Byline: PAUL HENDRICKSON, WASHINGTON POST
Credit: WASHINGTON POST
SO THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE (SFC)
LP . Fate has some cruel sorrows in its quiver, and the story of Rita Hayworth, who slid from sex goddess to Alzheimer's victim inside of three decades, is one of them. Once, she was never lovelier - that was the name of a movie she did with Fred Astaire. Once, she married an Islamic prince. Once, she slinked through the Argentine as ""Gilda." (Audiences were said to gasp at that first sultry sight of her.) Once, or this was another part of the myth, B-29 flight jockeys decoupaged her image onto the atomic bomb. But it all went away so fast, and what came in its wake was the thing without name or explanation.
TX The way Hollywood and life devoured Marilyn Monroe is a better known parable, but it can't be any more wounding than this one. Listen to some jagged arrows in a daughter's talk, a daughter who nursed her mother in her own Manhattan apartment until she died two years ago, haggard and vacant. * The daughter's name is Princess Yasmin Aga Khan Jeffries, and she is nearly 40 years old and remarkably beautiful. A DAUGHTER'S REMEMBRANCE Rita Hayworth was about 40 when she began to go down in a way that told you there would never be any coming up again. Listen: ""It was the outbursts. She'd fly into a rage. I can't tell you. I thought it was alcoholism - alcoholic dementia. We all thought that. The papers picked that up, of course. You can't imagine the relief just in getting a diagnosis. We had a name at last, Alzheimer's! Of course, that didn't really come until the last seven or eight years. She wasn't diagnosed as an Alzheimer's until 1980. There were two decades of hell before that. ""It was so many little things in the beginning. This is way back. She'd shuffle her feet. She'd fiddle with her hands. She'd get so incredibly agitated. The paranoia, her mood swings, the funny behavior. Something in her gaze. I think it's there in "Separate Tables.' I can see it. What is the date of that movie, late '50s? . . . Just something fleeting and fragmentary in her face. And did you know it's one of my mother's favorite roles? ""Maybe she'd reorganize her closets - over and over, obsessively. I kept wondering why her clothes were ending up in my closets. I was just a girl. It was almost funny. I can go back and all of it connects now. Oh, yes, and throwing the food out of the cupboards, I mean, just going through the refrigerator and the cupboards and pitching everything out. It was hysterical, except it wasn't." "WHO'S THE PRESIDENT?' ""We went to the doctor - I'm jumping forward. He was going on about this and that, just chatting, then he said, sort of slid into it, "Well, Rita, who's the president of the United States?' And Mom caught it instantly. She totally changed. Switched the subject. Looked away. She got very gay, almost flirty, started laughing, being very charming and conversational and wonderful. It was like she was trying to get a part. ""It was just so horrible to watch. She had to know. She had to know her mind was being robbed. After she was dead I went through her things and found a book about losing your mind. She'd look at someone and say, "I know you, I know you.' Her brain just couldn't find it. It was as if she had mislaid her life. . . ." Maybe all a listener couldhope to do here is wait until it's over. And it seems over now, this four- or five-minute soft-voiced chronicle of pain and splintered memory and illogic coming from a hunched-forward and elegantly slim figure on a flowered sofa in a Northwest Washington, D.C., home. But it isn't over. Yasmin Khan Jeffries adds this, fidgeting with her blue-veined hands, playing with her long light hair, which she keeps flipping over to one side, absentmindedly, like a '40s movie siren: ""It's such a humiliating disease - for everyone. The family feels so helpless. And we've been ignorant about it as a country. All I ever wanted to do was to give Rita Hayworth peace in her last years. I suppose that's part of why I used to bring my son Andrew into her room when she was dying. Because who knows what was happening with her neurotransmitters. I want to think there was something there. I'd bring Andrew in and put him on the bed. He was just a 1-year-old then, and he'd crawl around on her bed. I want to believe that on some level my mom knew who he was, knew someone was there." A LONG SUFFERING Statistics won't tell the story, but here are several: Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, degenerative illness of the brain that is the fourth leading cause of death for American adults. Most of the time, not always, its victims are people in advanced age. Rita Hayworth died of it at 68, but she had some form of the illness in her body, in her head, for decades. The literary doctor Lewis Thomas has spoken of Alzheimer's as ""the disease of the century" - and this in the age of that other unfathomable illness, AIDS. Maybe it's the disease of the century because it steals in so insidiously. That is the Rita Hayworth story, a life going mad, a woman wearing away, never any one thing, like a million drops of water blemishing a stone. One out of every three American families is now thought to have an Alzheimer's victim in its midst, incipient or otherwise. The illness is costing the country $88 billion annually, but just $120 million of public funds is being allocated to combat it. An American family spends an average of $25,000 a year caring for its Alzheimer's victim; almost no public or private or insurance reimbursements currently exist to help. This is a large part of the reason Rita Hayworth's daughter, a woman vulnerable and extremely shy in public, came to Washington, D.C., last week. She came to put her pain on a public plate and say: Here it is. My story is awful, but there are even worse ones out there. ON A MISSION Rita Hayworth's daughter is playing with a pearl earring. The earring is ringed in diamonds, and they're not garish ones. She has on the lightest nail polish, the lightest pink lipstick impeccably applied. She has just arrived in Washington, D.C., on the Pan Am shuttle, and the reception on Capitol Hill for the Alzheimer's Association, of which she is a board member, is only 90 minutes off. Everything is running late; everything about her seems fret and nerve. She has on a pearl necklace, a double-breasted blue suit with gold buttons and built-up shoulders. She has a long narrow face, a Hollywood kind of face. She has a professionally trained lyric coloratura's voice. She gave up that career to take care of her mother. ""I couldn't do both," she says. ""Just couldn't. I believe this whole Alzheimer's, this whole degeneration, my mother's struggle, was far more important than my singing career. And I made the shift. I just did it. And anyway I was curious. "What was this?' It was alcoholism, but what else was it? I think some people might have cracked, and I suppose in this sense I'm very proud of myself." And then: ""I did it because I cared for her. Because I loved her. My being, my person - it was in me. I don't know why. I have a half-sister - she is Orson Welles' daughter - and for whatever reasons, well, anyway, I was the one. I just couldn't stand by." Did you ever think of institutionalizing her? ""Of course, think of it. Do it? Never. I mean, not even in the worst of it." Do you ever worry . . . (She has anticipated the question.) ""That I'll get it? That I have it? Yes. Yes. I worry about it all the time. I live with it. I'm not a calm person. ""There have been some hurtful articles," she says. ""Talking to people about it is part of the survival. But there have been some sensationalistic things written. I'm surprised there haven't been more." Her professional life is taken up with fund-raisers, benefits, galas, receptions, board meetings. ""I don't need the money. I have money. Maybe someday I'll go into business." A REWARDING FAMILY LIFE She has a 3-year-old son, and now a new husband, her second. They were married February 4. He is from Michigan and builds low-income housing. She has places in Deer Valley, Utah, and Southampton, and on Central Park West, which is where Rita Hayworth died on May 15, 1987. ""I don't remember the Hayworth of "Gilda.' I remember the Hayworth of "Circus World.' But that's all right. I was on the set. "Pal Joey,' too. I look at those movies, even some of the later ones, and I'm so very proud of my mother. As a kid, you're sort of awkward about it. Only in the last 10 or 15 years have I been able to appreciate what she had on the screen. I don't really know what it was. Vulnerability. Rage. Passion. I mean, all these words. They're just words. They get so very small. She had an amazing charm. My mother had this turbulent, splendid, joyous, awful life." -------------------------------- * PHOTO CUTLINE: (1) Yasmin Aga Khan Jeffries devoted herself to caring for her mother, Rita Hayworth. (2) Even in her heyday, Rita Hayworth showed subtle signs of the disease that eventually would cripple her mind, her daughter says. (3) By age 57, Hayworth's condition was critical.
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