America Comment

Grace Kelly, Rita Hayworth and two kinds of American Catholicism

Grace Kelly took the route of assimilation. Hayworth remained exotic

If one were to tell the story of Catholic America in the 20th century, one could do worse than contrast the careers of Grace Kelly and Rita Hayworth. Both were Catholic girls who became Hollywood royalty and married actual princes – but their personas could not have been more different.

Grace Kelly embodied a perfectly American and classically Protestant elegance. As John Ford observed, she had “breeding, quality and class”. She brought these qualities to her portrayals of the Quaker bride (Amy Fowler Kane in High Noon), the Park Avenue socialite (Lisa Fremont in Rear Window), and the Newport divorcée (Tracy Samantha Lord in High Society). Her success in these WASPy roles made her the image of the Catholic who could assimilate into mainstream society.

Hayworth, who was born Margarita Carmen Cansino, projected a more exotic kind of glamour. Her first husband persuaded her to take an Anglo-sounding name and to WASPify her hairline with electrolysis, but directors nonetheless tended to cast her as aristocratic foreigners or superstitious working women. Her characters had love affairs with toreadors (Blood and Sand), defended the Church (The Wrath of God), and lived by the rhythms of carnival and Lent (Gilda). Femme fatale rather than girl next door, Hayworth was the image of a Catholicism that remains foreign, deadly and strange.

The contrast between Kelly and Hayworth is the same one Christopher Dawson drew between Hannah More and Teresa of Avila, between Adamesque and Baroque. One can see it in the case of William F Buckley and his brother-in-law Brent Bozell. Buckley adopted a hyper-WASP identity, hiring the Whiffenpoofs to sing at his dinner parties, wearing Brooks Brothers button-downs, and praising capitalism and bourgeois culture. Bozell rejected Protestant society and valorised Catholic Spain. Along with his friend Don Frederick Wilhelmsen (dubbed a Knight of the Grand Cross of the Banished Legitimacy by the Carlist pretender Javier de Borbón), he defended the way of life that Hayworth’s films romanticised.

For most members of my grandparents’ generation, there was no question which of these two models of Catholic life was more attractive. Grace Kelly, like Bing Crosby and JFK, embodied American Catholics’ hopes for social acceptance and economic success in a Protestant society that had tempered its anti-Catholicism while maintaining a certain respect for the moral law. In the wake of Roe, Casey and Obergefell, it seems to me worth asking whether a less assimilated form of Catholic life stands a better chance of advancing the faith. Despite (or because of) her deviations from bourgeois respectability, Hayworth’s example suggests the answer is yes.

Unlike Grace Kelly, whose wanderings remained relatively discreet, Hayworth was unable to prevent her sins from becoming scandals. Her marriage to Prince Aly Khan, leader of the Ismaili Muslims, was the third of five unions (another was to Orson Welles).

But Hayworth did hold to certain firm – Catholic – moral principles. When Aly Khan offered her favourable divorce terms on the condition that she raise their daughter as a Muslim, Hayworth refused. “It is my earnest wish that my daughter be raised … in the Christian faith,” she said. “There just isn’t anything else in the world that can compare with her sacred chance to do that.” When Hayworth learned that her photo had been placed on the fourth atomic bomb (nicknamed “Gilda” by engineers), she was furious.

A sign of her deep and lasting association with an exotic kind of Catholic faith can be found in her last role, in the 1972 Western Wrath of God. It is far from an essential Hayworth film (those would be Gilda, You’ll Never Get Rich, The Strawberry Blonde, Only Angels Have Wings, You Were Never Lovelier, The Lady from Shanghai and Blood and Sand), but it is nonetheless a fitting end to her great career. Hayworth plays Señora de la Plata, the mother of an anti-clerical caudillo who bars a Fr Van Horne (Robert Mitchum) from administering the sacraments in a Mexican village. The señora reminds her son that “God did not cease to exist because one priest or a thousand priests failed him.” When her son finds her in a church and asks why she came, she replies, “Because God is here.”

We should not dismiss the influence of such performances. If, in the early part of the 19th century, Walter Scott’s medieval fictions could prepare the imaginations of young Englishmen for Tractarianism, it seems not impossible that the films of Hayworth inclined idealistic young men like Brent Bozell and Fritz Wilhelmsen to dream of building castles in New Spain.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things and a Robert Novak journalism fellow

This article first appeared in the October 26 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here