Virginia Katherine McMath, who became known as Ginger Rogers, was born in Independence, Missouri on July 16, 1911. She was an American singer, actress, and well-known dancer. Her mother Lela Emogene was a scriptwriter, newspaper reporter, and film producer. When Ginger was born, Lela left her husband William and went away to have her daughter as in an earlier pregnancy William had allowed the doctor to use forceps to deliver the baby who subsequently died and so Lela did not want her child to be born in a hospital.
Ginger’s childhood was a bit rough. Her parents divorced shortly after she was born, and her father kidnapped her several times, with Lela finally taking him to court. She was very close with her mother since her father eventually stopped seeing her and she didn’t have any living siblings although she did have cousins, which is where the name Ginger came from, as they apparently had trouble saying Virginia.
In 1915 her mother left Ginger with her grandparents for a while to search for a scriptwriting job across the country in Hollywood, California. She eventually succeeded in getting an essay she had written turned into a film and she subsequently continued to write scripts for Fox.
When Ginger was nine years old, her mother married John Logan Rogers, and although Ginger was never officially adopted by him, she took his surname. They all lived together in Fort Worth where Ginger attended the Central High School, but she never graduated.
At fourteen years old, Ginger won a Charleston dance contest which helped launch a successful Vaudeville career. She also became known on Broadway for her role in ‘Crazy Girl’. Her success was not just in theatre, however. Her first film roles consisted of a trio of short films made in 1929 and in the following year she landed herself a seven-year deal with Paramount Pictures.
Throughout her career Ginger appeared in a total of 73 films but the roles which made her famous are generally thought of as those where she appeared alongside her dance partner, Fred Astaire, including their first film together Flying Down to Rio which was released in 1933. They also co-starred in Top Hat in 1935 and Shall We Dance in 1937. In 1934’s The Gay Divorcee she also sang a song called ‘The Continental’, which won the first Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Ginger Rogers is also associated with the phrase “backwards and in high heels.” It means that although Fred Astaire was a brilliant dancer, Ginger was even more impressive as she had to do everything whilst going backward, not being able to see where she was going, and all the time looking fantastic in flowing gowns and high heeled shoes. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made ten films together, and despite some misconceptions, they were never romantically involved. Fred Astaire said of her that, “Ginger was brilliantly effective. She made everything work fine for her. Actually, she made things very fine for both of us and she deserves most of the credit for our success.”
They also made a lot of films independent from each other, with Rogers doing very well in several non-musical dramas such as Stage Door in 1937. In fact, she was so successful that by 1942 she had become one of Hollywood’s highest-paid stars earning over $350,000 per year. She didn’t fritter her money away either, investing it in blue-chip stocks and land.
Fred and Ginger’s film Top Hat was the first time Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had a film written exclusively for them, and it was one of the most financially successful films of 1935, with worldwide revenues of $3.2 million as well as being the most profitable RKO film of the 1930s. Together they were voted number four on the Top Ten Money Making Stars Poll put out by Quigley Publishing Company.
Ginger Rogers earned several awards during her career including an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Kitty Foyle in 1940, a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Comedy or Musical for her work in Monkey Business in 1952, and a Berlin International Film Festival Silver Medal for her outstanding achievements as a dancer and actress. She also has a star at the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to the motion picture industry.
Not everything in her life was a success, though, as Ginger was married five times and never had any children, with all of her marriages ending in divorce and none of them lasting more than eight years. She married her first husband when she was seventeen years old, her dancing partner Edward Culpepper, known as Jack Pepper. They separated soon after the wedding and officially divorced in 1931. Her second husband was actor Lew Ayres whom she married in 1934 but divorced seven years later. In 1943 she married Jack Briggs who was in the United States Marine Corps, but their marriage ended in 1949. Four years later she married a French actor whom she met on a trip to Paris, Jacques Bergerac, who was sixteen years younger than her. Jacques left his job as a lawyer in France to become an actor with her in Hollywood, but they divorced in 1957. Her final marriage was to producer and director William Marshall. They were married in 1961 but divorced in 1971.
From the 1950s onwards film roles started to dry up although she did land the occasional hit, and so she also started to appear on television making guest appearances on The Love Boat in 1979, Glitter in 1984 and Hotel in 1987 which was also the last time she appeared on screen as an actress.
She wasn’t done with the entertainment business though as in 1985 at the age of 74 she fulfilled a long-standing dream to direct when she directed a stage musical in New York called Babes in Arms.
She continued to make public appearances but in 1989 she took a fall down a flight of stairs and subsequently, struggled to get around. After suffering a stroke she became partially paralysed and was dependent upon a wheelchair. As a Christian Scientist she refused medical intervention and so she eventually retired to Rancho Mirage, the ranch she had bought in 1939 and where she frequently spent the Winter. Ginger Rogers died at Rancho Mirage on 25 April 1995 at the age of 83. She was cremated and her ashes were interred at the Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in California with the remains of her mother.