The actress known as Ginger Rogers (Virginia Katherine McMath) was born July 16, 1911 to William Eddins McMath and the former Lela Emogene Owens in Independence, Missouri. Her birth father was an electrical engineer and her mother was a reporter, scriptwriter and movie producer. Her parents separated soon after she was born and Ginger was raised by her mother and maternal grandparents in Kansas City. When she was nine years old, Lela married John Logan Rogers. Ginger took her stepfather’s last name, although she was likely never formally adopted. Her mother wrote for a local newspaper in Fort Worth, Texas covering entertainment, exposing Ginger to the field and the life of entertainment. Ginger won a Charleston dance contest when she was fourteen years old and is known to have begun appearing in vaudeville shows after that.
Rogers appeared in a production of “Girl Crazy” on Broadway which brought her to the notice of Paramount Pictures. This led to a contract which included her appearance in the 1933 film “42nd Street,” probably the best known of her film roles from that association. She then signed with RKO Pictures. During this period and between 1933 and 1939, she made a number of films with actor/dancer Fred Astaire, most of which were very successful. Their titles included “Flying Down to Rio,” “The Gay Divorcee,” “Roberta,” “Top Hat,” “Follow the Fleet,” “Swing Time,” “Shall We Dance” and “Carefree.” Although the dance film declined as a genre, Rogers continued to appear on Broadway, in off Broadway productions, on television and in film throughout the 1940s, 1950s and into the 1960s. She was reunited with Astaire once more in 1949 in the MGM production of “The Barkleys of Broadway,” replacing Judy Garland who was unable to perform in the role.
She won an Academy Award as Best Actress for her role in the 1940 film “Kitty Foyle” opposite Dennis Morgan. The screenplay, by Dalton Trumbo, was based on the best selling book of the same name by Christopher Morely. In the film, Rogers’ character sells dresses in a New York City boutique. She meets two men, including Morgan’s character, and is torn between the two. As the dramatic plot unfolds, the themes include social class differences, romance, marriage and divorce, among others. The film was a critical and box office success, earning three to four times its cost. The dress style she wore in the film became known as the Kitty Foyle dress and was a popular style in women’s clothing for a time.
Rogers was politically, religiously and socially conservative. She was also very devoted to her mother. Rogers was known to be quite witty and good source for quotes. Of Fred Astaire, she said, “I did everything Fred did, only backwards and in high heels.”
Her other honors include a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and being recognized in 1992 at the Kennedy Center. She died at the age of 83 of natural causes in 1995 at her home in Rancho Mirage. Her remains were cremated and interred at Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California near her mother’s grave site.
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