 issue of Life Magazine.
Rita was horrified in 1946 to find out that the pinup had been plastered on the bomb tested on the Bikini Atoll. Her husband at the time, Orson Welles, told her it was a stunt thought up by Columbia chief, Harry Cohn, but who knows if Rita bought the story or not. Either way, it was a testament of the impact Rita had on the soldiers. Even today, the photo still resonates with the public; in 2015, Sotheby’s sold the negligee Rita wore for almost $27,000.
Of course, there was way more to Rita’s wartime activities than being a pinup girl. She famously donated the bumpers off her car for scrap and replaced them with wooden ones. Like most stars in Hollywood, she was a regular at the Hollywood Canteen, where she served food and danced with the servicemen. Rita understood the need these men had to have some physical link with her, even giving one fellow a lock of her hair.
Rita also proudly volunteered in the Naval Aid Auxiliary, a organization of men and women which provided general assistance to the Navy and Marines, similar to the USO. The NAA had their own canteens and housing for servicemen, as well as being a place for anyone who knew someone in the Navy to give something back. The NAA ran on private donations, and one of their genius ideas was to sell authentic star autographs on the cheap. While Rita’s NAA autograph hasn’t seemed to surface publically, contributing her signature is likely among the many things she did while a member.
Rita didn’t just serve from home, either. She visited over three hundred cities as part of seven war bond tours, as well as touring camps and military hospitals. Camp Callen in La Jolla, California even dubbed her their “away-from-home mother” and photos were taken of a private laying across her knee while she sewed up his pants. The tours weren’t without anxious moments for Rita, who had a fear of flying and avoided it as much as possible.
Like just about every star of that era, Rita took her fight to the radio waves. At first she tried to appear with Orson on his new show, the Mercury Wonder Theater, but her contract with Columbia put the kibosh on that. Instead she focused on mostly request shows and personal appearances. On behalf of Columbia Studios, for instance. she bought a war bond from John R. Richards one minute after midnight on January 1, 1943. Rita was also a favorite on Command Performance, as well as on G.I. Journal and Mail Call. Here’s Rita acting as mistress of ceremonies on the February 13, 1943 installment of Command Performance:
Family issues crept into Rita’s life late in the war, curtailing her activities. On a happy note, her first daughter, Rebecca Welles was born on December 15, 1944, but unhappily, Rita’s mother died of appendicitis a month later. All of this happened while Orson was on a lecture tour in the east, and after he got back he whisked his wife off on a vacation to Mexico, leaving the new baby with friends. Rita’s mother’s death left Rita vulnerable to her abusive father, who was suddenly sniffing around after his wife was no longer there as a buffer, and Orson had quite a time trying to fend him off.
Rita Hayworth’s war service was intense, crowded, and very much appreciated by the servicemen. Like Betty Grable, she is an icon of the World War Two period, giving the men a bit of home and the rest of us a glimpse of a bygone era.
For more of the wonderful Rita, please visit Michaela at Love Letters To Old Hollywood. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope you’ll check back tomorrow because we have another surprise blogathon…
Leaming, Barbara. If This Was Happiness: A Biography of Rita Hayworth. New York: Viking Penguin. 1989.
Roberts-Frenzel, Caren. Rita Hayworth: A Photographic Remembrance. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2001.