In a memoir that is affectionately dedicated to her daughter, Fernanda, stage and screen legend Rita Moreno takes readers from her tumultuous move from Puerto Rico to New York City as a small child through the trials and tribulations of a Hispanic woman trying to make it on Broadway and in Hollywood.
Moreno is one of the few performers to have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony, along with the National Medal of Honor. She recently concluded a one-woman show about her life entitled Life Without Makeup and currently appears on the television series “Happily Divorced” on TV Land.
No matter who you are, Moreno has probably touched your life in some way during her nearly eight decades of performing. I discovered her on the PBS children’s educational series “The Electric Company,” which typically aired after “Sesame Street” in the 1960s/70s. How surprised I was to find that she already had decades of experience under her belt, with a highlight being her glorious Oscar win for Best Performance by a Supporting Actress in 1961’s West Side Story.
"RITA MORENO is a portrait of a celebrity we all feel we know and ends up being a long and enduring saga that enlightens us to just how little we really did know about this highly successful woman. This is a journey of self-discovery that makes for a nice trip down memory lane."
RITA MORENO tells the entire story of this incredible and determined woman. The memoir opens with a young girl, suffering from a deadly bout of chicken pox, in a run-down New York City hospital in 1936. She is practically right off the boat from Puerto Rico and barely speaks any English. Rosita Delores Alverio arrived in America with her mother, leaving behind a younger brother and large family in Puerto Rico. Young Rosita survived the chicken pox, but never got over the culture shock of leaving the Technicolor world of Puerto Rico for the dreary, black and white façade of NYC. She also did not realize then that she would never see her baby brother again.
Rosita loved to dance and was a natural entertainer. She imitated Carmen Miranda at parties and found her first Broadway role at the age of 13. Her persistent mother she called “Mami” pushed her to excel because she recognized her natural talent. Mami moved them around to various homes, and men, in an effort to provide Rosita with the opportunity to succeed. Rosita’s show business career took off and sometimes even was the impetus for Mami’s failed relationships. Early in her film career, she decided on the name “Rita Moreno,” ironically taking the last name of a man her mother married and worshipped but who “Rita” never respected.
The tales of Hollywood during the Golden Age are a pleasure to read. From her discovery by Louis B. Mayer of MGM --- who compared her to a personal idol of hers, Elizabeth Taylor --- and straight through to her experiences with the likes of Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, Yul Brynner and a slew of other classic stars --- the memoir always rings true as presented by Moreno’s unique voice. The struggles of her being an ethnic actress and having to suffer through stereotypical casting, from Indian squaws to Asian princesses, reveal the darker side of this period in Hollywood.
The heartbeat of this book are Rita’s loves. Though she had been linked at times with the likes of Elvis Presley and Howard Hughes, she states that there were only two great loves of her life. The first was the legendary Marlon Brando; their relationship was volatile and full of ups and downs that featured times so low it caused Moreno to attempt suicide. The other great love was her husband of 46 years, Lenny Gordon; the last days of Lenny’s life are especially touching.
RITA MORENO is a portrait of a celebrity we all feel we know and ends up being a long and enduring saga that enlightens us to just how little we really did know about this highly successful woman. This is a journey of self-discovery that makes for a nice trip down memory lane. The most encouraging part is that it’s about someone who has loved life to the fullest and continues to maintain a positive spirit about who she is and what she has accomplished while always remaining grounded in her family.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on April 5, 2013