Ginger Rogers (July 16, 1911 – April 25, 1995) was an Academy Award-winning American film and stage actress, dancer and singer. In a film career spanning 50 years, she made a total of 73 films, and is now principally celebrated for her role as Fred Astaire's romantic interest and dancing partner in a series of ten Hollywood musical films that revolutionized the genre.
Rogers' parents divorced and fought for custody, with her father even kidnapping her twice. After they divorced, Rogers stayed with her grandparents, Walter and Saphrona Owens, while her mother wrote scripts for two years in Hollywood. Several of Rogers' cousins had a hard time pronouncing her first name, shortening it to "Ginya".
When Rogers was nine years old, her mother married John Logan Rogers. Ginger took the name of Rogers, although she was never legally adopted. They lived in Fort Worth, Texas. Her mother became a theater critic for a local newspaper, the Fort Worth Record.
As a teenager, Rogers thought of teaching school, but with her mother's interest in Hollywood and the theater, her young exposure to the theater increased. Waiting for her mother in the wings of the Majestic Theatre, she began to sing and dance along to the performers on stage.
At 17, Rogers married Jack Culpepper, another dancer on the circuit. They formed a shortlived vaudeville double act known as "Ginger and Pepper". The marriage was over within months, and she went back to touring with her mother. When the tour got to New York City, she stayed, getting radio singing jobs and then her Broadway theater debut in a musical called Top Speed, which opened on Christmas Day, 1929.
Within two weeks of opening in Top Speed, Rogers was chosen to star on Broadway in Girl Crazy by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin. Fred Astaire was hired to help the dancers with their choreography. Rogers dated him for a while. Her appearance in Girl Crazy made her an overnight star at the age of 19. In 1930, she was signed by Paramount Pictures to a seven-year contract.
Rogers would soon get herself out of the Paramount contract -- under which she had made films at Astoria Studios in Astoria, Queens -- and move with her mother to Hollywood. When she got to California, she signed a three-picture deal with Pathé, which resulted in three forgettable pictures. She landed singing and dancing bit parts for most of 1932 and was named one of fifteen "WAMPAS Baby Stars". She then made her screen breakthrough in the Warner Brothers film 42nd Street (1933). She went on to make a series of films with RKO Radio Pictures and, in the second of those, Flying Down to Rio (1933), she worked with Dolores del Rio and again with Fred Astaire.
Rogers was most famous for her partnership with Fred Astaire. Together, from 1933 to 1939, they made nine musical films at RKO and in so doing, revolutionized the Hollywood musical, introducing dance routines of unprecedented elegance and virtuosity, set to songs specially composed for them by the greatest popular song composers of the day. To this day, "Fred and Ginger" remains an almost automatic reference for any successful dance partnership.
Croce, Hyam and Mueller all consider Rogers to have been Astaire's finest dance partner, principally due to her ability to combine dancing skills, natural beauty and exceptional abilities as a dramatic actress and comedienne, thus truly complementing Astaire: a peerless dancer who sometimes struggled as an actor and was not considered classically handsome. The resulting song and dance partnership enjoyed a unique credibility in the eyes of audiences, as bluntly expressed by Katharine Hepburn: "She gives him sex, he gives her class." Most of the films in which the two appeared had several very difficult numbers to be rehearsed dozens of times. Of the 33 partnered dances she performed with Astaire, Croce and Mueller have highlighted the infectious spontaneity of her performances in the comic numbers "I'll Be Hard to Handle" from Roberta (1935), "I'm Putting all My Eggs in One Basket" from Follow the Fleet (1936) and "Pick Yourself Up" from Swing Time (1936). They also point to the use Astaire made of her remarkably flexible back in classic romantic dances such as "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" from Roberta (1935), "Cheek to Cheek" from Top Hat (1935) and "Let's Face the Music and Dance" from Follow the Fleet (1936). For special praise, they have singled out her performance in the "Waltz in Swing Time" from Swing Time (1936), which is generally considered to be the most virtuosic partnered routine ever committed to film by Astaire. She generally avoided solo dance performances: Astaire always included at least one virtuoso solo routine in each film, while Rogers only performed one: "Let Yourself Go" from Follow the Fleet (1936).
Although the dance routines were choreographed by Astaire and his collaborator Hermes Pan, both have acknowledged Rogers' input and have also testified to her consummate professionalism, even during periods of intense strain, as she tried to juggle her many other contractual film commitments with the punishing rehearsal schedules of Astaire, who made at most two films in any one year. In 1986, shortly before his death, Astaire remarked: "All the girls I ever danced with thought they couldn't do it, but of course they could. So they always cried. All except Ginger. No no, Ginger never cried". John Mueller sums up Rogers' abilities as follows: "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". According to Astaire, "Ginger had never danced with a partner before. 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."
Rogers also introduced some celebrated numbers from the Great American Songbook, songs such as Harry Warren and Al Dubin's "The Gold Diggers' Song (We're in the Money)" from Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), "Music Makes Me" from Flying Down to Rio (1933), "The Continental" from The Gay Divorcee (1934), Irving Berlin's "Let Yourself Go" from Follow the Fleet (1936) and the Gershwins' "Embraceable You" from Girl Crazy and "They All Laughed (at Christopher Columbus)" from Shall We Dance (1937). Furthermore, in song duets with Astaire, she co-introduced Berlin's "I'm Putting all My Eggs in One Basket" from Follow the Fleet (1936), Jerome Kern's "Pick Yourself Up" and "A Fine Romance" from Swing Time (1936) and the Gershwins' "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" from Shall We Dance (1937).
In later life, Rogers remained on good terms with Astaire: she presented him with a special Academy Award in 1950, and they were co-presenters of individual Academy Awards in 1967. In 1969 she had the lead role in a production of Mame from the book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in the West End of London, arriving for the role on the Liner QE2 from New York, her docking heralded the maximum pomp and ceremony at Southampton. The production ran for 14 months and featured a performance by Royal command for Queen Elizabeth the Second.The Kennedy Center honored Ginger Rogers in December 1992, an event which when shown on television, was somewhat marred when Astaire's widow, Robyn Smith (who permitted clips of Astaire dancing with Rogers to be shown for free at the function, itself), was unable to come to terms with CBS for broadcast rights to the clips.
Rogers, who was an only child, lived for much of her life with her mother, Lela Rogers (1891–1977), who was a newspaper reporter, scriptwriter, and movie producer. Lela was also one of the first women to enlist in the Marine Corps, and was a founder of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.
Rogers' mother "named names" to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and both mother and daughter were staunchly anti-Communist. They had an extremely close mother-daughter relationship — Rogers's mother even denied Rogers's father visitation rights after their divorce.
Rogers' first marriage was to her dancing partner Jack Pepper (real name Edward Jackson Culpepper) on March 29, 1929. They divorced in 1931, having separated soon after the wedding. In 1934, she married her second husband, actor Lew Ayres (1908 – 1996). They separated quickly and were divorced in 1941. In 1943, she married her third husband, Jack Briggs, a Marine. They divorced in 1949.
In 1953, Rogers married her fourth husband, lawyer Jacques Bergerac. 16 years her junior, he became an actor and then a cosmetics company executive. They divorced in 1957 and he soon remarried actress Dorothy Malone. Her fifth husband was director and producer William Marshall. They married in 1961 and divorced in 1971.
Rogers was good friends with Lucille Ball (a distant cousin on her mother's side) for many years until Ball's death in 1989, at the age of 77. Ball did not seem to share Rogers' political views, but evidently still valued her friendship, as did Bette Davis, a Democrat who definitely did not share her views and called her a "moralist", but still professed to enjoy her company. Ginger Rogers appeared with Lucille Ball in an episode of "Here's Lucy" on November 22, 1971, where, with Lucie Arnaz, she gave a demonstration of The Charleston, in the famous "high heels".
Rogers was a cousin of actress/writer/socialite Phyllis Fraser (whose acting career was brief).
It has been said in books and other publications that Rogers was Rita Hayworth's cousin, but they were not blood relatives. Hayworth's maternal uncle, Vinton Hayworth, was married to Rogers' maternal aunt, Jean Owens.
Rogers would spend the winters in Rancho Mirage, California, and the summers in Medford, Oregon. She died on April 25, 1995, of congestive heart failure, at the age of 83, in Rancho Mirage, and was cremated. Her ashes are interred in the Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California.
(*): performances with Fred Astaire