by Martha Kerr
I’VE BEEN learning about Ginger Rogers. I’ve learned that in the last six months she has been out only twice for dinner. I’ve learned what it is she wants out of life. I’ve even learned about her faults and her fears and her boy friends, and a little about the type of man she may marry. I’ve learned these things from the one person who knows her best, Lela Rogers, her mother.
Ginger was in California, finishing “Carefree” with Fred Astaire. Three thousand miles away, in New York City, Lela had set up housekeeping. It was their first separation. The rumors flew. They said Lela had leased that apartment so Ginger, overworked, could have a normal life between pictures. They also said Lela and Ginger had broken for good.
Neither report is true. Both hurt the Rogers women. “My job with Ginger is finished,” Lela Rogers said to me. “Until a couple of years ago we discussed every problem, personal and business, together. Sometimes we differed, but in the end we always saw alike. Two years ago I realized Ginger was grown-up. She had to make her own decisions, her own mistakes. I had to be honest
with myself. I’ve never regretted any of my experiences. To me the greatest sins are those of omission . . . so I let Ginger alone . . . to learn. “And,” Lela heroically admitted, “it is in those last two years that Ginger has made the most strides, become a woman. Certainly her acting shows it very clearly.”
“However, you laid the foundation,” I interrupted.
“You might call it that,” she said. “To me Ginger is like a diamond on which a cutter has labored for years, bringing out every facet by careful work. But she was a good diamond to begin with. She had to be, or the work would have failed.
“I came East to take up my own life, to pick up the threads of my original writing career—to get away from the label ‘Stage Mother.’ As for breaking with Ginger, that, of course, is utterly ridiculous—plain idle chatter!”
Then she told me. Ginger telephones her every other night. And there are innumerable wires and letters in the inimitable Gingerish manner. One morning Lela received a brief telegram containing the simple single statement, “Time to get up.”
Before Lela left, Ginger had started a new hobby, modeling. She had begun Lela’s head in clay. All the time Lela packed, Ginger sat on the bed, staring with the intentness of the artist, trying to memorize her mother’s features. After Lela arrived in New York, there came a cryptic wire: “Am glad you are going to have a good time but why did you have to take your head along?”
Also, the week of her mother’s departure, Ginger had been invited to take part in a tennis tournament. She is a superb athlete, but of late has been working so hard at the studio that there was no time for tennis practice. So, accepting the invitation, Ginger called her pals with, “Listen, kids, you’ve got to practice tennis with me every night this week.” The result was she won
all games until the semi-finals.
These were to be played the day after Lela left. On the train, Lela, whose humor is a great deal like her daughter’s, wired, “If you don’t win its bread and water for a week.” The following morning she received, “It’s bread and water, get it.”
The minute Ginger heard about her sixweek vacation, the first she’s had in years, she called Lela in New York with, “I don’t know where we’ll go, but when the time comes get ready to fly to me!”
And, as a surprise, she shipped Lela’s car, equipped with four new tires, to
New York. Of course this is nothing new. With her first big pay check (it was a thousand dollars) Ginger took the whole thing and with it bought a brooch for her mother. And she designed that brooch.
Lela, too, is no slouch at surprises. It was she who gave Ginger the now famous soda fountain.
“I never dreamed how popular it would become. It’s a boon for servants because all the guests insists upon making their own. Ginger doesn’t drink, you know. She lives on malted milks and sodas. I gave her the fountain as a mark of luxury, as a way of saying, “You have arrived!”
Well, a mother-daughter friendship like that, with its attendant sense of humor, doesn’t break.
As for the normal life . . .
“If any star’s life is normal, it’s Ginger’s. And it’s much easier to live normally in Hollywood than here in the East. Why, it took us two years to build our house. Twenty-five towns lie under our noses, we’re ten minutes from the studio, and yet, we’re so surrounded by hills that we’re isolated. I didn’t wear a pair of stockings all summer, or a summer dress; just lived in my bathing suit. Ginger goes to work in slacks. When I say work I mean work. You’ve got to be a trouper to get on top or stay on top.
“I wish you could see all her clothes hanging in the closet because she has no time to wear them. The night I left for the East we figured she had been out for dinner exactly twice in six months! She did manage to get to her own preview, but that, in its way, is work. But she was broken hearted because she couldn’t get to Maggie’s—Margaret Sullavan’s, you know. Ginger is crazy about her. The night of that preview the studio kept Ginger until seven-thirty, and by the time she came home and had dinner, it was, as she said, ‘As usual, too late.’
“Every Sunday we serve a buffet supper in our basement playroom and Ginger’s gang comes—Maggie and Leland, Dorothy Fields, Bob Riskin, Phyllis Frazier, Jimmy Stewart.
“Ginger is the one who started all those quiz games that became such a fad. Every free night Bob Riskin would head one team, Dorothy Fields the other. And they would come armed with dictionaries and encyclopedias, literally playing for blood. It’s great mental exercise, and Ginger loves it.”
Of all Ginger’s boy friends Lela seems to favor writer Robert Riskin. “He’s the sweetest boy. Of course Ginger goes out a lot with Jimmy Stewart these days, but,” Lela added significantly, “Jimmy manages to distribute himself among all the girls. He’s very popular, you know.”
She paused. Then, “Ginger has changed a great deal. Her faults have always been for blood. It’s great mental exercise, and the chief fault of all the Rogers women, that of being too frank for their own good. Men don’t like honest women. They’re scared of them. It’s always a straight ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ with Ginger, no side-stepping. She likes you or she doesn’t. She’s inherently honest, and that doesn’t make for happiness. But if you’re made that way there’s nothing you can do about it. I know.
“Certainly, she has grown more serious. And her tastes have changed, especially in clothes. Her dresses used to be much too fancy. Now she is going in for the simple kind. She had to learn that by herself. Good taste grows as we grow.
“And,” Lela Rogers hesitated, “this sounds unkind to the past, but, naturally, Ginger’s taste in men has also changed. Nobody can bank on the idiosyncracies of love, but I have a hunch that the next important man in Ginger’s life will be older and serious thinking, not just a boy. Heretofore, she’s always had a youth complex, but now maturity has set in.”
Her voice softened. “As Ginger’s mother, I think I know what she wants. It may sound trite to say, but I know from the occasional remarks she lets fall, and the questions she asks, and the way she acts that the only thing Ginger wants out of life is what every girl wants if she is thoroughly honest with herself—a home and babies. Ginger is twenty-seven now.
I think in three years she will have her heart’s desire. Why, everything she does points that way. All her spare time, those few rare minutes, goes to Brooke Heyward, Maggie’s child. Ginger was so proud because Brooke paid her first call on us. Ginger took up knitting so she could make Brooke a sweater. And every once in awhile Ginger asks about babies, funny little details, and whether I think she is too old to have one.” Mrs. Rogers laughed.
“Ginger, at twenty-seven, worrying about her age. But you can see what she is thinking about—in what direction her mind lies.
“Not that I think she could actually quit working for any great length of time. Ginger would never be happy idle.”
She paused as a trim maid passed us iced coffee and little cakes. And I had time to sit back and study this Lela Rogers, whose face is stamped with living and work, and yet, who looks so much like Ginger, the expression around her mouth, the shape of her legs, a turn here and there. The sitting room makes a perfect background, with its white mantelpiece, its Venetian blinds, the vases alive with flowers, the chintz covered furniture.
On the mantel stood a picture of J. Edgar Hoover with the inscription “To Lela E. Rogers, in appreciation of a valued friendship.” And on a table the only photograph of Ginger . . . Ginger wearing a plain sports frock, Ginger, her arms folded and looking straight at you with that frank, likeable stare of hers.
Lela Rogers looked at the picture too. “It’s not easy,” she said, “for a mother to talk about her daughter’s faults. Every duck thinks her chick is white, but to me, Ginger’s worst fault is the fact that when something bothers her she keeps it within herself. And it eats inside. I can always tell. Then I say, ‘Out with it!’
ONCE I said this and she began, ‘Pan (meaning producer Pandro Berman) said three months ago . . . ‘
“‘Three months ago!’ ” I shouted. “And you’ve been worrying about this all that time! Go to him and have it out! When she used to be afraid to do that, I often started the battles for her.”
“In that instance Pan had promised Ginger she did have to work with a certain person, and there he was, cast just the same. Please don’t misunderstand, the person was not Astaire.
And then Lela Rogers made a startling and generous announcement. “I consider the success of their pictures due to Fred Astaire. He is tireless, painstaking, a glutton for perfection. And he fights for what he wants. So he fought for Ginger too. He was the first person to insist upon having a dance photographed all the way through. The producer said it would lose camera interest. They wanted to shoot away to a man chewing gum, a woman powdering her nose. Astaire said, ‘If you don’t do it my way, you don’t get the dance!’ So they gave in. And you know the result. He must have things right, or not at all. Because Ginger was his partner and believed as he believed, he fought for her rights, too. By herself, she never would have fought.
“For, believe it or not, Ginger has a great inferiority complex. She thinks everybody is better than she is. Do you know she was scared to death to tackle a dramatic part? And now, I believe that’s the only kind she should go in for. Why, she was frightened stiff to act with Hepburn! Ginger is a square shooter. Give the other fellow a scene, and she practically turns her back.
You can notice this in ‘Vivacious Lady.’ When it was Jimmy’s turn, the camera was his. But Ginger knew Hepburn is an actress with every trick up her sleeve and ready to use them all. She felt she never could stand a chance playing in the same picture with Hepburn weaving around her. She herself felt she was no match as an actress. But she has will power. So she went to it. It was her job and Ginger faced it. When it comes to her own faults I must say she is painstaking about trying to overcome them. She has more will power than anyone I ever saw.”
And I thought to myself, no wonder, she comes by it naturally. For what other mother would have the nerve to walk out and just stand by while her chick fends for itself? Only one with tremendous will power of her own—one like Lela Rogers.