When people think of Fred Astaire, how many then recall his most famous partner Ginger Rogers, too? Born Virginia Katherine McMath on 16 July, 1911, in Independence, Missouri, she was later to adopt her stage name and become known for gracing the 'silver screen' era of movies.
As a child she witnessed her parents, Lela Owens McMath and Eddins McMath, split up and as a result she went to live with her mother and her grandparents in Kansas City. Her father tried to kidnap her twice when she was little, but each time she was returned to her mother safely. In Kansas, Ginger found work in advertising and was able to see her cousins. Her cousin Helen couldn't pronounce 'Virginia' so said 'Ginja' instead and it stuck. This was later to become the first half of her stage name, though the spelling changed.
Determined to make a life for herself and her daughter, Ginger's mother left her parents' house and sought work as a screenwriter in Hollywood and later in New York City, where she obtained enough income to support herself and her daughter, who joined her there. Her mother also started dating an insurance salesman named John Logan Rogers and the couple tied the knot in 1920. Although Ginger was never officially adopted by Mr Rogers, she still took on his name and used it as the second part of her stage name, Ginger Rogers. In 1922, the family moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where Ginger attended high school and appeared in school plays.
Chance in Charleston
When her mother got a job as a theatre critic, Ginger gained an insight into the world of theatre. She practised the songs and dances that she saw in the Majestic Theatre. One of the dance techniques that she learnt was the Charleston, which came in handy one night when Eddie Foy and his children were one child down and Ginger took up the part. From then on the Charleston was her key to fame and fortune as she won the Texas State Charleston Championship in November 1925, and this enabled her to take part in a vaudeville tour for four weeks. However, Ginger and the Redheads were so popular that four weeks became 21. The tour came to an end in Chicago, as the Redheads joined another famous vaudeville act, leaving Ginger on her own, but it wasn't long before she was donning her dancing shoes and stepping out with the Skouras Brothers in St Louis.
Ginger left St Louis and headed to Chicago to join up with Paul Ash and his band. The shows were incredibly successful and it wasn't long before Paramount snapped the show up and took it to New York City, where she also took part in radio productions and landed roles in a variety of different films.
On 29 March, 1929, Ginger married fellow star of the Vaudeville circuit Edward 'Jack' Culpepper. Although the marriage was annulled in 1931, it was clear that the relationship had come to an end just months into them becoming husband and wife.
Her Broadway musical debut came on 25 December, 1929, when she appeared in Top Speed. The New York Times wrote of her performance '...an impudent young thing, Ginger Rogers carried youth and humour to the point where they are completely charming'. In 1930, she was earning $1,000 per week appearing in George and Ira Gershwin's production of Girl Crazy, in which she sang the memorable songs 'Embraceable You' and 'But Not For Me'. At the same time she also worked on films; the first to be released featuring her was A Day of a Man of Affairs, which hit box offices in 1929.
In 1933, she struck lucky, gaining parts in 42nd Street, Gold Diggers, Sitting Pretty and Flying Down to Rio, which led Ginger to find a dance partner in the form of Fred Astaire. The pair had previously worked on Girl Crazy together.
The magic of Astaire and Rogers cannot be explained; it can only be felt. They created a style, a mood, a happening. They flirted, chased, courted, slid, caressed, hopped, skipped, jumped, bent, swayed, clasped, wafted, undulated, nestled, leapt, quivered, glided, spun - in sum, made love before our eyes. We have not seen their like since.
- Garson Kanin
Astaire and Rogers worked together under RKO nine times between 1933 and 1939. The films they collaborated on included Gay Divorce (now retitled The Gay Divorcee), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1935), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938) and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). When the latter films failed to smash box office ratings in the same way the others had, it was decided that they should part company. One of Astaire's later partners would be Ginger's cousin, Rita Hayworth.
Delightful Dance Duo Divides
Ginger received far more work than Astaire ever did: she appeared in Stage Door, Vivacious Lady, Major and the Minor, Lady in the Dark, Weekend at the Waldorf, Storm Warning and Monkey Business. Playing parts in these films often led to being teamed up with someone of the opposite gender and waiting in Astaire's place to sweep Ginger off her feet were screen legends such as Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, David Niven, Burgess Meredith, William Powell, Ronald Colman, Dennis Morgan and James Stewart.
Meanwhile, Ginger met her childhood crush Lew Ayres, whom she had first seen in the film All Quiet on the Western Front, and they married in 1934. However by 1941, this relationship too had ended in divorce. When she split from Lew she put all her efforts into making the house of her dreams at Coldwater Canyon, raising Guernsey cattle.
During the 1940s, Ginger appeared in several serious films including The Primrose Path (1940) and Kitty Foyle (1940), in which she played the lead character and won an Oscar. Originally, she was not keen on playing the part of Kitty but finally accepted after a lot of persuasion.
Ginger also took part in the war effort by performing for the USO and selling war bonds at rallies around the country. Also, during this time, she appeared in Tender Comrade (1943) and I'll Be Seeing You (1944). Off-screen she married serviceman and part-time actor Jack Briggs, who she had met at a bond rally, on 16 January, 1943. This was to be her third marriage to end in divorce.
By 1945, Ginger was the highest-paid performer in all Hollywood, with an income of almost $300,000, and was listed as the eighth highest money-earner in the United States. But her career started to decline, and during the later 1940s she was to be seen in only a handful of films, including Heartbeat (1946), Magnificent Doll (1946) and the 1949 hit The Barkleys of Broadway, which was the last film that Ginger and Astaire did together.
By the 1950s it was clear to Ginger that she needed to adapt to appearing on the television screen and took parts in dramas and Noel Coward comedies, as well as putting in appearances in variety shows hosted by people like Bob Hope and Perry Como.
In 1965, she made her last film appearance in Harlow, in which she gave a portrayal of the life of Jean Harlow. However, it did not fare as well as a film of the same name released that year by Paramount, which also depicted Harlow's life.
That same year, she gave the Broadway play Hello, Dolly! a whole new lease of life, spending 18 months with the show in New York before taking the show on the road for a year. The New York Post wrote:
The standing-room-only audience stopped the show with ovation a half-dozen times and brought her back with cheers and applause for a dozen curtain calls.
Then in 1969, she made her London West End debut with Mame, which lasted for 14 months and included a royal command performance and presentation to Queen Elizabeth too.
It has been noted that not only did Ginger show talent and an artistic streak on the dance floor, but she was equally gifted when it came to sports such as golf, swimming, skeet shooting and tennis. She also liked to sculpt and paint and was once asked if she would like to put on an exhibition showcasing her talent, but she turned the offer down, feeling that she hadn't got enough artwork to display. During the early 1970s she acted as a spokeswoman and designed for JC Penney a set of lingerie. She also took a nightclub act on tour and it was successful in cities worldwide, including New York, Las Vegas, Sydney, Mexico City, Buenos Aires and San Francisco.
During the latter part of her life Ginger found herself making public appearances and accepting honorary awards. She directed the musical Babes in Arms in Tarrytown who applauded her efforts. Her autobiography Ginger: My Story was released in 1991.
On 25 April, 1995, she died of congestive heart failure at her home in Rancho Mirage, California. She was buried in Oakwood Memorial Park, Chatsworth, California, next to her mother Lela, who died in 1977.