She was most remembered for the blissful partnership with Fred Astaire in sparkling musicals that brightened Depression-era America. He in top hat and tails, she in a flowing gown, they glided over polished floors in a perfect display of grace and romance.
Virginia Katherine McMath was born on 16 July 1911 in Independence, Missouri. She was the only child of Lela Owens, a newspaper reporter, scriptwriter, and movie producer, and William Eddins McMath, an electrical engineer. Her maternal grandparents were Saphrona (née Ball) and Walter Winfield Scott Owens.
Her mother had moved to Independence to get away from her husband so that she could give birth at home. Earlier in their marriage, they had a baby in a hospital, but her husband allowed the doctor to use forceps and the baby died. She was determined to not have that happen a second time.
Ginger's parents separated shortly after she was born. After unsuccessfully trying to reunite with his family, McMath kidnapped his daughter twice and her mother divorced him soon thereafter. Ginger said that she never saw her natural father again.
One of Rogers's young cousins, Helen, had a hard time pronouncing "Virginia", so her nickname soon became "Ginja".
In 1915, Ginger moved in with her grandparents, who lived in nearby Kansas City, while her mother made a trip to Hollywood in an effort to get an essay she had written made into a film. Lela succeeded and continued to write scripts for Fox Studios.
Her mother was one of the first ten women to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War I. She was assigned to the Marine Corps publicity bureau where she wrote promotional articles, and also made a training film. She was discharged with the rank of Sergeant. Ginger went back to her grandparents in Missouri. During this time her mother met John Rogers. After leaving the Marines they married in May 1920 in Liberty, Missouri. He was transferred to Dallas and a nine year old Ginger went too. Ginger took the surname Rogers, although she was never legally adopted.
The family lived in Fort Worth where Ginger attended, but did not graduate from, Fort Worth's Central High School (later renamed R. L. Paschal High School.) Her mother became a theater critic for a local newspaper, the Fort Worth Record. As a teenager, Ginger thought of becoming a school teacher, 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.
Ginger won a Charleston contest in 1925 at age 14 and received a 4 week contract on the Interstate circuit. She also appeared in vaudeville acts, performing until she was 17 with her hard-driving mother by her side to guide her and to battle Hollywood studio bosses.
Ginger went to New York where she appeared in the Broadway production of "Top Speed" which debuted Christmas Day 1929. Her first film was in 1929 in "A Night in a Dormitory". It was a bit part, but it was a start. Later that year, Ginger appeared, briefly, in two more films. For awhile she did both movies and theatre. The following year she began to get better parts in films, but the movie that enamored her to the public was "Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933). She did not have top billing but her beauty and voice was enough to have the public want more. One song she popularized in the film was the now famous, "We're in the Money". Also in 1933 she was in "42nd Street" where she wore a monocle to set her apart.
Ginger's real stardom occurred when she was teamed with Fred Astaire where they were one of the best cinematic couples ever to hit the silver screen. This is where she achieved real stardom. She once called their teaming "just a wonderful happening. It wasn't planned. I thought it turned out to be magic. I was told even in the first picture people could see something was happening." They were first paired in 1933's "Flying Down To Rio". It was Ginger's 20th film but only Astaire's second. After that movie, Astaire was reluctant about working with Ginger again. He had spent his childhood in vaudeville overshadowed by his older sister, Adele, and did not want to be so closely associated with another partner again. “I did not go into pictures to be teamed with her or anyone else,” he wrote to his agent. Fred’s wife and manager,
However, he was persuaded by the apparent public appeal of the Astaire-Rogers pairing. They later starred in 1935's "Roberta" and "Top Hat". In most of their 10 films together, Astaire was the smitten pursuer and she was the reluctant beauty. Despite the air of romance, there were no love scenes. In her 1991 autobiography, Ginger claimed that Astaire's wife and manager, Phyllis, did not want him kissing other women.
Ginger also appeared in some very good comedies such as "Bachelor Mother" and "Fifth Avenue Girl", both in 1939. That same year she appeared with Astaire in "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle". The film made money but was not anywhere successful as they had hoped. After that, studio executives at RKO wanted Ginger to strike out on her own. She made several dramatic pictures but it was 1940's "Kitty Foyle" that allowed her to shine. She played a young lady from the wrong side of the tracks. She played the lead role well in fact, that she won the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal at the 13th Academy Awards.
In 1941 she followed that project with the comedy, "Tom, Dick and Harry", a story where she has to choose which of three men she wants to marry. During the 1940s, she was one of the highest-paid, most sought-after Hollywood stars. After "Oh Men! Oh Women!" in 1957, Ginger did not appear on the silver screen for seven years. By 1965, she had appeared for the last time in "Harlow". Afterward, she appeared on Broadway and other stage plays traveling in Europe, the U.S. and Canada.
Ginger Rogers famously dated celebrities such as Howard Hughes and Jimmy Stewart, but she was unlucky in love. She married five times, but none of them stuck; her career seemed to be everything. She was just 17 years old when she married her first husband, vaudeville comedian Edward Jackson Culpepper in March 1929. After several months realized she had made a mistake but they did not split after two years together. She married her second husband, Lew Ayres, in 1934, but they divorced six years later. She also married actor Jack Briggs from 1943 to 1948, French actor Jacques Bergerac from 1953 to 1957, and actor-producer William Marshall from 1961-1970. "I yearned for a long, happy marriage with one person," she wrote. "But my life has been blessed in so many other ways that I wanted to share the good times and the hard times with a public that has shown me unbounded appreciation and loyalty." She never had any children.
Ginger's career spanned 65 years in every field of show business, from vaudeville to television, but she was more than just an actress. Always the outdoor sporty type, she was a near-champion tennis player, a topline shot and loved going fishing. She did not drink alcohol and had her very own ice cream soda fountain. Ginger was also a keen artist and did many paintings, sculptures and sketches in her free time, but could never bring herself to sell any of them. From 1972-1975 she was a fashion consultant for J.C. Penney. Her mother had introduced Ginger to Christian Science, which provided her with lifelong solace.
She graced the cover of "Life" magazine four times: 22 August 1938, 9 December 1940, 2 March 1942 and 5 September 1951.
She was lifelong friends with actresses Lucille Ball and Bette Davis. She appeared with Ball in an episode of "Here's Lucy" on 22 November 1971, in which Rogers danced the Charleston for the first time in many years. She later made guest appearances "The Love Boat" in 1979, "Glitter" in 1984 and "Hotel" in 1987, which was her final screen appearance as an actress. In 1985, at the age of 74, Ginger fulfilled a long-standing wish to direct when she directed the musical "Babes In Arms", an off-Broadway production in Tarrytown, New York.
She retired in Oregon and bought a ranch in the Medford area because she liked the climate. She donated money to the community and funded the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater in downtown Medford, which was named after her. She wrote an autobiography in 1991 entitled, "Ginger, My Story".
She was badly affected by illness in her last years after suffering two strokes that had left her wheelchair-bound and visibly overweight and her voice had become a shrunken rasp.
She continued to receive honors at film festivals and tributes, the most notable being the Kennedy Center Honors in December 1992. The City of Independence, MO, designated her birthplace as a Historic Landmark Property in 1994. On 16 July 1994 Ginger visited Independence to appear at the Ginger Rogers' Day celebration presented by the city. She was present when Mayor Ron Stewart affixed a Historic Landmark Property plaque to the front of the house where she was born. She signed over 2,000 autographs at this event.
Ginger made her final public appearance on 18 March 1995, just five weeks before her death, when she received the Women's International Center (WIC) Living Legacy Award.
On 25 April 1995, Ginger died of natural causes in Rancho Mirage, California. She was 83.
“The most important thing in anyone’s life is to be giving something. The quality I can give is fun, joy and happiness. This is my gift.”