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Ginger Rogers danced her way into Hollywood history and America’s heart. Despite making 73 movies in her 59-year career, the onetime vaudeville hoofer remains best-known as the cinematic sweetheart of Fred Astaire in 10 comedies that showcased his cool elegance and her spunky charm. (As Katharine Hepburn put it, “He gives her class and she gives him sex.”) Astaire was widely considered the superior dancer of the two, but the petite, athletic Rogers was a more experienced actor (their first film together was his second and her twentieth). To quote the now-famous caption from a 1982 Frank and Ernest cartoon, “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did . . . backwards and in high heels.”She was born Virginia Katherine McMath on July 16, 1911, in Independence, Missouri. At age eight she moved with her mother and stepfather (whose name she adopted) to Dallas and later Fort Worth.
When she was fourteen, Rogers, a longtime dance student, won the Texas State Charleston Championship. The victory launched her on a three-year tour as a vaudeville performer, always accompanied by her mother (who long oversaw her career). In 1930, at age nineteen, she was earning $1,000 a week as the leading lady in the Broadway musical Girl Crazy.
After moving to Hollywood a year later, she began cranking out full-length feature films for RKO. In 1933 she was cast in Flying Down to Rio, her first pairing with Fred Astaire. Their big dance number, “The Carioca,” sparked a nationwide craze and led to nine more movies, including The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, and Rogers’ favorite, Swing Time. Rumors flew about real-life hostilities between the on-screen couple, but Rogers dismissed them in her autobiography, noting simply, “We had fun, and it shows.”
She had five husbands, including actors Lew Ayres and Jacques Bergerac, but never had children.
Although most of her work was comic roles in B-movies—seven in 1934 alone—Rogers won the best-actress Oscar for her portrayal of a working girl in Kitty Foyle (1940), beating out Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca. She played opposite Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and Ronald Reagan, among others, and her behind-the-scenes collaborators included directors Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks and composers Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin.After her last movie, Harlow, in 1965, Rogers toured in productions of Mame and other musical comedies. She died on April 25, 1995, in Rancho Mirage, California.