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October 18, 2023

The Story Behind the Iconic Pin-Up Photo of Rita Hayworth for LIFE Magazine in 1941

In August 1941, Rita Hayworth was featured in an iconic LIFE photo in which she posed in a negligee with a black lace bodice. Bob Landry’s photo made Hayworth one of the top two pin-up girls of the World War II years; the other was Betty Grable, in a 1943 photograph. For two years, Hayworth’s photograph was the most requested pin-up photograph in circulation. In 2002, the satin nightgown Hayworth wore for the photo sold for $26,888.

Bob Landry, the photographer, took many photos of Hayworth, but his favorite was an accidental one – his flash was too bright and this is mirrored in the black silhouette reflected at Hayworth’s back. However, Landry thought this added more depth and mysterious allure to the picture and submitted it to the magazine.

After doing Hayworth’s photo spread Landry was still a new photographer in the business and so he was sent to report on American naval exercises in the Pacific in December of 1941. While the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor Bob Landry was only 100 miles (160 km) out from the naval base. He was one of the first reporters to witness the carnage of the attack, but a lot of the photos he took were delayed for months due to censorship concerns. During the war, Landry would shoot five LIFE covers during his first year with the magazine.

John G. Morris in his book Get the Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism remembers:
“One day, a Columbia Pictures press agent named Magda Maskel suggested photographing Rita Hayworth in a black lace nightgown that Maskel’s mother had made. [Life’s Hollywood correspondent, Richard] Pollard and photographer Bob Landry met Maskel at Hayworth’s apartment. She knelt on a bed in the nightie, looking provocative, and Landry snapped away. Good, but something else might be done. Pollard spoke up: ‘Rita, take a deep breath.’ That was it. The perfect frame. — John G. Morris Photo editor”
By the end of the war, more than 5 million copies of this photo were sold. The US Navy named her, “The Red-Head We Would Most Like to be Ship-Wrecked With.”

Hayworth’s offscreen life, meanwhile, was frequently tough. She married five times; she struggled with alcoholism; and for the last years of her life she suffered from a disease that was only diagnosed (and given a name) a few years before she died: Alzheimer’s.

For countless Americans of a certain age, however, and for movie fans around the world, Rita Hayworth remains one of those rarest of creatures: a bona fide movie star from a classic era the Hollywood of the 1940s and ’50s that will never come again.

Rita Hayworth on August 11, 1941 LIFE cover.

(All photos taken by Bob Landry in 1941)


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