Actress's struggle with Alzheimer's put the disease in the spotlight
In front of the camera, famed actress Rita Hayworth dazzled fans with her mesmerizing smile, sensational dancing and Hollywood glamour. Off screen, the star's life slowly unraveled as she faced Alzheimer's disease.
Shortly after she was diagnosed in the early 1980s, Hayworth became one of the first celebrities to publicly share she had Alzheimer's. This brave feat increased awareness at a time when very little was known about dementia and very little was discussed, and helped start a national conversation around the disease.
Born Margarita Carmen Cansino, showbiz ran in Hayworth's blood. Her father, Eduardo Cansino, was a Spanish dancer and vaudeville performer, while her mother, Volga Hayworth, was a dancer of Irish descent who performed in the Ziegfeld Follies. Rita trained at a young age as a dancer with her parents. Her future as a Hollywood mainstay was cemented early — she signed a contract with Columbia Pictures at just 16 and made her feature film debut in 1935 at age 17.
Rising to stardom in her 20s under the stage name Rita Hayworth, the Hollywood bombshell won the respect of audiences and industry elite, such as the legendary dancer Fred Astaire, with her performances in "Gilda," "The Lady From Shanghai" and "You'll Never Get Rich."
A fading star
The youngest of Hayworth's two children, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan — who Hayworth had with third husband Prince Aly Aga Khan, a French diplomat — was only in high school when her mom began exhibiting "odd" behavior.
"I would have phone conversations with her once a week [while at boarding school] and she started asking me the same questions and seemed very confused," Yasmin says. "I became very concerned but really had no control or idea what to do."
Hayworth's alarming memory problems and dramatic mood changes were also obvious to close friends and colleagues, but at the time, misattributed to alcoholism. "It was the 1970s — no one really talked about or knew what Alzheimer's was," Yasmin says. "I do believe my mother was aware that she was losing her memory but didn't know how to cope."
After graduating college in 1973 and moving to New York City, Yasmin found the distance between her and Hayworth to be detrimental. "Her doctors weren't in communication with me and her lawyers had to handle affairs on her behalf," she says. "I really felt helpless. It was very upsetting." In 1975, Hayworth suffered a collapse in Los Angeles. Yasmin successfully filed for conservatorship of her mother and relocated her to New York.
"The transition was really difficult, and witnessing her behavior was such a challenge because I had no idea what was happening," Yasmin says. "I didn't have any answers."
It wasn't until 1981, when a neurologist finally diagnosed Hayworth with Alzheimer's disease, that Yasmin fully grasped what was happening to her movie star mother. Without hesitation, Yasmin became an Alzheimer's caregiver overnight. "I was very blessed to have nursing care around the clock for her," she says. "And my family in Europe offered what support they could, but the responsibility was basically all on me, still, at that point, a young woman."
Meeting a miracle man
Hayworth's diagnosis was made public almost immediately, and Yasmin used the opportunity to call for more awareness around the disease. "I did an interview with Barbara Walters about my mother, and shortly after was contacted by a miracle man, Jerome Stone," Yasmin says. Stone, a caregiver for his wife who was living with Alzheimer's, shared that he had started a small organization for families facing the disease: the Alzheimer's Association. "He asked if I wanted to join as a board member and help start an event in New York to raise awareness and funds," Yasmin recalls. "I was terrified at the time — what did I know about raising money? But he gave me the strength and always believed we could do it, and we did."
The first Rita Hayworth Gala
took place in 1984. Since then, the event has evolved into the New York Imagine Benefit, built on the legacy of the Rita Hayworth Gala, and the Chicago Rita Hayworth Gala, which together have raised over $85 million to advance the mission of the Alzheimer's Association.
Solving a world problem
Hayworth died from the disease in 1987 at age 68. Yasmin has been an international pioneer in the cause in the decades since, advocating for increased research funding, leading the galas and serving as an advisor to the Association. In October 2022, she was recognized with the French Legion of Honor — the country's highest civilian award — for her work in raising Alzheimer's awareness around the globe.
"Denial is a world problem, one that prevents people from talking about the disease," Yasmin says. "My mother's public experience might have helped reduce stigma a bit, but there's still so much more work to be done."