She may be one half of the best-loved dancing duo of all time, but Ginger Rogers was a multi-talented woman who could more than stand on her own two fabulous feet. Ginger Rogers is best remembered not only in the capable arms of Fred Astaire, gliding around the dance floor cheek to cheek, but also as the woman who could do everything Fred did — backwards and in heels, of course. Ginger was always keen to prove she was so much more than half a double act.
Ginger Rogers was born Virginia Katherine McMath in 1911. The nickname Ginger came about when her younger cousin Helen couldn’t pronounce Virginia. She was eager to show she wasn’t shy of hard work, and at 14, she won the Texas State Charleston Championship — an opportunity that sent her rocketing towards more stage performances and a part on Broadway.
Flying Down to Rio
By the time she was 22, Ginger was first partnered with Fred Astaire for the 1933 picture Flying Down to Rio. She was already considered a great actress with 20 films (compared to Fred, who had only one) under her belt. While she had never performed with a dance partner before, she worked tirelessly so that her and Fred’s performance of the Carioca dance in that film — their foreheads pressed together, eyes locked as their feet made magic — would have audiences and critics in raptures.
After that first pairing, the duo collaborated on ten more films, including Roberta, Shall We Dance, Follow the Fleet, and Top Hat, all of which saw Ginger match Fred’s every step, keeping up with his notorious perfectionism and grueling rehearsals. He may have worn the top hat and tails, but she could just as readily wear the trousers.
Despite their dreamy on-screen partnership, Fred always longed to be partnered with his sister Adele. And Ginger, although grateful for the good these films were doing her career, wanted to be accepted as an actress. So for every film with Fred, she’d go off and do a few more pictures on her own, insisting that she and Astaire weren’t “Siamese twins.”
Throughout the ’40s and ’50s, Ginger made a name for herself in major films, such as Vivacious Lady, Lady in the Dark, and Weekend at the Waldorf. In 1941, she was honored with a Best Actress Academy Award for her comic performance in Kitty Foyle.
By 1945, she was the highest-paid female performer in Hollywood. With her money, she invested in a 1,000-acre ranch on Oregon’s Rogue River where she built a modern dairy complex and bred Guernsey milk stock, some of which went to a nearby army camp.
But businesswoman and farmer weren’t the only additional talents Ginger could add to her glittering resumé. She was an accomplished painter and sculptor too, and was once offered a one-woman exhibition in New York. She was also an avid athlete, regularly enjoying golf, swimming, skeet shooting, and tennis, for which she won several awards.
Even later in life once her performing career had started to wane, Ginger kept busy. She served as a judge in the 1973 Miss Universe Pageant, made countless TV talk show appearances, and was given the chance to direct a hit musical comedy, Babes In Arms, in 1985 at the age of 74.
She once said “I detest idling” and to the end, she proved she truly meant it. We may remember her most clearly for her swan-like elegance, floating effortlessly around a ballroom clinging to Fred, but to forget her tireless hard work and exhausting determination that went on under the surface is to forget what really made Ginger such a star.
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