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Rita Hayworth and the Armand Ellroy Redemption

March 15, 2019

 

Armando Lee Ellroy

Armando Lee Ellroy was the father of Lee Earle Ellroy, better known today as James Ellroy – Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction. James Ellroy’s father was a veteran of the First World War, an accountant and Hollywood fixer. He was handsome, charming, lazy, venal and constantly working on some get-rich-quick scheme. Ellroy Senior was always living on the periphery of Hollywood glamour, obsessed with an unobtainable woman. In short, he was a typically Ellrovian character minus the violence.

The highlight of Ellroy’s career was his stint as Rita Hayworth’s business manager from circa 1948-52. Ellroy talked to his son a lot about Rita Hayworth, although he was not always gentlemanly when he did so. He claimed to have had an affair with the film star, and dubbed her a ‘nympho’. Ellroy was just a child when his father told him these stories, but he was already so well tuned to his Dad’s braggadocio that he didn’t believe his claims about Hayworth. It wasn’t till years after his father’s death that Ellroy spotted a biography of Rita Hayworth in a bookshop, turned to the index page and found his father’s name:

Index

Ellroy’s name, squeezed between Queen Elizabeth and King Farouk, in a Rita Hayworth biography

So his father had at least been partially telling the truth. In The Hilliker Curse, Ellroy provides more details about his father’s professional relationship with Rita Hayworth.

My dad went back to the ’30s with La Roja Rita. It pre-dated his circa ’40 hookup with Jean. Rita was half Anglo, half Mex aristocrat. My dad working as a croupier in T.J. Rita’s father hired him to watchdog Rita and deter mashers.

When Ellroy’s father first met Hayworth she was still known by her birth name, Margarita Cansino. Her father was the famous Spanish dancer Eduardo Cansino. In 1931, when the future film star was only twelve years old, Cansino moved the family from Los Angeles to Tijuana. They performed a family act ‘the Dancing Cansino’s’ at the famed Agua Caliente, the casino resort where Ellroy was working and which, according to local lore, was the inspiration for Bugsy Siegel to build the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.

There is a cruel irony to Ellroy being hired by Hayworth’s father to safeguard Rita as Eduardo Cansino was sexually abusing his daughter during this period. This is detailed in Barbara Leaming’s biography of Hayworth If This Was Happiness. Leaming’s source for the disturbing allegation was Hayworth’s second husband Orson Welles, of whom Leaming also wrote a biography, and appeared with him on The Merv Griffin Show the day Welles died. Ellroy is briefly mentioned in Leaming’s book on Hayworth.

In Hayworth biographies, Ellroy is invariably referred to by his middle name Lee. One might assume that he would have gone by his Spanish name Armando around the Cansino Clan. It seems likely Ellroy didn’t go by Lee in the family home, as he conceded to his son that ‘Lee’ was a lousy name when added to the surname ‘Ellroy’, especially when compounded with the middle name ‘Earle’, making the full name sound like Leroy. In Ellroy’s memoirs, he usually refers to his father by the shortened Armand, which is Gallic. This is presumably why Leonard Slater describes Ellroy as ‘the dapper. dark-haired man of French-Spanish descent.’

Slater wrote a bestselling biography of Aly Khan (Hayworth’s third husband). He interviewed over a hundred people as part of his research, including Armando Lee Ellroy and the book was published in 1965, the year of Ellroy Sr.’s death. Ellroy is quoted as saying that it was Rita Hayworth’s mother Volga who was the more protective parent in the Tijuana days:

“After the evening show,” he (Ellroy) says, “a gang would get together for hamburgers or to go swimming, but most of the time Rita couldn’t go. I can still see her mother sitting there, watching Rita rehearse and keeping her eye out.”

After they moved from Tijuana back to LA, Hayworth and Ellroy’s professional relationship mostly faded as she ascended to Hollywood stardom and he settled down to married life with Jean Hilliker. But he must have stayed on her radar, as Hayworth hired him as her business manager in 1948. Slater identifies this as a crucial time for Hayworth financially. She was trying to get out of her ruinous contract with Columbia, presided over by her chief tormentor Harry Cohn, and she was divorcing Orson Welles, who apparently never provided any financial support for their daughter Rebecca.

Ellroy must have had his work cut out for him, and it only got more frantic when Hayworth fell for and got engaged to Aly Khan. Aly was the son and heir to Aga Khan III, worshipped by the Nizari Ismaili sect as a living deity, (although Aly’s playboy lifestyle of beautiful women, fast cars and thoroughbred horses made him better suited for Hollywood than Heaven.) Hayworth and Khan only ever spent a small amount of time in LA together, partly due to the press frenzy following them wherever they went in the City of Angels. Ellroy arranged for Khan to rent a ‘pink stucco house on Rockingham Avenue, opposite Rita’s red brick colonial on Hanover Street.’ Ellroy also did his best to ward off journalists who were ‘popping up in the guise of plumbers, telephone repairmen, readers of gas meters.’ Hayworth and Khan usually travelled in separate cars while Ellroy ‘took on the job of transmitting telephone messages to foil eavesdroppers.’ During a quieter moment in this period, Ellroy introduced Hayworth to his baby boy Lee at the Tail O’ the Pup hot dog stand. Ellroy later told his son he’d ‘spilled grape juice all over her’.

The wedding of Aly Khan and Rita Hayworth took place in Vallauris on the French Riviera. Ellroy was one of only a handful of Hollywood guests who were invited; the others being Hayworth’s agent Johnny Hyde and her press agent Helen Morgan, doyenne of movie columnists Louella Parsons, Charles Vidor and his actress wife Doris Warner, and the Cohn’s (who declined to attend). Ellroy had a key role in planning the big day. He flew to Cannes and ‘brought along her (Rita’s) cocker spaniel, Pookles, and a suitcase full of nylons.’ Khan had wanted a private wedding to take place in his residence Chateau de l’Horizon, but he had an enemy in the shape of the Communist Mayor of Vallauris, Paul Derigon. Determined to wreak as much havoc on the regal nuptials as possible, Derigon cited French law to insist the wedding would take place at the Town Hall and be officiated over by him. Ellroy set up a press headquarters in Suite 131 at the Carlton Hotel and ‘announced that some of the press would be invited to the wedding luncheon. They would be issued special passes and be admitted to a lower terrace; the regular guests, for lunch in the garden, would get pink discs, designed and signed by Ellroy.’ Derigon, thinking of the publicity the wedding could generate for himself, was giving his own rival briefings to the press, but it was Ellroy who had the reporters eating out of the palm of his hand. As Slater reports, ‘the commotion which accomplished each of his (Ellroy’s) statements – more often they were denials – was comparable to the rush of White House correspondents to their phones after a presidential press conference.’

There are many photos of Rota Hayworth’s wedding to Aly Khan online. Alas, I’ve not been able to find one where I can make a positive ID of Ellroy

In the end the wedding was a great success, despite the best efforts of Monsieur Derigon. Communist ideology is no match for a young couple in love, though sadly it was not to last. Khan and Hayworth divorced in 1953. Perhaps it was the failure of the marriage that led Hayworth to terminate Ellroy’s employment. She had wanted to make less films. Khan, whose lavish lifestyle had made his finances as precarious as Hayworth’s, had wanted her to work more. When she did return to Hollywood, Harry Cohn was determined to punish her and only offered work under punitive conditions. It’s no surprise Hayworth needed to make cutbacks and Ellroy was one of the first to go, although James Ellroy claimed it may have been because his father was a ‘lazy ass’.

This still leaves the question as to when Ellroy had the affair with Hayworth he liked to brag to his son about. One hopes that it was not in Tijuana when Hayworth was too young and was trapped under the influence of her abusive father. It was more likely to be during his stint as her business manager. Slater has an anecdote from the wedding that throws more light on Ellroy’s relationship with Hayworth. Khan invited Ellroy for a 3 am excursion to a nearby casino:

Aly turned to Ellroy. “You’ve been here a week or so now, haven’t you? he asked. Ellroy replied in the affirmative. Aly, the host who thought of everything, disappeared and came back in a few minutes with two attractive girls, one a breezy blonde. “Take your pick,” he offered. When Ellroy declined, Aly shrugged and disappeared with the blonde.

This does not sound like the womanising Ellroy Sr. as his son, the novelist, has described him. However, Ellroy was still married to Jean Hilliker at this point so he had a loyalty to her, and also to Hayworth, whom he had been charged with protecting when she was just a teenage girl, far away from home, in Tijuana. Given Khan’s promiscuous ways, it’s no wonder the marriage floundered, and Hayworth took comfort in the protective arms of Ellroy. The film star and her business manager had known each other for the best part of two decades by this point, and Ellroy must have taken some pleasure in cuckolding the libidinous prince. Ultimately, though, Ellroy’s professional and personal relationship with Hayworth would leave him with a profound sense of loss.

In The Hilliker Curse, James Ellroy describes the day his mother took him to see the film Fire Down Below when he was still a child. When Rita Hayworth’s name appeared in the opening credits, Ellroy’s mother glowered at the screen. Ellroy recalls hearing his parents argue behind closed doors when his father ‘shrieked, sobbed and bellowed’ about Rita Hayworth. Ellroy must have hoped to find other Hollywood starlets after he was fired as Hayworth’s business manager, but the truth is that Rita was the one that got away. The residue of Ellroy’s feelings for Hayworth can be found in how James Ellroy portrays the men who wronged Hayworth in his novels. In Perfidia, Orson Welles is portrayed as a callous, over-hyped libertine. In the same novel, Harry Cohn is a corrupt tycoon who is so widely hated that his favourite restaurateur spits in his soup.

While James Ellroy states he was never a fan of Hayworth as an actress, and perhaps neither was his father, who can forget her incredible contribution to film noir, throwing back her flaming red hair in Gilda, or her death scene in The Lady in Shanghai, telling Orson Welles to ‘Give my love to the sunrise.’ Many a man must have fallen in love with Rita Hayworth from these images.

We will never know whether Armando Lee Ellroy truly loved Rita Hayworth. But in his declining years, the memory of Rita must have been as comforting and tormenting as the poster of Hayworth that hangs in Andy Dufresne’s cell in the Stephen King novella:

A little while later, as they filed us out for morning chow, I glanced into his
cell and saw Rita over his bunk in all her swimsuited glory, one hand behind her
head, her eyes half-closed, those soft, satiny lips parted. It was over his bunk
where he could look at her nights, after lights-out, in the glow of the arc
sodium lights in the exercise yard.

But in the bright morning sunlight, there were dark slashes across her face-the
shadow of the bars on his single slit window.

 

 

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