Picture of Ginger at age 15
"I believe in living each day to the best of my ability, then put it away. A new tomorrow will take it's place." Ginger Rogers
Many people naturally, but mistakenly, believe that Ginger Rogers's career began and ended with her partnership with Fred Astaire. Of course, it was that wonderful partnership from heaven which made her a household name, but she was already an experienced Hollywood performer when they first danced together in 'Flying Down to Rio' in 1933 and without Fred she continued to have an highly successful Hollywood career as a solo performer, including winning an Oscar for Best Actress for 'Kitty Foyle' in 1940. As well as her dancing and acting prowess Ginger was a talented painter and sculptor and was also a first class golfer and tennis player. A very accomplished, talented and determined lady whom I had the great honor and benefit of being a distant relative of(my grandmother being one of her cousins) as well as having had her as a friend and mentor in my formative years as child into young adulthood until her death in 1995.
Her birth name was Virginia Katherine McMath and she was born in Independence, Missouri in 1911. The name 'Ginger' comes from the diminutive of Virginia, 'Ginja' which she was called as a little girl by her cousins, and it stuck. Her family followed her father to Texas when he found employment there but her parents divorced when Virginia was very young. Her father rarely saw her after the divorce and he died when she was 11 years old. She was brought up by her mother's parents in Kansas City while her mother, Lela, moved to Hollywood to find work as a screenwriter and, when she was six, young Virginia joined her. When she was nine years old, her mother married John Logan Rogers whose name Ginger took although the adoption was never made legal.
Her mother was intensely ambitious for her, and the theater became Ginger's passion. Her dancing skills showed early and when she was 14 she won the Texas State Charleston Championship which enabled her to tour on the Texas Interstate Theatre circuit for 4 weeks. It proved to be the break she needed and she continued touring for over 6 months. She was young and exuberant, as well as talented, and she got noticed. Appearances in vaudeville soon followed, gaining her more valuable experience and exposure, and by December, 1929 she was featured in her first Broadway musical, ' Top Speed'. Star status followed rapidly and Ginger's first starring role on Broadway was in George and Ira Gershwin's 'Girl Crazy', where she first met and briefly dated Fred Astaire. Her two hit songs from that show, Embraceable You and But Not For Me, have since become musical standards.
Paramount Studios saw her movie potential and hired her while she was still working in 'Top Speed'. During the early thirties she played the role assigned to her - a blonde with a cynical expression and a fast line in smart dialogue: so she is spikey and sassy and steals many scenes in '42nd Street' in 1933 as the wise-mouth chorus girl Anytime Annie. One of her early films,in 1933, 'The Young Man of Manhattan', featured Ginger as a 16-year-old flapper. Her line "Cigarette me, big boy," became a classic phrase in the American vocabulary. Her apprenticeship also included 'The Sap from Syracuse', 'Follow the Leader', all in 1930, 'Honor Among Lovers' in 1931, 'The Tenderfoot', 'Hat Check Girl', 'You said a Mouthful' in 1932, 'Gold Diggers of 1933', in which she popularised 'We're in the Money' and 'Sitting Pretty' in 1933. In the same, busy year, she was funny and sexy as an uninhibited radio star who marries for a promotional stunt in 'Professional Sweetheart'. After a total of 19 films, Ginger left Paramount for RKO studios. In her first film with them, 'Flying Down to Rio' in 1933, she was given a secondary role, dancing The Carioca head-to-head with none other than her old friend, hollywood newcomer and creative genius genius Fred Astaire. Ginger's life was about to change, and so was the Hollywood musical.
Ginger and Fred - Their names go together and always will. Although Fred Astaire had numerous other partners, starting with his sister, Adele, and including such brilliant(and technically superior) dancers as Rita Hayworth and Cyd Charisse, only with Ginger were the sublime heights reached so seemingly effortlessly, time after time. Ginger, as we have seen, had already made 19 films before she was partnered with Astaire, and she was to have a successful career after him, but no matter what, fate has decreed that she and Fred Astaire will go down in posterity with their names forever linked together. Ginger, as well as being a talented, fast and sure dancer, was one clever lady and she made sure she complemented his artistry, rather than competing with it. She naturally had a rather brash, edgy personality but none of that showed when she danced with Fred. She was a robust, athletic girl and she combined dancing skills, natural beauty and exceptional abilities as a dramatic actress and comedienne, which contrasted perfectly with the slim Astaire's remote style so that he seemed warmed by her, just as she gained coolness from him. As a result, they became one of the clearest expressions of 1930's style in the way they blended two contrary archetypes: the man about town and the girl next door. All women thought they could dance like Ginger as long as Fred was there to lead them. No man thought he could dance like Fred but each man knew that Ginger wouldn't mind.
The new team took the world by storm, subsequently making eight more pictures together at RKO: Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Top Hat, their biggest success, breaking box office records at Radio City Music Hall and earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, Follow the Fleet, Swing Time, Shall We Dance, Carefree and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. Fred has acknowledged Ginger's important contribution to the innovative routines which were introduced during this golden period. Because of the contractual film committments which she had to fit in between the movies she did with Astaire, she spent a lot of time rehearsing with Hermes Pan, Fred's assistant choreographer and ideas man. He was a brilliant dancer and bore an uncanny resemblance to Fred. While making the Astaire/Rogers musicals, Ginger was anxious to prove herself as an independent actress and she kept busy making other movies for RKO. They tended to be lightweight comedies and included such films as "Stage Door" in 1937 with Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Ann Miller and Katharine Hepburn, and "Vivacious Lady" the following year. She worked extremely hard and the effort sometimes showed a little too much for easy viewing, especially when whe was doing one of her child impersonations. She was in 'Bachelor Mother', Fifth Avenue Girl' in 1939, 'Primrose Path', and 'Lucky Partners', in 1940, and in the same year she won The Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in 'Kitty Foyle', in which she portrays a class-confused working girl in love with a Philadelphia socialite. For a few years she was RKO's hottest property and the highest paid actress in Hollywood with 'Tom, Dick and Harry' in 1941, 'Roxie Hart', 'The Major and the Minor', 'Once Upon a Honeymoon' in 1942, 'Tender Comrade' in 1943, 'Lady in the Dark' and 'I'll Be Seeing You' in 1944.
However, after the war her career began to decline. She made 'Weekend at the Waldorf' in 1945, 'Magnificent Doll' in 1946, and 'It Had to Be You' the following year. Then came a two year gap before a not completely satisfactory reunion with Fred in 'The Barkleys of Broadway' in 1949. By then, however, she was mixing comedies and souped-up dramas, for which she was not really suited. Only 'Monkey Business' in 1952 is memorable among her late films. Otherwise, she was seldom at ease: 'Perfect Strangers', 'Storm Warning' in 1950, 'Dreamboat' in 1952, 'Forever Female' in 1953, 'The Beautiful Stranger' and 'Black Widow' in 1954. After that her output slowed markedly. She made two oddities:'Quick, Lets Get Married' and 'Harlow' both in 1965. In the same year she took to the stage in successful runs of "Hello Dolly" and "Mame."
She spent her later years doing guest spots on TV shows as well as being a fashion consultant for JC Penny. After that, she retired and wrote a well-received autobiography in 1991 entitled, "Ginger, My Story". Ginger was married five times, to Edward Culpepper, Lew Ayres, Jack Briggs, Jacques Bergerac, and finally William Marshall. She divorced Marshall in 1962 and never remarried. Ginger never had any children, instead lavishing attention on her cousins' children and grandchildren. She died in 1995 in California, at the age of 83, buried only a matter of feet away from Fred.
It is very easy to underestimate Ginger Rogers, and many people did, to their cost. She was certainly not the vapid, easily intimidated partner of a demanding, tyranical dancing genius. Rather, she was a consummate professional performer, and she and Fred Astaire formed a genuine partnership with input from both. She was clever enough to see that she had to be an actress, not just a dancer, and it was that which lifted her above the other brilliant dancers who partnered Fred. It is not difficult to put into words what the magic was that they produced. They truly loved their work, had respect for each other and had a genuinely good time dancing together. Everyone sees it, everyone feels it and we should be grateful for it. Despite her other accomplishments, the images of Ginger and Fred pirouetting togther are Ginger's greatest legacy, a legacy of which she was very proud, and I believe that she would want it that way - forever floating, gliding, spinning in our memories.
You might also enjoy these articles:
Two Articles On the Legacy of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire
The "Ginger Rogers Rose," named after Ginger and a shade of pink, her favorite color.