A Love Goddess: The Tragic Life of Rita Hayworth

During the 1940s, there wasn’t a person who didn’t know the name Rita Hayworth. Nicknamed the “Love Goddess” by the press for her glamorous presence on screen, she was the biggest star of her time, appearing in 61 films over 37 years. While Hayworth might have looked like she had the perfect life, she was actually hiding a lot of pain.

Rita Hayworth holds baby Rebecca / Rita Hayworth / Rita Hayworth and Fred Astaire / Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles.

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From her childhood traumas to her tumultuous love affairs, Hayworth’s life was anything but easy. Behind her glitzy persona was a woman holding on to many secrets, which people only found out about after her death. Find out the real story behind the glitz and charm of the Love Goddess and her not-so-perfect life.

Who Was Rita Hayworth?

Originally born Margarita Carmen Cansino in Brooklyn, New York, Rita Hayworth was the oldest child of two dancers. Hayworth’s father, Eduardo Cansino, was big in the vaudeville circuit while her mother, Volga Hayworth, performed with the Ziegfeld Follies. Hayworth had talent in her blood, and her parents realized that from a young age. They put her into dance lessons from the time she could walk even though she wasn’t fond of them.

Rita Hayworth poses in a nightgown as she sits in a chair.

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According to those who knew her, Hayworth was always a sweet child, but she never dared to tell her father she didn’t want to take dance classes. She went to class every day taught by her uncle, Angel Cansino, and by her fifth birthday, she was featured in the Cansino family Broadway production. By the time she was eight, Hayworth got a role in La Fiesta, a short film for Warner Bros. Hayworth was gifted, and her father wanted to capitalize on her natural gifts.

Moving the Family to Hollywood

Eduardo Cansino saw some potential, so he decided to move the family to Hollywood, hoping to bring them fame and fortune. The family was strapped for cash, so they revived the Dancing Cansinos act. Eduardo made Hayworth his partner and dyed her hair black to make her look more Latin. The family was performing on floating casinos off the coast of California, but this wasn’t good for the family’s financial situation.

Rita Hayworth, Her mother, and her brother sit together on a couch.

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While working in the casinos, Eduardo drank and gambled the family’s money away, so he would send Hayworth to catch fish for dinner. When she couldn’t catch anything, Eduardo would beat her, but he made sure not to leave marks the audience could see. Hayworth’s father would also make her perform in seedy clubs right across the border of Mexico because the child labor laws were less strict there.

She Never Had a Childhood

Hayworth was the oldest of three children. Her two younger brothers would play outside with the neighborhood kids while Hayworth sat and watched from the steps. She never joined in on their fun because she would either be practicing with her father or waiting till it was time to perform in Tijuana. Hayworth had no life, no school, and no friends.

A little Rita poses alongside her two younger brothers.

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One of Hayworth’s neighbors would sometimes peek into the window to watch her practice, and all she saw was a little girl being yelled at by her strict father. Eduardo would lie and say Hayworth was his wife when they performed, which allowed him to overstep his boundaries when they weren’t on the dance floor. Only her mother knew about the abuse and tried to protect her as much as she could.

Becoming the Most Cooperative Girl in Hollywood

At just 18 years old, Hayworth married for the first time. Eddie Judson was a former car salesman twice her age. Although Hayworth thought she was marrying him for love, Judson saw their partnership as an investment. He played a large part in launching Hayworth’s acting career, but he treated her like a soulless product rather than a wife. As her manager, Judson decided to change her last name from Cansino to Hayworth (her mother’s maiden name) for an “all-American appeal.”

Rita Hayworth sits on a sofa with her arms crossed in her lap next to Ed Judson.

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Judson was a hustler who got Hayworth lots of press coverage. He made her dye her hair auburn and cut back her hairline so she would look less Latin. The press started to call her “the most cooperative girl in Hollywood” because she did whatever Judson said. He would even encourage her to sleep with influential men to get ahead in the industry.

Struggles With Columbia Pictures

Judson wanted to control everything Hayworth did in order to make her a massive star. He planned for Hayworth to spend a night on a yacht and sleep with the Columbia studio boss, Harry Cohn. She refused, sparking a feud that consumed Cohn and some of Hollywood’s biggest stars for two decades.

Harry Cohn stands over an actress signing a contract in his office.

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Cohn treated Hayworth with immense disrespect to get revenge. The two battled over contracts, scripts, and her love life until her final film with Columbia in 1957. She didn’t want this man to control her. However, Cohn and Judson were the ones who turned her from a Latina dancer to America’s “Love Goddess.”

Did Rita Hayworth Sing?

Although she was a talented dancer and actress, Hayworth was not a singer. She resented that Columbia never trained her to sing or even encouraged her to learn. While she appears to be singing in many of her famous films, she was just a talented lip-singer. All of the movies were dubbed.

Rita Hayworth plays guitar for Steven Geray in a still from the movie 'Gilda'.

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The public didn’t know her secret, so she was beyond embarrassed when she was asked to sing by the troops at the USO shows. She wanted to study singing, but Cohn would say, “Who needs it?” Because she was under contract with the studio, she had no say in the matter.

Gaining Courage to Take Control

Hayworth had enough of these men. Cohn represented all the evil men in her life, and she was sick of Judson deciding everything she did. Although it was a risk to leave him, she couldn’t deal with this kind of life anymore.

A portrait of Rita Hayworth.

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In Cohn’s final act of revenge, Hayworth was suspended without pay in 1943 for refusing to appear in Once Upon a Time. In an effort to improve her situation, she left her husband and was left with no money. She had to ask a friend to eat at his house because she couldn’t afford food, but her luck was about to change.

Moving On to Better Love

After five years in an awful marriage, Hayworth met the man she called the greatest love of her life. After seeing her pinup pictures while filming a movie in Brazil, Orson Welles wanted to meet the woman from the spread. However, Welles saw that Hayworth was nothing like the femme fatale she portrayed to the public during their first encounter.

Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth take a break on a film set.

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Welles and Hayworth had an instant connection, and he was able to bring her out of her shell. They would hang out with his friends, and it was the first time Hayworth connected with people her age. The couple got married in September 1943 during Hayworth’s lunch break while shooting the film Cover Girl. Everyone around her saw how happy she was for the first time, and they talked about escaping Hollywood because she hated being a movie star.

What Is Rita Hayworth Most Famous For?

Although she wanted to leave Hollywood behind, her talent was undeniable. Her most famous role was in the movie Gilda in 1946. She starred alongside Glenn Ford as a reckless femme fatale who could scorch every man she came across. However, that was far from who she was in real life.

Rita Hayworth performs in a scene from 'Gilda'.

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Hayworth once said that every man she knew fell in love with her Gilda character. It was strange to her, but the role made her a cultural icon. The movie was so popular that one of the atomic bombs tested at Bikini Atoll was named Gilda and had a picture of Hayworth’s character attached to it when they detonated it. It’s safe to say she was not happy about this, and she would fly into fits of rage just thinking about it.

How Tall Was Rita Hayworth?

Hayworth was the top glamour girl of the 1940s, and the film Gilda only made her more popular. As a pinup girl for military servicemen and beauty icon for women, the 5’6” actress/dancer was slightly taller than some of her counterparts, but that never held her career back.

A portrait of Rita Hayworth.

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Although she was naturally a brunette, she found the most fame as a redhead and dyed her hair eight times for eight different movies. Her lips were also voted the best in the world by the Artists League of America. Everyone wanted her or wanted to be her, but there was more to the story than she showed to the world.

Trouble at Home With a Baby on the Way

While Hayworth was married to Orson Welles, she tried to do everything to please him. She wanted to be everything he wanted. However, when she was pregnant with their daughter Rebecca, Welles started having an affair. He didn’t like Hayworth’s neediness, drinking, or temper. It drove him to sleep around, and he was even linked to Judy Garland.

Orson Welles embraces Rita Hayworth inside a hall of mirrors in a still from 'The Lady From Shanghai.'

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Hayworth decided to file for divorce, and it made her very lonely. The couple briefly reconciled when they filmed The Lady From Shanghai, but the marriage ended in 1948. Welles said he never stopped loving Hayworth until he died years later. He was really her only true love, and he told people how bad he felt for the way he treated her when the y were married.

Swept off Her Feet by a Prince

After her divorce was finalized, Hayworth took a trip to Europe to get away from the craziness of Hollywood. While she was in France, she went to a charity ball at the Eiffel Tower. Hayworth gave a speech in French and caught the eye of a royal in the audience, Prince Aly Khan. Although he was married at the time, he convinced someone to introduce him to Hayworth.

Rita Hayworth and Prince Aly Khan leave the Ritz Hotel.

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Prince Aly Khan followed Hayworth around the French Riviera and sent a fortune teller to tell her to be with him. She was superstitious and eventually gave in to his pursuits. Hayworth saw the prince as her ticket out of Hollywood. However, their affair was a massive scandal until he finalized his divorce. The couple married in May 1949, and people lined the street to catch a glimpse of them.

Not the Fairytale She Had Imagined

Now that she was a princess, Hayworth had to learn all the royal protocols and etiquette while being tutored in French. While she was trying to be the perfect princess, her husband was back to his womanizing ways and had affairs with three other women. Hayworth was merely his arm candy for society events.

Rita Hayworth And Ali Khan dance together during an event.

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Hayworth was hounded by the paparazzi, targeted by jewel thieves and possible kidnappers, so she would lock herself in her room during her husband’s high society house parties. She desperately wanted to return to America, but she was afraid Prince Khan would try to take custody of their daughter, Princess Yasmin. One night she left with her daughters and flew back to New York before anyone could stop her.

Return to Columbia Pictures

After her failed marriage with Khan, Hayworth had no choice but to return to Hollywood and star in her comeback film, Affair in Trinidad. She seemed scared to get back into the industry because she had wanted to escape it for so long. Her fears were realized when she started clashing with Harry Cohn again, placing her on suspension during the film.

Rita Hayworth, as Chris Emery, and Glenn Ford, as Steve Emery, embrace in a still from ‘Affair in Trinidad.’

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Despite her suspension, the film grossed $1 million more than her previous film. Hayworth continued to star in a successful string of movies with Columbia pictures, including Salome and Miss Sadie Thompson. She needed the money to help her survive, so she did what she had to do to make ends meet.

On a Downward Spiral of Love

Hayworth’s judgment in men went from bad to worse. Following her divorce from Prince Khan after just two years of marriage, she started dating Dick Haymes, who had the nickname “Mr. Evil.” When the couple got met, Haymes’s singing career was waning. However, when she would go to his shows, a larger audience would show up because they knew she would be there.

Rita Hayworth poses alongside Dick Haymes.

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Haymes saw this as a golden opportunity. He was desperate for money as he was in such deep financial trouble that he could not return to California without being arrested because he owed so much money to his two former wives. On top of this, he couldn’t prove his citizenship, so officials began the deportation process.

She Tried to Help Him Stay in the Country

Haymes hoped Hayworth could influence the government to let him stay in the U.S. Hayworth assumed responsibility for his citizenship, and the couple got married. Their wedding was held in September 1953 in Las Vegas. Their wedding procession went through the casino.

Hayworth signs her marriage license along with her husband, Dick Heymes.

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From the beginning of their marriage, Haymed owed a lot of money to the IRS. Hayworth took some time off from attending his shows, and this caused him to lose money because not enough people were showing up without her in the audience. This caused him to fall behind on payments, and police waited outside their hotel until Haymes could pay his debts.

The Final Straw That Made Her File for Divorce Again

Haymes took financial advantage of Hayworth, and she couldn’t get the child support she was owed from Prince Khan or Orson Welles. This was the beginning of Rita’s decline, even though she still had two more notable roles to come. Haymes and Hayworth were doomed from the start with his sketchy financials, but that wasn’t what pushed her to her limits.

 Rita colors in a coloring book with her daughters.

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While the couple was out at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, Haymes hit Hayworth. That night, she packed her bags, walked out, and never came back. The incident shook her to her core, and she stayed in bed for several days upon doctor’s orders. She was now short of money, alone with two children, and going through her fourth divorce.

She Couldn’t Believe This Was Her Life

One minute Hayworth was a princess, and the next minute, she was in bed with a black eye from a financially dependent liar. It was hard for her to figure out her next move because she had been jumping around from one marriage to the next, without receiving any of the child support she was owed.

A stern portrait of Rita Hayworth.

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Hayworth failed to gain financial support from Khan, and she sued Welles for back payment, but her efforts were unsuccessful. She was beyond stressed because of her financial situation, and she turned to alcohol to help her.

Her Final Film With Columbia Pictures

Hayworth had to finish her contract with Columbia Pictures, so her final movie was Pal Joey. It was a musical, and as we mentioned previously, Hayworth was not a singer. Despite her lack of singing abilities, Pal Joey was one of her more notable films.

Frank Sinatra with Rita Hayworth drive in a convertible in a scene from 'Pal Joey'.

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At this point, Hayworth wanted to be done with Columbia and Harry Cohn. She felt like he owned her. He exploited her talents and earned a lot of money from her films. She didn’t earn as much as he did, which made her resent the situation all the more.

Who Was Rita Hayworth Married To?

In her fifth and final attempt at marriage, Hayworth began a relationship with producer James Hill. The couple got married in February 1958. Hill put Hayworth in one of her last major films, Separate Tables. The film was popular and highly rated even though one newspaper named Hayworth the worst actress of 1958.

A photo of James Hill and Rita Hayworth.

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Their marriage didn’t last long because neither of them were happy. Hill wanted Hayworth to continue making movies, but she wanted both of them to retire from Hollywood. People who knew them as a couple saw how mean Hill was to Hayworth. She ended up filing for divorce just a few years later.

Her Health Started to Decline

After her divorce from Hill, Hayworth’s health started to decline. She began showing signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s, but people thought her confusion and poor memory were due to severe alcoholism. Throughout her life, many people close to her talked about her tendency to drink.

A portrait of Rita Hayworth.

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Her second husband, Orson Welles, mentioned how she would drink and fly into a rage at Harry Cohn, her father, mother, or brother. Therefore, later in life, people just assumed she was exhibiting symptoms of alcoholism. Even her children noticed her struggles with alcohol, and they couldn’t do anything to fix it.

Too Tired for Hollywood

For many years, Hayworth wanted to leave Hollywood. However, when she was 54 years old, she wanted to retire, but she needed the money. Because of her financial struggles, she agreed to film The Wrath of God in 1972. The experience did nothing for her declining health and exposed her worsening mental state.

Frank Langella and Rita Hayworth in a scene from the movie 'The Wrath of God’.

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Hayworth had trouble remembering her lines, so the directors had to shoot her scenes one line at a time. It should have been a huge red flag for everyone around her, but her name still brought a lot of revenue to whatever movie she starred in. Although she wanted to quit, she decided to film one last movie.

The Final Film

In November 1973, Hayworth agreed to complete one more movie, the British film Tales That Witness Madness. During this time, her mental state was rapidly declining. Hayworth left the set and returned to the United States. She never returned to acting after that because she couldn’t physically handle it.

Close up of Rita Hayworth, smiling.

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It was a shock to everyone because she had so many adoring fans. Hayworth was still a huge name in Hollywood, but she couldn’t even remember lines anymore. It was tragic to see what Hollywood had done to her and how quickly her health was declining.

Losing Both of Her Brothers Led to Years of Drinking

Shortly after returning to the United States from her final film, Hayworth’s brothers died within a week of each other. These losses caused her immense sadness and led to heavy drinking. She continued to drink excessively for a few years. This culminated with an embarrassing event at London Heathrow Airport.

Rita Hayworth sits in the back of the official's car after being escorted off the plane.

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Hayworth was removed from a flight after having an angry outburst while traveling with her agent. The event attracted a lot of negative press, and a horrifying photo was published in the newspaper the next day. Her alcoholism was also hiding the symptoms of her Alzheimer’s.

The Love Goddess Was Struggling

After years of drinking, Hayworth’s addiction to alcohol caused her to age prematurely. This was coupled with the stress of her life, and there was no way to hide the toll that it took on her. Hayworth’s daughter Yasmin said they didn’t know if she had alcoholic dementia, or she was just severely alcoholic.

A portrait of an older Rita Hayworth.

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Biographer Barbara Leaming said Hayworth appeared much older than her age because of the deep lines around her eyes and mouth. She was worn and exhausted, but no one could help her unless she wanted to stop drinking. Finally, in 1977, Hayworth was able to stop drinking. However, that didn’t stop her erratic behavior.

Friends Started to Get Concerned

With her two daughters grown up and living on their own, Hayworth was quite lonely. She would let her dogs out of the house in the middle of the night in hopes of talking to her neighbors. Her former costar and neighbor, Glenn Ford, would go to her home at night and keep her company.

An aged picture of Rita Hayworth.

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Sometimes, Hayworth would become violent around people she had known for years. She once threw a drink in Adele Astaire’s face in front of her brother, Fred. She was always confused or angry, and people couldn’t understand what was wrong with her.

She Chased People Away From Her Home

One evening, Hayworth had invited a fellow movie star, Ann Miller, over for dinner. When Miller and another friend started to walk towards Hayworth’s door, she came outside and chased them away with a butcher knife.

Rita Hayworth while visiting New York.

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Hayworth yelled, “How dare you invade my private property! I don’t see autograph seekers.” People thought she was out of her mind. The following day she called Miller to asked why she didn’t show up for dinner. Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s often goes undiagnosed, so people didn’t know why she was acting so strange.

Finally Getting a Diagnosis

In 1980, Hayworth was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Everyone in her life finally had the answers they were looking for to explain all her issues. Unknowingly, Hayworth help destigmatize a condition that embarrassed people and their families.

Rita Hayworth models a fur coat where she attended a reception.

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In 1981, her diagnosis was made public, and Hayworth became the first public face of Alzheimer’s, which helped ensure that other patients didn’t go undiagnosed. However, her health rapidly deteriorated over that year, and she couldn’t take care of herself.

Moving in With Her Daughter

As Hayworth’s health declined, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that she should be placed under the care of her daughter, Yazmin. Hayworth went to live with her daughter in New York, where she had round-the-clock care.

Rita Hayworth and Yasmin Khan in New York City.

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The press would stop Yazmin outside of her apartment and ask about Hayworth. When someone asked how her mother was doing, Yazmin replied, “She’s still beautiful. But it’s a shell.” It was hard for her to watch her mother like this and not be able to help because there is no cure.

Her Daughter Rebecca Finally Came to Visit

As she got older, Rebecca and her mother weren’t very close. After seven years of not seeing each other, Hayworth’s daughter finally came to visit in 1983. Rebecca’s father, Orson Welles, talked about how the visit might affect her because she barely knew who Rebecca was anymore.

Rita Hayworth holds her infant daughter Rebecca.

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It was hard for Rebecca to see her mother in this state after being apart for so long. Hayworth sat in an armchair, just staring into space. It’s unimaginable to see your parent like that, and Rebecca gave her sister Yazmin credit for caring for their mother.

How Did Rita Hayworth Die?

In 1987, Rita Hayworth passed away at age 68 from Alzheimer’s disease. She went into a coma in the apartment she shared with her daughter after years of struggling. After her passing was announced, there was an outpouring of appreciation from fans and fellow actors.

Rita Hayworth in a swimming pool.

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Upon hearing about her death, President Ronald Reagan said, “Rita Hayworth was one of our country’s most beloved stars. Glamorous and talented, she gave us many wonderful moments on the stage and screen and delighted audiences from the time she was a young girl.”

A Send-Off Fit for Hollywood’s Finest Star

At Hayworth’s funeral, her pallbearers were all famous Hollywood names, including her Gilda costar and longtime friend, Glenn Ford. Her lifelong friend Jane Withers, who met Rita when she was still Rita Cansino, gave the eulogy and said Hayworth was a sweet, kind, and gentle lady.

Rita Hayworth's funeral.

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When Rita was just a dancer, she wanted to be an actress, and Withers told her to just be in her heart. Although her on-screen characters lit up the silver screen, Hayworth hid a lot of pain, and she was on an endless search for love.

Her Career Highs

Throughout her lifetime, Hayworth was honored at many award shows. She received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress. She also won an award from the National Film Society, which was a huge honor for Hayworth.

Rita Hayworth dances with Fred Astaire.

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After her death, Hayworth was acknowledged by the American Film Institute as one of the top-25 greatest female stars of Classic Hollywood cinema. She made such an impact in the world of acting, and her legacy was more significant than she probably could have ever imagined.

A Large Legacy Left Behind

Although there were a lot of struggles during her lifetime, Hayworth left behind an important legacy. Each year, her daughter Yazmin holds the Rita Hayworth Gala to honor her mother, who lived with Alzheimer’s disease for many years. The gala is held to raise awareness and research funds for Alzheimer’s.

Yasmin Aga Khan and her husband pose during the first Rita Hayworth Gala.

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The disease often goes undiagnosed, so her daughter’s goal is to help people change how they think about the disease in honor of her mother. It is one of the most anticipated events of the year in Manhattan, and many celebrities attend to support the cause.

What Happened to Her Daughters?

Hayworth’s oldest daughter Rebecca led a much more private life than her parents or sister. She wasn’t very close with her parents as she got older and passed away in 2004 on what would have been her mother’s 86th birthday.

Yasmin Aga Khan speaks during an Alzheimer’s Association event.

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As for Yazmin, she is still living in New York and continues to raise awareness for Alzheimer’s disease. It was hard to watch her mother turn into a shell of her former self, and she doesn’t want anyone else to go undiagnosed. She is now 71 years old.

Hayworth And Her Shawshank Redemption Cameo

While Hayworth didn’t act in Shawshank Redemption, she was a significant part of the plot. A poster of Hayworth from the film “Gilda” is used to cover the hole Andy is creating for his grand escape. Hayworth is symbolic because she reminds Andy of his desire to actually break out of prison.

a scene from The Shawshank Redemption

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Hayworth never even got a chance to see the film because she passed away in 1987 and the movie came out in 1994. Although most people know Hayworth is the one on the poster, sometimes people debate that the actual poster cover the hole is Raquel Welch from One Million Years B.C.

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