by S.J. Woolf
New York Times Magazine
December 5, 1943
It is not often that anyone has a chance to make a portrait of one of the ten highest salaried people in the country. Yet anything can happen in Hollywood, and this very thing happened the other day when I went to see Ginger Rogers. For Miss Rogers, blond-haired, blue-eyed and full of fervor and enthusiasm, was last year the highest paid movie actress in the land.
She posed for me on a bleahed-wood sofa in her modernistic dressing room, wearing a soft blouse and dark skirt, legs tucked under her, blond tresses falling about her neck. She looked less like the possessor of one of moviedom’s fabulous incomes and more like the personification of what we like to call the typical American girl. For in repose Miss Rogers’ features are not, according to both Hollywood and classic ideals, beautiful; her nose conforms to no Grecian line, her mouth is a bit large.
Yet as she speaks there is an exciting joy of living about her which is contagious. There is a freedom of gesture that charms, and a realness that make-up cannot conceal. Miss Rogers reflects the spirit of her time, of the American girl of today, as much as the past relected theirs. In the shapely, vivacious screen star, the young woman behind the counter in the five-and-dime store and the society debutante shopping in the smart luxury of Fifth Avenue salons both recognize something of themselves. So do suburban housewives and city office workers. Mothers fondly see something of their youth in her and admire the wholesomeness they look for in their own daughters. Men in the audience find in Ginger Rogers all those charms they seek in the other sex, making her the movie favorite of the whole family, as popular in England’s cinemas as in America’s neighborhood houses.
Miss Rogers is now working on a picture in which she plays the part of the young wife of a naval cadet. She labors in an airplane factory an lives in a boardinghouse with other girls whose husbands are at war. The part appeals to her, she said, more than any other role she has been called upon to play. Possibly because she herself is a war wife.
“Up to the time that I started working on Jo in “Tender COmrades,'” she told me, “Kitty Foyle was my pet part. If you saw that screen play, you must have realized that the authors had created a well-rounded character which they developed logically. But as muh as I loved Kitty Foyle, for some reason or other Jo gets a little more under my skin. She’s a little more real. You can feel her with your fingers and your heart.”
As she spke it was evident that she is a much more serious-minded young woman than one would imagine from seeing her on the screen. I asked her what a girl needs to make good in Hollywood. She looked up and said: “Intelligence, adaptability and talent. And by talent I mean capacity for hard work. Lots of girls come here with little but good looks. Beauty is a valuable asset, but it is not the whole cheese.”
Miss Rogers non-meteoric rise to the top teh traditionally hard way, via night club and vaudeville hoofing, certainly qualifies her as an authority on this subject, yet she does not preach. She merely reports Hollywood from her experience with it.
“One of the saddest things here in Hollywood,” she continued, “is to see the disappointment of thousands of youngsters who hope to crash the movies. They little realize the tough going that ever those who have made good have to suffer. Comparatively few of the people who have been successful in films go their starts here. Still from all over the country youngsters look toward this place and think that if they could only get here everything will be okay. They have never seen hundreds, even thousands, of attractive young girls try out for twenty-five openings as extras. Anyone who has been around when this has happened with never forget the expressions on the faces of those who did not make good.
“This does not mean that opportunity is dead here. I don’t like giving advice, but I know for a fact that in many a small town a girl has more chance of getting an opening wedge into pictures than she has here. Then there are school theatricals, dramatic schools, amateur plays, where experience can be gained. A newcomer with some such experience is a step ahead of the crowds that sit around casting offices waiting for a chance to be an extra.”
The white telephone on the kidney shaped desk rang and there wa s acatch in her voice as she said, “Hello,” A cryptic conversation ended with “Hold the wire” and she excused herself to me and went into a rear room. A maid came out in a minute and replaced the receiver. Without telling me I knew who the caller was–Corp. Jack Briggs. Miss Rogers husband whom she met for the first time while appearing at a camp show. He is now stationed not far from Hollywood. It was some time before she came back.
Now don’t write me up,” she said “as if I were a school teacher, even though I wanted to become one when I was a kid. It’s hard, though, not to base your ideas on your own experiences. I was lucky. I always had hobbies and for some reason or other every one of them has helped me along. People say I am flightly, that I like to start thigns and never finish them. I don’t think that is true.
“First of all, when I was about 6 or 7, I started taking piano lessons and while still a youngster, gave a recital. Then came the Charleston craze and it was dancing that led me to give up the idea of becoming a school teacher to go on the stage. Then I took singing as a hobby and that came in handy when I drifted into vaudeville.
“Later when I got my chance in pictures I became an amateur photographer. Before I knew it I was not only making home movies but also writing and directing scenarios in which my friends acted. I don’t have to tell you that this helped me a lot in my professional work. Now I go in for drawing, painting, and sculpture. I suppose you are wondering how this applies to acting. Well, it does, because what I have learned about line and design helps me in choosing my costumes.
Intensely serious as Miss Rogers is when she speaks of her acting, she is equally serious when it comes to her painting and sculpture. Mixed up with her life story and other topics of conversation that arose while I sketched her, was a discussion on the merits of charcoal and the relative difficulties of oil and water-color painting.
“I am not sure,” she said, “whether I prefer painting or sculpture. Nether is as different from acting as most people imagine. After all, art–no matter what form it takes–is a creative urge, a desire to express one’s self. It does not matter whether you do this in line, in paint, in clay, in music, in words or in acting.
“Of course, some are successful at it, some are not. But even those who fall in the eyes of the world, although in some ways they may suffer, nevertheless have a heap of fun trying.”
Notwithstanding her hobbies, Miss Rogers encountered many setbacks on her way to Hollywood from Independence, Mo., where she was born Virginia Katharine McMath. Her mother and father were separated and she went to live with her grandparents in Kansas City. By the time the Charleston craze struck the country, her mother had been married to John Rogers and was the society and dramatic editor of a Fort Worth Tex., newspaper. By this time, too, there was a dancing enthusiast known as Ginger Rogers. She won a contest sponsored by a couple of vaudeville actors and vaudeville offers followed.
Had not the newspaper changed hands and Mrs. Rogers lost her job, chances are that Miss Rogers would have never gone on the stage, for at first Mrs. Rogers opposed her daughter’s desires. But with no job of her own she capitulated and became a “stage mother.” There were tours and engagements in night clubs and “Leelee” and “Geegee,” as they call each other, spent a lot of time sitting in chairs in agents offices. Old clothes refashioned in small rooms in theatrical boarding houses, and the price columns on bills of fare in cheap restaurants were of more importance than what was served.
Mrs. Rogers was determined that if her daughter was going to be an actress she was going to be a good one. There were offers which Mrs. Rogers turned down; a musical show was their goal. At last a chance came in Brooklyn, and learning a sixty-page part, the young hoofer and singer, who up to that time had never spoken a word on stage, went ahead in “Top Speed.” Since that time Ginger Rogers has not only sung and danced herself into fame but also won the Academy award for straight acting.
Althought she has a 1,000-acre ranch in Oregon, where she grows corn, wheat, oats, pears, plums, and apples, Miss Rogers spends most of her time in what she calls her “stylized farmhouse” perched high on one of the Beverly hills. Here she has let her ideas on interrior decorating run the gamut. She has a swimming pool, a toy theatre and a soda fountain, and a hideaway where she reads and draws, paints, and sculps. Heads of her friends stand high on the brick mantel, and straight portraits and caricatures by her hang on the walls. There is a photograph and loads of records, ranging from Gershwin to Brahms. The one, however, which bears most signs of use is “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby.”
There is probably no mroe popular actress among stagehands and electricians and others employed on the sets than Miss Rogers. Her fellow-players are keen about her, too. As I walked with her from the dressing room to teh scene they were shooting, “Hello, GInger” greeted her almost continuously. And each greeting was acknowledged by a wave of her hand and a cheery “Hello.”
But the thing of which she is most proud of is the dance she gave for President Roosevelt. She went ot the White House to participate in one of the Birthday Ball broadcasts. While the president and all the radio cast were waiting in the Oval Room for the program to start, someone suggested that she show Mr. Roosevelt some of her steps. She was in evening dress but this did not stand in the way. The radio was tuned to dance music and Ginger went through her paces to the memorable sound of Presidential applause.