by Blanche Sweet
From an old-timer who admires the courage of this young ‘un
GINGER ROGERS always reminds me of a swan. Have you ever watched a swan glide across the water? Make its progress, reach its goal with beautiful grace ? And apparently without effort? And then have you been surprised to notice how hard and consistently that swan has been working beneath the surface all the time in order to produce that seeming ease, that thrilling motion?
So it is with Ginger. Take her, at twenty-four, one of the very greatest of the stars. Rapidly approaching that million dollars earned through her own efforts which she has set for her mark. Beautiful, goodness knows. Well-groomed always. And the one and only dancer Fred Astaire ever has brought himself to compare with his sister, Adele—now Lady Cavendish—with whom he danced his way to fame.
None of these things were dumped into Ginger’s lap. believe me. She has come a long way and worked hard to find them. And if you’ve acquired another impression about her from the bare facts you’ve read in her biography, let’s look behind the scenes of a few outstanding incidents.
Fifteen years ago Ginger Rogers was nothing, had nothing. She was a gangling, freckled nine-year-old named Virginia McMath. (It was a small cousin, incidentally, unable to pronounce her first name, who called her Ginger. And she came into the Rogers name when her mother married a second time.) However, even back there, when Ginger lived with her grandmother while her mother went out to earn a living for all of them, Ginger was on her way. For she was teaching herself to be a leader, being a stern taskmaster for herself in all she did. Taking one medal after another at school. In tennis. In swimming. And never for one moment failing to believe in herself or in her future.
EVEN IN those days she showed the discrimination which is so often an anvil on which success may be forged. It was her English teacher, one Ruth Browning, for whom she developed the inevitable school-girl crush. You’ve heard, perhaps, how, charmed and attracted by this woman’s speaking voice and her choice of words, Ginger invited her to come and live with them.
We all have impulses to do things like that occasionally. But we squash them usually. Whereas Ginger always has had enough spirit and courage to put her impulses into action, been eager, enough for the experience they would offer not to count the cost too high in the event they didn’t always work out right.
“Never,” Mrs. Rogers says, “will I forget the day Ginger came home and calmly announced that she had asked Ruth Browning to live with us, to share her room. At first I protested. But then I discovered that Ginger had sold Miss Browning on the idea, too. She never was one to give up easily. And even as a little girl I never knew her to stop at any half-measures when she set out to accomplish a thing.”
That relationship with Ruth Browning proved a very happy one. And it wasn’t until she married that she left the Rogers home.
“I owe a great deal to my long and close association with Miss Browning,” Ginger says. “She taught me many invaluable things. Fairness in dealing with people. To see the other fellow’s side as well as my own. And most important of all, probably, to get out and work for the things I wanted. To reach towards them constantly by study and determination. To waste no precious minutes sitting back and dreaming.
“She always pointed out to me that to advance ourselves we must take steps. That not to take steps is to stand still or, worse, to slip backwards.”
We were sitting on the set in front of her portable dressing-room. And so often it was the spirit in her voice that made her words seem bright and convincing. Nevertheless, while she talked, young and, for the moment, serious, I couldn’t help thinking how useless the same advice and influence would have been if she hadn’t been receptive to it, if she had been gaited for indolence and failure.
You’ve heard, of course, how during the Charleston craze Ginger won a state championship, whereupon she was booked in vaudeville for four weeks at one hundred dollars a week. Virtually launched upon her theatrical career, in other words.’ And perhaps hearing this you’ve thought how lucky she has been.
ON the set that day Ginger told me more about the contest. Her mother objected to her entering it. Perhaps she felt Ginger had no chance. For she never had had a lesson in her life and skilled dancers were among the entrants.
“But,” Ginger told me, “I didn’t give up. I argued and pleaded. I made mother’s life miserable, I’m afraid. Then finally, the night before the contest, I wore her down. And she went out and bought white Romaine crepe and brilliant trimming. And we worked all night. And in the morning the dress for me to dance in was finished.”
For years I’ve watched the Hollywood girls, at close range, thanks to my work in the studios and the film colony friendships I hold so dear. And as I so often point out in my radio talks I find it exciting and inspiring to watch them build beauty and charm and fame for themselves. As deliberately and practically as you would build a house with either bricks or timbers.
In fact I’m pretty well convinced that the only difference between those who arrive and those who don’t—in Hollywood or anywhere else—is that the first put their shoulders and their brains behind their ambitious dreams. And the others, except for an occasional spurt of effort, just sit and dream.
Ginger and Lela Rogers’ troubles weren’t over when that Charleston contest precipitated Ginger into the theatrical world, let me tell you. Quite the contrary.
“The worst time mother and I ever had,” Ginger told me, “came soon after that. I had a vaudeville act I called ‘Ginger Rogers and Her Redheads’. Another act came along and offered my redheads more money. They left me flat. Mother and I didn’t have enough to pay our hotel bill, much less return home to Fort Worth.”
It was in Chicago that this happened. So Ginger and Lela went to live in a theatrical boarding-house, in one of those rooms which people of the theatre who have been down on their luck never forget. A room with a torn and gritty carpet, half burned-out electric light bulbs, dirty lace curtains. A room which they loathed even while they wondered how they were to pay for the sordid, shabby shelter it offered.
So what happened? Did Ginger quit? Wire some old friend or a relative to send her money? She did not! She’d gotten into this jam and she’d get out of it. What if it did mean taking a job in a cheap cabaret. Dancing and singing torch songs. It meant enough money to pay their room rent and get them to Fort Worth via tourist tickets, even if it didn’t leave very much for food.
And when Ginger reached home again was she discouraged by that experience ? She was not! While her mother earned enough to keep them working on a local paper Ginger whipped another act into shape. A single. Something she could carry herself without any help from any other redheads.
Her first engagement was in Memphis, Tennessee. There’s no need to go into the pinch-penny methods the Rogers had to use to get there.
“Memphis, Tennessee!” said Ginger. “Will I ever forget it? Or the practically empty theatre to which I played my first show. I was so nervous I had all I could do to get my feet off the floor and my songs out of my throat. The manager wasn’t exactly impressed. In fact while I was doing my number he ordered his assistant to ‘can’ me. To get another act. And Mother heard him.”
SHE laughed. But you knew darn well it hadn’t been a laughing matter when it happened. For they’d spent their last cent to get to Memphis and they were strangers there.
“Immediately Mother told me what she’d heard,” Ginger went on, “I grabbed her by the arm and we rushed out of that theatre to walk through the Memphis streets until it was time for me to go on again. Playing two shows, you sec, I was entitled to my pay.”
So Ginger played her second show. The theatre at the second show was crowded. That helped somehow. Ginger took it as a challenge and stepping out on the stage prepared to show them. When she danced, something hopeful and exciting and young stirred in the hearts of those who watched out there in the dark. And when she sang they dreamed and believed again.
“How easily she dances! they whispered to one another. And “How naturally the warm, full notes flow from her throat!”
Not once did they suspect how desperately hard she was trying to please them —how consistently, step after step, note after note, she was giving all she had. For if they had suspected any of this she wouldn’t have been such a hit.
Then there was the unhappy marriage Ginger had to overcome not long after this. Youthful marriages which crash usually aren’t any great help to progress. But it was inevitable. I think, knowing Ginger and her impetuosity, that she must come to just such a marriage as she did when she was seventeen and she and Jack Culpepper, a good-looking vaudevillian, played the same circuit. Before their marriage which took place on the stage one night after the final curtain—in quite the romantic manner you’d expect of Ginger—Lela Rogers had plenty to say about this union. All of it unfavorable. But immediately that marriage ceremony was performed she stopped talking and began to hope for the best. However, a year later when Jack and Ginger were separated because their bookings now took them on different circuits, they wrote to each other admitting it all had been quite mistake.
Whereupon Ginger didn’t, as Eighteen so easily might have, sit down and dwell upon her disillusionment. Instead she worked harder than ever to shape a new, full life for herself. To continue with her self-improvement and become interested in so many things that the loss of no one thing ever could leave her bankrupt. To analyze exactly what had happened to her marriage so honestly and with such frankness that she grew neither cynical nor bitter. And so she came along through the years to her recent marriage with Lew Ayres with all the hope and belief of one who never has failed in this respect.
AND what of Ginger right now? Well, in the studios they’ll tell you no one works harder than she does. It isn’t. you see. simply her inborn sense of rhythm that sends her skimming over the dance floor in intricate, beautiful motion, that brings her such high praise from Fred Astaire. It’s the weeks she puts in working on her routines before a picture goes into production. And Ginger is also mindful of personal progress. In the Rogers-Ayres house you find dictionaries everywhere. Since Ginger is ambitious to increase her vocabulary and become an easy, fluent talker she will admit no new word into her speech until she has become thoroughly familiar with it. with both its pronunciation and its meaning.
For little things like this I give Ginger as great credit as I give her for coming the long, hard way she has travelled to find her present success. It’s so easy for us to develop blind spots about ourselves, never to see ourselves with a perspective.
And so I say Ginger reminds me of a swan. Because when she swims across the dance floor with beautiful grace it’s due to the weeks and weeks during which she rehearses her routines. And because, if her biography indicates that she’s come to her beauty, her fame, her wealth, and her stardom by a straight, easy road this is because she has let nothing down her. Because, like a swan, she’s working hard and consistently always. Even if it isn’t evident on the surface of things.