Rebecca Welles: Unraveling the life of the daughter of Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles (2022)

By RAY KELLY

For Orson Welles aficionados, the life of Rebecca Welles, his daughter with screen siren Rita Hayworth, is shrouded in mystery.

Rebecca Welles, who died on October 17, 2004, led a far more private life than her celebrity parents.

She spent much of her adult life in Tacoma, Washington. She declined to be interviewed by Barbara Leaming for a 1989 book on Hayworth, even though Leaming had penned a largely sympathetic biography of Welles a few years earlier. Her most revealing comments about her parents appeared in a seldom seen January 1972 Roto article.

Rebecca Welles was delivered by Caesarian section at a Santa Monica hospital on December 17, 1944. In her moving book In My Father’s Shadow, Chris Welles Feder recalls her half-sister’s arrival. “She was a cute baby who smiled, gurgled and looked exactly like our father.”

Hollywood fan magazines featured warm and fuzzy photographs of Hayworth and Welles with their new baby daughter, sometimes accompanied by her sister Chris. The two sisters remained in contact throughout Rebecca Welles’ life.

But Hayworth and Welles’ marriage faltered and they divorced on November 10, 1947. Hayworth was awarded custody and Welles ordered to pay $50 a week in child support. Hayworth sued Welles for $22,450 in unpaid child support nine years later.

Hayworth was investigated for child neglect in April 1954 when she left 9-year-old Rebecca and her younger half-sister, Yasmin Aga Khan, with a babysitter in New York, while she traveled to Florida with her fourth husband, singer Dick Haymes. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children stepped in after neighbors complained that the oldest girl was not in school and both were playing in trash.

Rebecca Welles grew up with a mother, who was battling alcoholism, emotional issues and undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease; and a father who was far more concerned with movie making than child rearing.

She had attended boarding schools and summer camps in France, Switzerland and California. “It wasn’t because Mother was filming in so many places, it was because she was married so often,” she once remarked of the five-time married Hayworth.

Rebecca Welles would see her father occasionally in Europe. There are photos of the two touring Pisa, Italy, in October 1955. As a teenager, she vacationed with Welles’ third wife, Paola Mori, and half-sister Beatrice Welles in the Austrian Alps, with her father set to join them in Spain, according to a circa 1960 letter Welles wrote to longtime friend Leonard Lyons.

She had concerns about Hayworth’s behavior. At 19, she left a Christmastime gathering in Madrid because she was upset by her mother’s drinking, according to Bernard Gordon’s Hollywood Exile.

She engaged in an on-again, off-again relationship with fellow Pasadena Playhouse actor Michael Flores, which began in the summer of 1964. Hayworth, according to multiple news reports of the day, was unhappy her daughter had gotten engaged to the former blackjack dealer just three weeks after they had met.

Rita Hayworth’s teenage daughter by Orson Welles, Rebecca, won’t be going back to California’s Pasadena Playhouse. Instead she’ll go to school in Seattle. Rebecca wants to avoid running into former fiance Michael Flores, who is going back to the drama school where they met,” according to an October 23, 1964 article in the Deseret News. Several other news outlets confirmed that Rebecca Welles had broken offer the brief engagement.

She enrolled in 1964 and later graduated from the University of Puget Sound, a private liberal arts college in Tacoma.

As early as May 13, 1965, syndicated Hollywood Reporter columnist Mike Connolly set a June 27 date for the Flores-Welles wedding, noting that the bride-to-be’s famous parents did not approve of the union. No source for this tidbit was given and no wedding occurred. Speaking from his hometown of Saginaw, Michigan, Flores told a reporter on August 5, 1965 that the two had reconciled and she had his engagement ring. (Flores went on to become a successful Las Vegas real estate developer).

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Orson Welles, then living in Spain, wrote in a January 1966 letter to friend Leonard Lyons, “My request for Becky’s address came from a silence on her part that made me assume she might have left college, and even – as the papers have reported – got married.”

He did not know his 21-year-old daughter was pregnant. On March 31, 1966, Rebecca Welles secretly gave birth to a son. Hayworth arranged for the adoption, according to Chris Welles Feder.

The identity of the father has never been revealed.

The baby boy was adopted by Carol and Loren McKerrow of Montana and named Marc McKerrow.

“After giving birth, Becky woke up in a private room and never saw her baby. Nor did she ever meet Marc (McKerrow) in later life, although he had contacted her through the adoption agency. By that time Becky was already seriously ill,” Chris Welles Feder told Wellesnet.

Orson Welles never knew of his grandson. Marc McKerrow, 44, died on June 18, 2010, having learned the identity of his celebrity grandparents several years earlier.

In 1969, Rebecca Welles met her first husband, Tacoma sculptor Perry Moede. They wed in March 1970.

“About a week ago, I became in a very quiet ceremony Mrs. Rebecca Moede. I married a long-haired, tall, thin, lanky, blue-eyed, warm, artistic (Perry Andrew Moede) [who] wants to be a sculptor,” she wrote ina two-page handwritten letter to Welles, his wife, Paola, and her half-sister, Beatrice dated March 4, 1970.

She added, “We got married in my living room with only the two required witnesses, the minister, and us, of course.”

The newlyweds were living in her apartment, with her dog, Cordelia, but hoped to get a home furnished with antiques, she wrote in the letter, which is part of the Welles collection at theNational Cinema Museum in Turin.

Rebecca Welles twice expresses a strong desire to see her father, step-mother and half-sister soon.

Her father obviously responded since in an undated followup letter she provided a new address, adding, “I heard your message about wanting to be a granddaddy — time and will will tell.”

The relationship between Becky and her famous parents apparently grew apart in the year following her marriage.

The newspaper magazine Roto published an article on January 16, 1972 by Rebecca Welles Moede, culled from a conversation with writer Jerry LeBlanc.

The 27-year-old talked at length about living in poverty next to a slaughterhouse in a crime-infested neighborhood. Her husband bought her a gun after a failed burglary of their home. She found life in Tacoma drab, except for visits to a local tavern. She missed a life of travel and fine clothes. Most importantly, she characterized her relationship with her famous parents as somewhat estranged and noted that financial support from Hayworth had dried up after college.

“Sometimes I am real bitter about it, about what being a child of celebrities has done to me. It doesn’t always bother me but my life here in Tacoma, Wash., is pretty drab right now and if I had the money I’d love to move somewhere else, Europe or even San Francisco. I could ask Mother or dad for the money but the fact is if I wrote home for money, I wouldn’t get it. It’s hard to explain why – I guess they are just like that. Mother and Father, Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles, have never been here to Tacoma. Not even when my husband Perry Moede and I were married. They know where I am, but as far as they are concerned I’m on my own. Perhaps it’s just as well.”

Her parents’ side of the story differed.

Hayworth had already reacted to what she described as a “scandal sheet” (likely the National Enquirer of September 27, 1970) report on Rebecca Welles’ life in an interview with the Palm Beach Post on November 13, 1970.

“Becky’s gone to college. I did that. She moved into a 2-story house with her sculptor husband, who is also working a part-time job. If they want to call that poverty, let them… And Rebecca is now 25. I sent her to school and college and she is married, and I think they should be on their own.”

Hayworth added with a laugh, “On the (Dick) Cavett show, Orson said that Rebecca is a girl who’s ‘studying to be a flower child.’ I loved that. So I get a letter from Rebecca saying, ‘Maybe I should go to work, Mother.'”

Chris Welles Feder said she “often loaned her (sister) small sums of money which she always returned. I suspected that what she needed more than the money was the reassurance that I was still there for her.”

Rebecca Welles told Roto that she had last visited Hayworth in Beverly Hills in the late 1960s. She described her mother as a warm person with a “passion for living.” Although mother and daughter were on speaking terms, Rebecca Welles admitted “neither of us is much for writing a lot of letters.”

She had no way of knowing her mother had Alzheimer’s disease, which was not diagnosed until 1980. Hayworth’s symptoms began to appear in the 1960s and worsened in the 1970s, a period later described by Yasmin Aga Khan as “two decades of hell.”

Rebecca Welles told Roto readers that although she had appeared with her father in a 1971 ad for Jim Beam bourbon, he spent little time with her on the set. (Welles biographer/nemesis Charles Higham claimed Welles lined up commercial work for his middle daughter after learning of her financial plight).

She added she was unsure where her father was living at the time or how to get in touch with him.

“I never spent enough time with Father to get to know him well. He’s very quiet and very moody. Very, very moody. When I was a little girl, I remember how you had to wait for him to talk first. No one would dare talk because you didn’t know if he was busy thinking about something, so you would sit and wait to see if he was ready to talk. If he didn’t talk, he would just sit and think and nobody dared disturb him. But he could be so affectionate too. Just suddenly proving how much he cared. Once he sent me a scrapbook two inches thick, full of ink drawings and watercolors all done by himself especially for me, telling me all about St. Tropez and with ‘For Rebecca’ on the cover. That was Christmas 1957 and it was the best present I ever got. I still carry it around everywhere.”

Chris Welles Feder, and her late husband, Irwin, arranged for the auction of the scrapbook, which led to the publication Les Bravades: A Portfolio of Pictures Made for Rebecca Welles by Her Father in 1996. (“I was sad to see it leave the family, but she badly needed money,” Chris Welles Feder said).

Snippets of Rebecca Welles’ painfully candid Roto article were woven into a snide February 1972 wire service report about the daughter of two Hollywood legends living “mostly on welfare” with her “hippie husband” in a rundown Tacoma house. It noted Rebecca Welles Moede “looks (unfortunately) rather like her father.”

Rebecca Welles and Perry Moede separated in the mid 1970s and divorced in 1984.

Perry Moede, a noted abstract artist living in the Northwest, told Wellesnet that Rebecca Welles and her parents could be “pretty much unfair to each other.”

He found Hayworth to be stand-offish with an enormous ego and a drinking problem.

“In Orson’s defense, after that Jim Beam ad he lined up jobs for both us in Hollywood – acting jobs for her and a behind-the-scenes job for me. It would have been great. She didn’t want any part of it,” Perry Moede said. “She was an extremely reclusive and really shy person.”

For a time, Rebecca and Perry Moede earned money selling her story, he said. There were outright fabrications. For example, the slaughterhouse mentioned in the Roto article was miles away from their home, though they did live in a “crappy neighborhood,” he said.

The couple grew apart in the mid 1970s. Rebecca Welles could be difficult, her ex-husband said, adding sympathetically that she had grown up “in a strange world.” To the best of Moede’s knowledge, she (briefly) held only one job, an assistant to a dentist.

“She said she hated looking down people’s mouths. I can’t blame her.”

A stipend from Hayworth ceased after Rebecca Welles wed, though she inherited money after the death of her parents.

Perry Moede received divorce papers in 1984 and signed them. He said he had occasional contact with his ex-wife in her final years.

How close Rebecca Welles was to her father before his death in 1985 is uncertain. She had apparently not seen Hayworth between 1976 and 1983.

A court investigator determined in 1981 that Hayworth could not “take care of her physical needs relating to health, food, clothing and shelter and requires personal assistance in her home for these needs, nor (can she) maintain bank accounts or personal records. She is unable to address any question or explanation clearly.” Yasmin Aga Khan was granted conservatorship in July 1981 and moved her mother to New York City.

In his highly informative book Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts, Todd Tarbox recounted a July 21, 1983 conversation between the two old friends centering on Rebecca Welles’ decision to visit the ailing Hayworth.

ORSON: Becky goes to see Rita next week.

ROGER: Oh, really?

ORSON: Yes. She hasn’t seen her in seven years.

ROGER: She won’t recognize her daughter.

ORSON: No. Rita now doesn’t even know Yasmin, whom she sees every day. I’m awfully worried about Becky’s visit. I wish I could discourage her because she hasn’t seen Rita in so many years. It’s going to be a very shocking experience. Becky’s a sensitive girl.

Rebecca Welles attended the small, private funeral of her 70-year-old father in October 1985. Nineteen months later, she was photographed walking alongside Yasmin Aga Khan at the star-studded burial of their 68-year-old mother.

“I will always count it as a great loss that I never got to know Father, but it is just as great a loss that he never got to know me,” wrote Rebecca Welles in a diary entry cited by Welles scholar Joseph McBride in a 2009 article for Bright Lights Film Journal.

Sometime after her parents’ deaths, one account sets the date as March 16, 2002, Rebecca Welles wed Guy Manning, a Tacoma resident she had known for decades. He was a U.S. Navy veteran with a love of fishing, hunting, gambling and hydro-plane racing. (He died in October 2012 at the age of 68).

Rebecca Welles Manning’s obituary, which ran in Tacoma’s News Tribune on October 21, 2004, provided scant details on her final years, noting she was a “true artist at heart,” who was survived by her second husband and a large extended family. It failed to notice she died on what would have been Hayworth’s 86th birthday.

Her hometown newspaper reported her age as 60, though she passed away two months short of that milestone.

“Rebecca Welles Manning, 60, passed away peacefully October 17, 2004 at home in Tacoma, WA. Rebecca was born to Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, December 17, 1944 in Santa Monica, CA. Rebecca grew up and was educated in many places around the world. Rebecca chose the University of Puget Sound for her college education, where she received a degree in the Arts.
Soon after graduation, she met her future husband, Guy Manning. Rebecca loved to write and was a true artist at heart. Those of us who have had the privilege of having Rebecca in our lives will sincerely miss her.
Rebecca is survived by her loving husband, Guy Manning; son Marc Welles; stepchildren Kristine (Manning) Scholtz, Michael Manning, Brandi Manning; sisters Yasmin Aga Khan, Christopher Welles Feder, Beatrice Welles O’Donaghue; eight grandchildren, and many other family and long time friends. A memorial service for friends and family will be held Friday, October 22, 2004, 4 pm – 8 pm at Tuell-McKee Funeral Home, 2215 Sixth Ave., Tacoma.”

Commenting in an online guest book, friends recalled her “beautiful and distinctive voice” and “quiet and accurate wit.” One expressed happiness that “she spent so many years with somebody she loved and who loved her.”

The cause of her death was not revealed in news reports, though Chris Welles Feder told Wellesnet that her sister “had this terribly aggressive cancer that carried her off very quickly.”

In the Roto article, Rebecca Welles sadly summed up her celebrity parents and her relationship with them.

“One of the things I like best about Father was that he didn’t seem to care about the whole thing, the fuss and bother and whether he was an actor or not… he never spent as much time in Hollywood as Mother did.

He and Mother, especially Mother, could be very affectionate for awhile, but it was always such a short while.”

Chris Welles Feder said she remained her sister’s “confidant and the keeper of her secrets” until the end.

“Although Becky and I rarely saw one another due to geographical distance and Becky’s reluctance to travel and accept my many invitations to visit me in New York, she was a sweet presence in my life and I still miss her,” she said. “She had far more on the ball than people gave her credit for, and she had an innate dignity and graceful carriage which reminded me of Rita.”

Special thanks to Chris Welles Feder, Perry Moede, Joey van der Veen, Joseph McBride and Mike Teal.
_________

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