05/08/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
ALMOST 70 YEARS AGO, WHEN A TEENAGE Ginger Rogers had just graduated from dancing the Charleston in Texas to performing in vaudeville in New York City, she was pleased to discover how effortlessly she was able to establish rapport with an audience. "I realized that there was a trick," she said later, "and that was being warm with them." A simple enough credo, but it carried Rogers through 73 movies, including the 10 unforgettable musicals in which, paired with Fred Astaire, she whirled across elegant Art Deco sets trailing feathers and chiffon, setting an unmatchable standard for dancing on film. There were also her straight-shooting performances in 1937's Stage Door, 1940's Kitty Foyle and 1942's The Major and the Minor. Robust yet glamorous, with a purposeful stride and a beauty mark on the left side of her chin, Rogers was, as TIME pronounced in 1941, "the flesh-and-blood symbol of the United States working girl."
Rogers died last week at age 83. By the end, she was virtually confined to a wheelchair—the result, she once said, of an accident suffered in the late '80s while she was dancing on tour in Australia. But even recently, "she was as spunky and chipper as you could imagine," says Steven Ames Brown, her attorney. That seems appropriate, considering that Rogers hailed from Harry Truman's hometown of Independence, Mo. But the strongly religious Rogers—who would end her phone conversations with "God bless you"—always credited her indomitability to a lifelong faith in Christian Science, which eschews doctors in favor of prayer and meditation.
She relied on that faith April 25, when she died serenely at her three-bedroom home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Very early in the morning, Rogers called out to Roberta Olden, her live-in secretary of 17 years. Olden brought her a glass of water, then waited by her bed. "There was a lot going on behind those blue eyes," says Olden. "By 6 a.m. I could see that something was going to happen."
The actress instructed Olden to call her Christian Science practitioner—her authorized healer—who read Bible passages to Rogers over the phone. Then at 7 a.m., "her breathing became labored," says Olden, "and it just stopped."
Rogers was, says attorney Brown, "one of the last examples of Hollywood royalty"—the sort of star who insisted on being called "Miss Ginger Rogers." Yet the actress, born Virginia Katherine McMath on July 16, 1911, always pointed to her beloved mother and manager, Lela, as the power behind the throne. Rogers had little to do with her father, William McMath, an electrical engineer who twice kidnapped little Ginger during custody fights with Lela. (The name Rogers came from Lela's brief second marriage to John Rogers, a life-insurance salesman.) "She was my mother and father," Rogers said. In 1921 the two of them relocated to Fort Worth, where Lela worked as a drama critic at the Fort Worth Record. Four years later 14-year-old Ginger, who had been taking singing and dancing lessons from early childhood, won a statewide Charleston contest. Ultimately that victory led her to Broadway. In 1930's Girl Crazy, the 19-year-old Rogers, who had a pleasantly girlish voice, introduced Gershwin's "Embraceable You" and "But Not for Me." That same year, she made her movie debut in Young Man in Manhattan, in which she uttered a line that would become a catchphrase: "Cigarette me, big boy." Her first screen hits came three years later, in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933.
"What a smart aleck she was in those pictures," recalls a friend, singer-actress Rosemary Clooney. "The chutzpah, the gum-cracking!" She got rid of the gum for her unforgettable dance numbers—elegant, romantic, fun—with Fred Astaire, starting in 1933's Flying Down to Rio. A typical dance routine required six weeks of 8-hour-a-day preparation, and she usually dropped 10 pounds during filming. "Ginger was a real, honest-to-God hoofer," says dancer-actress Mitzi Gaynor, a pal.
Still it bothered Rogers that her movies with Astaire, who died in 1987, tended to overshadow her other roles, including the working-girl heartbreaker Kitty Foyle, for which she won an Oscar, and Stage Door. She made movies until 1965 (her last role was Jean Harlow's mother in Harlow) but retired from the screen, she said, because she disapproved of the new frankness of Hollywood (nor, at that age, was she being offered plum roles).
Her personal life was remarkably scandal-free for a high-profile star. "Ginger led a rather simple existence," says her cousin Phyllis Cerf Wagner (widow of humorist Bennett Cerf and former New York City Mayor Robert Wagner). She didn't drink, and she kept a soda fountain in her home instead of a bar. For most of her life, she lived with her mother. She preferred sports to parties. Her chief concession to the Hollywood lifestyle, in addition to flings with Cary Grant and Howard Hughes in the '30s, was her string of failed marriages: to comic Jack Pepper, actors Lew Ayres, Jack Briggs and Jacques Bergerac, and actor-producer William Marshall.
Since Lela's death in 1977, Rogers, who had no children, lived alone, except for Olden and a small menagerie of pets that consisted, when she died, of a poodle, a beagle and three cats. One new friend in the past two years was Wings star Crystal Bernard, who met Rogers at Bob Hope's 90th birthday party in 1993. "As I got to know her," says Bernard, who would phone and occasionally visit, "I began to see the lady I always saw on the screen—all her youthfulness."
Bernard recalls one recent phone conversation, when she was feeling miserable after a bad day on the set. Rogers, to console her, remembered a similarly rough day of filming, more than half a century before. "But that's just the way it is," the old star counseled. "Let it pass, and enjoy it the best you can."
KAREN BRAILSFORD and KRISTINA JOHNSON in Los Angeles and BILL DONAHUE in Portland., Ore.