Ginger Rogers (born Virginia Katherine McMath; July 16, 1911 April 25, 1995) was an American actress, dancer, and singer, widely known for performing in films and RKO‘s musical films, partnered with Fred Astaire. She appeared on stage, as well as on radio and television, throughout much of the 20th century.
Born in Independence, Missouri, at 100 West Moore Street, and raised in Kansas City, Rogers and her family moved to Fort Worth, Texas, when she was nine years old. After winning a dance contest that launched a successful vaudeville career, she gained recognition as a Broadway actress for her debut stage role in Girl Crazy. This success led to a contract with Paramount Pictures, which ended after five films. Rogers had her first successful film role as a supporting actress in 42nd Street (1933). Throughout the 1930s, Rogers made 10 films with Astaire, among which were some of her biggest successes, such as Swing Time (1936) and Top Hat (1935). After two commercial failures with Astaire, Rogers began to branch out into dramatic films and comedies. Her acting was well received by critics and audiences, and she became one of the biggest box-office draws of the 1940s. Her performance in Kitty Foyle (1940) won her the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Rogers remained successful throughout the 1940s and at one point was Hollywood’s highest-paid actress, but her popularity had peaked by the end of the decade. She reunited with Astaire in 1949 in the commercially successful The Barkleys of Broadway. After an unsuccessful period through the 1950s, Rogers made a successful return to Broadway in 1965, playing the lead role in Hello, Dolly!. More lead roles on Broadway followed, along with her stage directorial debut in 1985 on an off-Broadway production of Babes in Arms. Rogers also made television acting appearances until 1987. In 1992, Rogers was recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors. She died of a heart attack in 1995, at the age of 83.
Rogers is associated with the phrase “backwards and in high heels”, the title of her memoir, attributed to Bob Thaves‘ Frank and Ernest cartoon with the caption “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did… backwards and in high heels”. A Republican and a devout Christian Scientist, Rogers was married five times, with all of her marriages ending in divorce; she had no children. During her long career, Rogers made 73 films, and her musical films with Fred Astaire are credited with revolutionizing their genre. Rogers was successful during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and is often considered an American icon. She ranks number 14 on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars list of female stars of classic American cinema.
Rogers was born Virginia Katherine McMath on July 16, 1911, in her mother’s rented home at 100 Moore Street, Independence, Missouri.:1, 2 She was the only living child of Lela Emogene (ne Owens; December 25, 1891 May 25, 1977) and William Eddins McMath (May 26, 1880 April 12, 1925), an electrical engineer.:9, 10:16 She was of Scottish, Welsh, and English ancestry. Her mother did not want her born in a hospital, having lost a previous child there.:11 Her parents separated shortly after she was born,:1, 2, 11 but her grandparents, Wilma Saphrona (ne Ball) and Walter Winfield Owens, lived nearby in Kansas City.:3 After unsuccessfully trying to become a family again, McMath kidnapped his daughter twice.:7, 15 Rogers said that she never saw her natural father again.:15 Her mother divorced her father soon thereafter.
In 1915, Rogers moved in with her grandparents while her mother made a trip to Hollywood in an effort to get an essay she had written made into a film.:19 Lela succeeded and continued to write scripts for Fox Studios.:2629 Rogers was to remain close to her grandfather (much later, when she was a star in 1939, she bought him a home at 5115 Greenbush Avenue in Sherman Oaks, California, so he could be close to her while she was filming at the studios).
One of Rogers’ young cousins, Helen, had a hard time pronouncing “Virginia”, shortening it to “Badinda”; the nickname soon became “Ginga”.
When “Ginga” was nine years old, her mother remarried, to John Logan Rogers. Ginger took the surname Rogers, although she was never legally adopted. They lived in Fort Worth. Her mother became a theater critic for a local newspaper, the Fort Worth Record. She attended, but did not graduate from, Fort Worth’s Central High School (later renamed R.L. Paschal High School).
As a teenager, Rogers thought of becoming a school teacher, but with her mother’s interest in Hollywood and the theater, her early exposure to the theater increased. Waiting for her mother in the wings of the Majestic Theatre, she began to sing and dance along with the performers on stage.
Vaudeville and Broadway
Rogers’ entertainment career was born one night when the traveling vaudeville act of Eddie Foy came to Fort Worth and needed a quick stand-in. She then entered and won a Charleston dance contest which allowed her to tour for six months, at one point in 1926 performing at an 18-month-old theater called The Craterian in Medford, Oregon. This theater honored her many years later by changing its name to the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater.
At 17, Rogers married Jack Culpepper, a singer/dancer/comedian/recording artist of the day who worked under the name Jack Pepper (according to Ginger’s autobiography, she knew Culpepper when she was a child, as her cousin’s boyfriend). They formed a short-lived vaudeville double act known as “Ginger and Pepper”. The marriage was over within months, and she went back to touring with her mother. When the tour got to New York City, she stayed, getting radio singing jobs and then her Broadway debut in the musical Top Speed, which opened on Christmas Day, 1929.
Within two weeks of opening in Top Speed, Rogers was chosen to star on Broadway in Girl Crazy by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin. Fred Astaire was hired to help the dancers with their choreography. Her appearance in Girl Crazy made her an overnight star at the age of 19.
Early film roles
Rogers’ first movie roles were in a trio of short films made in 1929Night in the Dormitory, A Day of a Man of Affairs, and Campus Sweethearts. In 1930, she was signed by Paramount Pictures to a seven-year contract.
Rogers soon got herself out of the Paramount contractunder which she had made five feature films at Astoria Studios in Astoria, Queensand moved with her mother to Hollywood. When she got to California, she signed a three-picture deal with Path Exchange. She made feature films for Warner Bros., Monogram, and Fox in 1932, and was named one of 15 WAMPAS Baby Stars. She then made a significant breakthrough as Anytime Annie in the Warner Brothers film 42nd Street (1933). She went on to make a series of films with Fox, Warner Bros. (Gold Diggers of 1933), Universal, Paramount, and RKO Radio Pictures.
1933-1939: Astaire and Rogers
Rogers was known for her partnership with Fred Astaire. Together, from 1933 to 1939, they made nine musical films at RKO: Flying Down to Rio (1933), The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), “Star Of Midnight (1935) “Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) was produced later at MGM. They revolutionized the Hollywood musical, introducing dance routines of unprecedented elegance and virtuosity, set to songs specially composed for them by the greatest popular song composers of the day.
Arlene Croce, Hermes Pan, Hannah Hyam, and John Mueller all consider Rogers to have been Astaire’s finest dance partner, principally because of her ability to combine dancing skills, natural beauty, and exceptional abilities as a dramatic actress and comedian, thus truly complementing Astaire, a peerless dancer who sometimes struggled as an actor and was not considered classically handsome. The resulting song and dance partnership enjoyed a unique credibility in the eyes of audiences.
Of the 33 partnered dances Rogers performed with Astaire, Croce, and Mueller have highlighted the infectious spontaneity of her performances in the comic numbers “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” from Roberta, “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” from Follow the Fleet, and “Pick Yourself Up” from Swing Time. They also point to the use Astaire made of her remarkably flexible back in classic romantic dances such as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” from Roberta, “Cheek to Cheek” from Top Hat, and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Follow the Fleet.
Although the dance routines were choreographed by Astaire and his collaborator Hermes Pan, both have acknowledged Rogers’s input and have also testified to her consummate professionalism, even during periods of intense strain, as she tried to juggle her many other contractual film commitments with the punishing rehearsal schedules of Astaire, who made at most two films in any one year. In 1986, shortly before his death, Astaire remarked, “All the girls I ever danced with thought they couldn’t do it, but of course they could. So they always cried. All except Ginger. No no, Ginger never cried”.
John Mueller summed up Rogers’s abilities as: “Rogers was outstanding among Astaire’s partners, not because she was superior to others as a dancer, but, because, as a skilled, intuitive actress, she was cagey enough to realize that acting did not stop when dancing began … the reason so many women have fantasized about dancing with Fred Astaire is that Ginger Rogers conveyed the impression that dancing with him is the most thrilling experience imaginable”.
According to Astaire, when they were first teamed together in Flying Down to Rio, “Ginger had never danced with a partner before. She faked it an awful lot. She couldn’t tap and she couldn’t do this and that … but Ginger had style and talent and improved as she went along. She got so that after a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong.” Author Dick Richards, in his book Ginger: Salute to a Star, quoted Astaire saying to Raymond Rohauer, curator at the New York Gallery of Modern Art, “Ginger was brilliantly effective. She made everything work for her. Actually she made things very fine for both of us and she deserves most of the credit for our success.” When asked who his favorite dancing partner was by British TV interviewer Michael Parkinson on Parkinson in 1976, Astaire said “Excuse me, I must say Ginger was certainly the one. You know, the most effective partner I had. Everyone knows. That was a whole other thing what we did…I just want to pay a tribute to Ginger because we did so many pictures together and believe me it was a value to have that girl…she had it! She was just great!”
In her classic 1930s musicals with Astaire, Ginger Rogers, co-billed with him, was paid less than Fred, the creative force behind the dances, who also received 10% of the profits. She was also paid less than many of the supporting “farceurs” billed beneath her, in spite of her much more central role in the films’ great financial successes. This was personally grating to her and had effects upon her relationships at RKO, especially with director Mark Sandrich, whose purported disrespect of Rogers prompted a sharp letter of reprimand from producer Pandro Berman, which she deemed important enough to publish in her autobiography. Rogers fought hard for her contract and salary rights and for better films and scripts.
After 15 months apart and with RKO facing bankruptcy, the studio paired Fred and Ginger for another movie titled Carefree, but it lost money. Next came The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, but the serious plot and tragic ending resulted in the worst box-office receipts of any of their films. This was driven not by diminished popularity, but by the hard 1930s economic reality. The production costs of musicals, always significantly more costly than regular features, continued to increase at a much faster rate than admissions.
19331939: Rogers without Astaire
Both before and immediately after her dancing and acting partnership with Fred Astaire ended, Rogers starred in a number of successful nonmusical films. Stage Door (1937) demonstrated her dramatic capacity, as the loquacious yet vulnerable girl next door, a tough-minded, theatrical hopeful, opposite Katharine Hepburn. Successful comedies included Vivacious Lady (1938) with James Stewart, Fifth Avenue Girl (1939), where she played an out-of-work girl sucked into the lives of a wealthy family, and Bachelor Mother (1939), with David Niven, in which she played a shop girl who is falsely thought to have abandoned her baby.
In 1934, Rogers sued Sylvia of Hollywood for $100K for defamation. Sylvia, Hollywood’s fitness guru and radio personality, had claimed that Rogers was on Sylvia’s radio show when, in fact, she was not.
In 1941, Rogers won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in 1940’s Kitty Foyle. She enjoyed considerable success during the early 1940s, and was RKO’s hottest property during this period. In Roxie Hart (1942), based on the same play which served as the template for the later musical Chicago, Rogers played a wisecracking wife on trial for a murder her husband committed.
In the neorealist Primrose Path (1940), directed by Gregory La Cava, she played a prostitute’s daughter trying to avoid the fate of her mother. Further highlights of this period included Tom, Dick, and Harry, a 1941 comedy in which she dreams of marrying three different men; I’ll Be Seeing You (1944), with Joseph Cotten; and Billy Wilder‘s first Hollywood feature film: The Major and the Minor (1942), in which she played a woman who masquerades as a 12-year-old to get a cheap train ticket and finds herself obliged to continue the ruse for an extended period. This film featured a performance by Rogers’s own real mother, Lela, playing her film mother.
Becoming a free agent, Rogers made hugely successful films with other studios in the mid-’40s, including Tender Comrade (1943), Lady in the Dark (1944), and Week-End at the Waldorf (1945), and became the highest-paid performer in Hollywood. However, by the end of the decade, her film career had peaked. Arthur Freed reunited her with Fred Astaire in The Barkleys of Broadway in 1949, when Judy Garland was unable to appear in the role that was to have reunited her with her Easter Parade co-star.
Rogers’s film career entered a period of gradual decline in the 1950s, as parts for older actresses became more difficult to obtain, but she still scored with some solid movies. She starred in Storm Warning (1950) with Ronald Reagan and Doris Day, the noir, anti-Ku Klux Klan film by Warner Bros., and in Monkey Business (1952) with Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe, directed by Howard Hawks. In the same year, she also starred in We’re Not Married!, also featuring Marilyn Monroe, and in Dreamboat. She played the female lead in Tight Spot (1955), a mystery thriller, with Edward G. Robinson. After a series of unremarkable films, she scored a great popular success on Broadway in 1965, playing Dolly Levi in the long-running Hello, Dolly!.
In later life, Rogers remained on good terms with Astaire; she presented him with a special Academy Award in 1950, and they were copresenters of individual Academy Awards in 1967, during which they elicited a standing ovation when they came on stage in an impromptu dance. In 1969, she had the lead role in another long-running popular production, Mame, from the book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in the West End of London, arriving for the role on the liner Queen Elizabeth 2 from New York City. Her docking there occasioned the maximum of pomp and ceremony at Southampton. She became the highest-paid performer in the history of the West End up to that time. The production ran for 14 months and featured a royal command performance for Queen Elizabeth II.
From the 1950s onwards, Rogers made occasional appearances on television, even substituting for a vacationing Hal March on The $64,000 Question. In the later years of her career, she made guest appearances in three different series by Aaron Spelling: The Love Boat (1979), Glitter (1984), and Hotel (1987), which was her final screen appearance as an actress. In 1985, Rogers fulfilled a long-standing wish to direct when she directed the musical Babes in Arms off-Broadway in Tarrytown, New York, at 74 years old. Interviews can be found in the New York Times under “Ginger Rogers directs”. It was produced by Michael Lipton and Robert Kennedy of Kennedy Lipton Productions. The production starred Broadway talents Donna Theodore, Carleton Carpenter, James Brennan, Randy Skinner, Karen Ziemba, Dwight Edwards, and Kim Morgan. It is also noted in her autobiography Ginger, My Story.
The Kennedy Center honored Ginger Rogers in December 1992. This event, which was shown on television, was somewhat marred when Astaire’s widow, Robyn Smith, who permitted clips of Astaire dancing with Rogers to be shown for free at the function itself, was unable to come to terms with CBS Television for broadcast rights to the clips (all previous rights-holders having donated broadcast rights gratis).
For her contributions to the motion picture industry, Rogers has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6772 Hollywood Boulevard.
Rogers was an only child, and throughout her life she maintained a close relationship with her mother, Lela Rogers, who was a newspaper reporter, scriptwriter, and movie producer. Her mother was also one of the first women to enlist in the Marine Corps, was a founder of the successful “Hollywood Playhouse” for aspiring actors and actresses on the RKO set, and a founder of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.
Rogers and her mother had an extremely close professional relationship, as well. Lela Rogers was credited with many pivotal contributions to her daughter’s early successes in New York and in Hollywood, and gave her much assistance in contract negotiations with RKO.
On March 29, 1929, Rogers married for the first time at age 17 to her dancing partner Jack Pepper (real name Edward Jackson Culpepper). They divorced in 1931, having separated soon after the wedding. Ginger dated Mervyn LeRoy in 1932, but they ended the relationship and remained friends until his death in 1986. In 1934, she married actor Lew Ayres (1908-96). They divorced seven years later.
In 1943, Rogers married her third husband, Jack Briggs, who was a U.S. Marine. Upon his return from World War II, Briggs showed no interest in continuing his incipient Hollywood career. They divorced in 1949. In 1953, she married Jacques Bergerac, a French actor 16 years her junior, whom she met on a trip to Paris. A lawyer in France, he came to Hollywood with her and became an actor. They divorced in 1957. Her fifth and final husband was director and producer William Marshall. They married in 1961 and divorced in 1971, after his bouts with alcohol and the financial collapse of their joint film production company in Jamaica.
Rogers was lifelong friends with actresses Lucille Ball and Bette Davis. She appeared with Ball in an episode of Here’s Lucy on November 22, 1971, in which Rogers danced the Charleston for the first time in many years. Rogers starred in one of the earliest films co-directed and co-scripted by a woman, Wanda Tuchock‘s Finishing School (1934). Rogers maintained a close friendship with her cousin, writer/socialite Phyllis Fraser, but was not Rita Hayworth‘s natural cousin, as has been reported. Hayworth’s maternal uncle, Vinton Hayworth, was married to Rogers’s maternal aunt, Jean Owens.
She was raised a Christian Scientist and remained a lifelong adherent. She devoted a great deal of time in her autobiography to the importance of her faith throughout her career. Rogers was a lifelong member of the Republican Party.
Rogers’s mother died in 1977. Rogers remained at the 4-Rs (Rogers’s Rogue River Ranch) until 1990, when she sold the property and moved to nearby Medford, Oregon.
The City of Independence, Missouri designated the birth home of Ginger Rogers an Historic Landmark Property in 1994. On July 16, 1994, Ginger and her secretary Roberta Olden visited Independence, Missouri to appear at the Ginger Rogers’ Day celebration presented by the city. Ginger was present when mayor Ron Stewart affixed an Historic Landmark Property plaque to the front of the house where she was born on July 16, 1911. She signed over 2,000 autographs at this event. The home is currently being restored and will be open to the public in 2018. An annual Ginger Rogers Day Festival is held in July in Independence. The current owner of the house is Three Trails Cottages, Inc. and the museum director is Marge Padgitt. Plans have begun for a second building to accommodate Ginger Rogers memorabilia.
She made her last public appearance on March 18, 1995, when she received the Women’s International Center (WIC) Living Legacy Award. For many years, Rogers regularly supported, and held in-person presentations, at the Craterian Theater, in Medford, where she had performed in 1926 as a vaudevillian. The theater was comprehensively restored in 1997 and posthumously renamed in her honor as the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater.
Rogers spent winters in Rancho Mirage and summers in Medford. She continued making public appearances (chiefly at award shows) until suffering a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and dependent on a wheelchair. Despite her stroke, she was a practitioner of Christian Science and never saw a doctor or went to a hospital. Her last husband, William Marshall, would trick Rogers to take insulin since she was diagnosed as a Type 1 Diabetic at age 22. He stated he was injecting vitamins and she took the daily injections and knew it was insulin after the divorce. She lapsed into a diabetic coma and she was hospitalized where she suffered a stroke and complications of lifelong non compliance with her diabetes. She died at her Rancho Mirage home on April 25, 1995, at the age of 83. An autopsy concluded that the cause of death was a heart attack. She was cremated and her ashes interred in the Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California, with her mother’s remains.
Portrayals of Rogers
- Likenesses of Astaire and Rogers, apparently painted over from the “Cheek to Cheek” dance in Top Hat, are in the “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” section of The Beatles film Yellow Submarine (1968).
- Rogers’s image is one of many famous women’s images of the 1930s and ’40s featured on the bedroom wall in the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, a gallery of magazine cuttings pasted on the wall created by Anne and her sister Margot while hiding from the Nazis. When the house became a museum, the gallery the Frank sisters created was preserved under glass.
- Ginger The Musical by Robert Kennedy and Paul Becker which Ginger Rogers approved and was to direct on Broadway the year of her death is currently in negotiations for the 2016-17 Broadway season. Marshall Mason directed its first production in 2001 starring Donna McKechnie and Nili Bassman and was choreographed by Randy Skinner.
- A musical about the life of Rogers, entitled Backwards in High Heels, premiered in Florida in early 2007.
- Rogers was the heroine of a novel, Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak (1942, by Lela E. Rogers), in which “the heroine has the same name and appearance as the famous actress, but has no connection … it is as though the famous actress has stepped into an alternate reality in which she is an ordinary person.” It is part of a series known as “Whitman Authorized Editions”, 16 books published between 19411947 that featured a film actress as heroine.
- The Dancing House in Prague (Czech: Tancici dum), sometimes known as Ginger and Fred, was designed by American architect Frank Gehry and inspired by the dancing of Astaire and Rogers.
- In the 1981 film Pennies From Heaven, Bernadette Peters dances with Steve Martin in a scene which uses Fred and Ginger’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” sequence (from 1936’s Follow the Fleet) as its inspiration.
- Federico Fellini‘s film Ginger and Fred centers on two aging Italian impersonators of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Rogers sued the production and the distributor when the film was released in the U.S. for misappropriation and infringement of her public personality. Her claims were dismissed, as according to the judgement, the film only obliquely related to Astaire and her.