Virginia Katherine McMath was born on July 16, 1911 in Independence Missouri. She would grow into Ginger Rogers, one of Hollywood’s highest paid actresses within a few short decades. Best known for her partnering with Fred Astaire, she did more than just follow Fred's lead.
An only child, Virginia was born to William Eddins McMath and Lela Emogene Owens. Her early life was at times tremulous as her parents fought over custody of her after they separated shortly after her birth. Being denied visitation rights, her father ran off with her, twice. After their divorce, she lived with her grandparents who she would remain close with over the course of her lifetime. During this period, her mother moved to Hollywood where she wrote scripts for two years.
When Lela later remarried, to John Logan Rogers, little Virginia would take Rogers as her surname even though the man never officially adopted her. Having a hard pronouncing “Virginia,” it is alleged one of her young cousins simplified it “Ginga” and the name stuck, thus giving the world “Ginger Rogers.”
Initially interested in becoming a schoolteacher, Rogers would later drop out of school to become the superstar of stage and screen the world came to know. After her mother became a local theater critic, Ginger would spend time in the wings of the Majestic Theater where she would imitate the performers on stage. Her career began around the age of 15 after she entered and won a Charleston dance contest.
By the age of 17 she married her first of five husbands. His name was Jack Culpepper. Together they formed the act of “Ginger and Pepper.” When the marriage broke up after only a few months, Rogers went back to touring with her mother. This led to an array of radio and singing jobs in New York City which launched her Broadway career in the musical “Top Speed” in 1929. This snowballed into the George and Ira Gershwin musical “Girl Crazy.” The performance is credited with catapulting both hers and Ethel Merman’s mainstream careers. Broadway success led to a contract with Paramount Pictures. She wasn’t quite 20 years old yet.
Though best known for her work with Fred Astaire, the pair made a total of 10 films together, Ginger Rogers made more than 70 movies over her 40 year career. John Mueller once said, "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"
Technique wise, Ginger Rogers wasn’t the most skilled dancer out there. Her taps were often scratchy or missed, however, she was an excellent performer. Astaire remarked once “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."
As she aged, it became harder to get strong acting roles and her film career started to lose the luster it once had. That’s not to say she retired quietly. She was a part owner in a production company in Jamaica, was a lifelong advocate of the Republican Party, a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, and fulfilled her wish of directing at the age of 74. Her last public appearance was in 1995 after receiving the Women’s International Center Living Legacy Award. She helped to fundraise for the restoration of the Craterian Theater, where she had performed on her first tour in the mid 1920’s. The restoration was completed and renamed posthumously the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater in 1997.
On April 25, 1995, Ginger Rogers died of congestive heart failure in her Rancho Mirage home. Her assistant has been known to say, “She passed away just the way she’d wanted, at home, in her bed.” She was cremated and interred with her mother in the Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California.
"She gave him sex and he gave her class." Katherine Hepburn on Astaire and Rogers.
"You know, it isn't that gentlemen really prefer blondes. It's just that we look dumber." --as Sherry Martin in FOLLOW THE FLEET
"It takes a lot of brains to be dumb." --as Sherry Martin in FOLLOW THE FLEET
"If we get married now, I can start divorce proceedings in the morning." -- as Linda Keene in SHALL WE DANCE
"I wanna sin and suffer, and now I'm only sufferin'." --as "Purity Girl" Glory Eden in PROFESSIONAL SWEETHEART (1933).
"Cigarette me, big boy." --as Puff Randolph in YOUNG MAN OF MANHATTAN
"I wish I'd been born lucky instead of beautiful and hungry." --as Jean Maitland in STAGE DOOR
"When I get back to my room, you're the only thing I want to find missing." --as Jean Maitland in STAGE DOOR
"We started off on the wrong foot. Let's stay that way." --as Jean Maitland in STAGE DOOR
"Goodbye. Thanks for calling. If you ever need a good pall-bearer, remember I'm at your service." --as Jean Maitland in STAGE DOOR
"I'm afraid I can't go out with you tonight. I sort of feel like I'm going to have a headache." --as Polly Parrish in BACHELOR MOTHER
For Ginger Rogers' filmography click here!
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