Rogers was born Virginia Katherine McMath in Independence, Missouri, the only child of William Eddins McMath, an electrical engineer, and his wife, Lela Emogene (née Owens; 1891–1977). Ginger's parents separated soon after her birth, and she and her mother went to live with her grandparents, Walter and Saphrona (née Ball) Owens, in nearby Kansas City. Rogers' parents fought over her custody. After her mother denied him visitation, her father reportedly absconded with his daughter twice. After her parents divorced, Rogers stayed with her grandparents while her mother wrote scripts for two years in Hollywood. Rogers was to remain close to her grandfather (much later, when she was a star in 1939, she bought him a home at 5115 Greenbush Avenue in Sherman Oaks, Californiaso that he could be close to her while she was filming at the studios).
One of Rogers' young cousins, Helen, had a hard time pronouncing "Virginia", shortening it to "Ginga"; the nickname stuck. When "Ginga" was nine years old, her mother remarried, to John Logan Rogers. Ginger took the surname 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. She attended but did not graduate from Fort Worth's Central High School (later renamed Green B. Trimble Technical High School). As a teenager, Rogers thought of becoming a schoolteacher, but with her mother's interest in Hollywood and the theater, her early exposure to the theater increased. Waiting for her mother in the wings of the Majestic Theatre, she began to sing and dance along with the performers on stage.
Vaudeville and Broadway
Rogers' entertainment career was born one night when the traveling vaudeville act of Eddie Foy came to Fort Worth and needed a quick stand-in. She then entered and won a Charleston dance contest which allowed her to tour for six months, at one point in 1926 performing at an 18-month-old theater called The Craterian in Medford, Oregon. This theater honored her many years later by changing its name to the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater.
At 17, Rogers married Jack Culpepper, a singer/dancer/comedian/recording artist of the day who worked under the name Jack Pepper (according to Ginger's autobiography, she knew Culpepper when she was a child, as her cousin's boyfriend). They formed a short-lived 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 onChristmas 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, the musical play widely considered to have made stars of both her and Ethel Merman. Fred Astaire was hired to help the dancers with their choreography. 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' first movie roles were in a trio of short films made in 1929—Night in the Dormitory, A Day of a Man of Affairs, and Campus Sweethearts.
Rogers would soon get herself out of the Paramount contract—under which she had made five feature 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 Exchange. She made feature films for Warner Bros., Monogram, and Fox in 1932 and was named one of fifteen "WAMPAS Baby Stars". She then made a significant breakthrough as "Anytime Annie" in the Warner Brothers film 42nd Street (1933). She went on to make a series of films with Fox, Warner Bros. (Gold Diggers of 1933), Universal, Paramount, and RKO Radio Pictures and, in her second RKO picture, Flying Down to Rio (1933), she worked for the first time with Fred Astaire.
1933–1939: Astaire and Rogers
Rogers was most famous for her partnership with Fred Astaire. Together, from 1933 to 1939, they made nine musical films at RKO: Flying Down to Rio (1933), The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937),Carefree (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) (The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) was produced later at MGM). They 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.
Arlene Croce, Hannah Hyam and John Mueller all consider Rogers to have been Astaire's finest dance partner, principally because of 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. 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 "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 performed only 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's 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 summed up Rogers's 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, when they were first teamed together in Flying Down to Rio, "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." Astaire also had this to say to Raymond Rohauer, curator at the New York Gallery of Modern Art: "Ginger was brilliantly effective. She made everything work for her. Actually she made things very fine for both of us and she deserves most of the credit for our success."
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), 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 and Dorothy Fields's "Pick Yourself Up" and "A Fine Romance" from Swing Time (1936) and the Gershwins' "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" fromShall We Dance (1937).
After 15 months apart and with RKO facing bankruptcy, the studio hired Fred and Ginger for another movie called Carefree, but it lost money. Next came The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, but the serious plot and tragic ending resulted in the worst box office receipts of any of their films. This was driven not by diminished popularity, but by the hard 1930s economic reality. The production costs of musicals, always significantly more costly than regular features, continued to increase at a much faster rate than admissions. Everyone agreed it was time to stop.
Both before and immediately after her dancing and acting partnership with Fred Astaire ended, Rogers starred in a number of successful dramas and comedies. Stage Door (1937) demonstrated her dramatic capacity, as the loquacious yet vulnerable girl next door, a tough minded, theatrical hopeful, opposite Katharine Hepburn. In Roxie Hart (1942), based on the same play which served as the template for the later musical Chicago, Ginger played a wise-cracking wife on trial for a murder her husband committed. In the neo-realist Primrose Path (1940), directed by Gregory La Cava, she played a prostitute's daughter trying to avoid the fate of her mother. Further highlights of this period included Tom, Dick, and Harry, a 1941 comedy in which she dreams of marrying three different men; I'll Be Seeing You(1944), with Joseph Cotten; La Cava's Fifth Avenue Girl (1939), where she played an out-of-work girl sucked into the lives of a wealthy family; and especially the sharp and highly successful comedies: Bachelor Mother (1939), with David Niven, in which she played Polly Parrish, a shop girl who is falsely thought to have abandoned her baby; and Billy Wilder's first Hollywood feature film: The Major and the Minor (1942), in which she played a woman who masquerades as a 12-year-old to get a cheap train ticket and finds herself obliged to continue the ruse for an extended period. This film featured a performance by Rogers's own real mother, Lela, playing her film mother.
In 1941, Rogers won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in 1940s Kitty Foyle. She enjoyed considerable success during the early 1940s, and was RKO's hottest property during this period. Becoming a free agent, she made hugely successful films with other studios in the mid-'40s, including Tender Comrade (1943), Lady in the Dark (1944), and Week-End at the Waldorf (1945), and became the highest-paid performer in Hollywood. However, by the end of the decade, her film career had peaked. Arthur Freed reunited her with Fred Astaire in The Barkleys of Broadway in 1949.
Rogers's film career entered a period of gradual decline in the 1950s, as parts for older actresses became more difficult to obtain, but she still scored with some solid movies. She starred in Storm Warning (1950) with Ronald Reagan and Doris Day, the noir, anti Ku Klux Klan film by Warner Brothers, and in Monkey Business (1952) with Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe, directed by Howard Hawks. In the same year, she also starred in We're Not Married!, also featuring Marilyn Monroe, and in Dreamboat. She played the female lead in Tight Spot (1955), a mystery thriller, with Edward G. Robinson. After a series of unremarkable films she scored with a great popular success, playing Dolly Levi in the long-running Hello, Dolly! on Broadway in 1965.
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, during which they elicited a standing ovation when they came on stage in an impromptu dance. In 1969, she had the lead role in another long-running popular 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 Queen Elizabeth 2from New York. Her docking there occasioned the maximum of pomp and ceremony at Southampton. She became the highest paid performer in the history of the West End up to that time. The production ran for 14 months and featured a Royal Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth II. The Kennedy Center honored Ginger Rogers in December 1992. This event, which was 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 Television for broadcast rights to the clips (all previous rights holders having donated broadcast rights gratis).
From the 1950s onwards, Rogers would make occasional appearances on television. In the later years of her career, she made guest appearances in three different series by Aaron Spelling: The Love Boat (1979), Glitter (1984), and Hotel (1987), which would be her final screen appearance as an actress.
Rogers was an only child, and maintained a close relationship with her mother throughout her life. Lela Rogers (1891–1977) was a newspaper reporter, scriptwriter, and movie producer. She was also one of the first women to enlist in the Marine Corps, was a founder of the successful "Hollywood Playhouse" for aspiring actors and actresses on the RKO set, and a founder of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.
Mother and daughter had an extremely close professional relationship as well. Lela Rogers was credited with many pivotal contributions to her daughter's early successes in New York and in Hollywood, and gave her much assistance in contract negotiations with RKO.
In her classic 1930s musicals with Astaire, Ginger Rogers, co-billed with him, was paid less than Fred, the creative force behind the dances, who also received 10% of the profits. But she was also paid less than many of the supporting "farceurs" billed beneath her, in spite of her much more central role in the films' great financial success. This was personally grating to her, and had effects upon her relationships at RKO, especially with director Mark Sandrich, whose purported disrespect of Rogers prompted a sharp letter of reprimand from producer Pandro Berman, which she deemed important enough to publish in her autobiography. Rogers fought hard for her contract and salary rights and for better films and scripts.
Rogers' first marriage was at age 17 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 actor Lew Ayres (1908–1996). They divorced seven years later. Rogers sued Sylvia of Hollywood for $100K for defamation. Sylvia, Hollywood's fitness guru and radio personality, had claimed that Rogers was on Sylvia's radio show when, in fact, she was not. In 1943, Rogers married her third husband, Jack Briggs, a Marine. Upon his return from World War II, Briggs showed no interest in continuing his incipient Hollywood career. They divorced in 1949. In 1953 she married Jacques Bergerac, a French actor 16 years her junior, whom she met on a trip to Paris. A lawyer in France, he came to Hollywood with her and became an actor. They divorced in 1957. Her fifth and final husband was director and producer William Marshall. They married in 1961, and divorced in 1971, after his bouts with alcohol, and the financial collapse of their joint film production company in Jamaica.
Rogers was lifelong friends with actresses Lucille Ball and Bette Davis. She appeared with Ball in an episode of Here's Lucy on November 22, 1971, in which Rogers danced theCharleston for the first time in many years. Rogers starred in one of the earliest films co-directed and co-scripted by a woman, Wanda Tuchock's Finishing School (1934). Rogers maintained a close friendship with her cousin, writer/socialite Phyllis Fraser, but was not Rita Hayworth's natural cousin, as has been reported. Hayworth's maternal uncle, Vinton Hayworth, was married to Rogers's maternal aunt, Jean Owens.
In 1985, Rogers fulfilled a long-standing wish to direct, when she directed the musical Babes in Arms off-Broadway in Tarrytown, New York, when she was 74 years old.
She was raised a Christian Scientist, and remained a lifelong adherent. She devoted a great deal of time in her autobiography to the importance of her faith throughout her career.
Rogers was a lifelong Republican. In 1944, she attended the massive rally organized by David O. Selznick in the Los Angeles Coliseum in support of the Dewey-Bricker ticket as well as Governor Earl Warren of California, who would become Dewey's running mate in 1948 and later the Chief Justice of the United States. The gathering drew 93,000, with Cecil B. DeMille as the master of ceremonies and short speeches by Hedda Hopper and Walt Disney. Among those in attendance were Ann Sothern, Randolph Scott, Adolphe Menjou,Gary Cooper, and Walter Pidgeon. In 1960, she appeared in the Nixon-Lodge Bumper Sticker Motorcade in Los Angeles.
In 1977, Rogers's mother died. Rogers remained at the 4-Rs (Rogers's Rogue River Ranch) until 1990, when she sold the property and moved to nearby Medford, Oregon. Her last public appearance was on March 18, 1995, when she received the Women's International Center (WIC) Living Legacy Award. For many years, Rogers regularly supported, and held in-person presentations, at the Craterian Theater, in Medford, where she had performed in 1926 as a vaudevillian. The theater was comprehensively restored in 1997, and posthumously renamed in her honor, as the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater.
In 1992, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to her.
Rogers spent winters in Rancho Mirage and summers in Medford, Oregon. She continued making public appearances (chiefly at award shows) until suffering a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and dependent on a wheelchair. Despite her stroke, Rogers never saw a doctor or went to a hospital. Rogers died at her Rancho Mirage home on April 25, 1995, at the age of 83. An autopsy concluded that the cause of death was a heart attack. She was cremated and her ashes interred in the Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery inChatsworth, California, with her mother's remains.