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When it came to women, Columbia Pictures founder Harry Cohn was something of a Jekyll and Hyde — but mostly Hyde. On the one hand, he could be their champion: He appointed screenwriter Virginia Van Upp as an executive producer at the studio in 1946, the first woman with that title. But, just as with allegations about Harvey Weinstein — who is often compared to the fearsome Cohn — starlets in the mogul’s orbit were viewed as sexual commodities. And no one had to fend off more unwanted advances than Rita Hayworth.
Cohn discovered the Brooklyn, New York, native (born Rita Cansino) in 1936 and groomed her for Hollywood. By the mid-’40s, Hayworth was a major star, appearing in Technicolor musicals like 1944’s Cover Girl and sultry film noirs like 1946’s Gilda, while fueling GI fantasies overseas as a pinup girl. Meanwhile, Cohn relentlessly demanded that she sleep with him, bugged her dressing rooms and imposed financial penalties for insubordination.
“In front of people, Harry Cohn would say, ‘I never put a hand on her,’ ” Hayworth told The New York Times in 1970. “Of course he hadn’t put a hand on me — as if I’d let him!”
She died in Manhattan in 1987 at 68; Cohn succumbed to a heart attack in 1958 at 66. His well-attended funeral led Red Skelton to note, “It proves what Harry always said: ‘Give the public what they want and they’ll come out for it.’ ”
This story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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