In the middle of the summer, 1911, Lela McMath gave birth to a little girl in the front room of a 2 bedroom house on Moore Street in Independence, Missouri. Shortly after, Lela divorced her husband, left her daughter with her parents and went to Hollywood to write movies. Lela’s little girl, Virginia Katherine McMath, or “Ginja” would become a Hollywood legend and Lela would be right there with her.
Ginja grew up at her grandparent’s (Walter & Saphrona Bell Owens) home on Bellefontaine Avenue in Kansas City, with frequent visits from her mother. Lela wrote several movies under a different name in Hollywood and became one of the first women Marines, working as a publicist during World War I. When Ginja was 9 Lela married John Rogers in Liberty, Missouri and the family moved to Texas. Lela landed a job as a theater reviewer for a Dallas-Forth Worth newspaper and took Ginja to work with her, which meant attending vaudville performances in the early 1920s. Ginja
learned the Charleston and won the Texas Charleston Championship in 1925, launching her vaudville career.
Ginja McMath soon became Ginger Rogers and toured across the country spending about 6 months headlining at the Ambassador Theater, at the corner of 7th and Locust in St. Louis. Lela managed her daughter’s career and soon the two moved to California: Ginger began her career in movies and Lela began a long influential career at RKO Pictures. Ginger Rogers became a Hollywood legend, most known as Fred Astaire’s leading lady (they made 10 movies together) and won an Academy Award in 1940 for her role in Kitty Foyle, she struggled to be known for her acting talent. Lela would manage Ginger’s career, negotiating her contracts and giving her advice until Lela’s death in 1977.
What made this mother/daughter team so successful? One magazine summed it up to Lela’s “faith in her daughter, shrewd head for business, iron nerves, collossal assurance and undestructible intestinal fortitude.” Lela appeared as Ginger’s mother in The Major and the Minor. The women were very close and very like minded. Ginger credited her mother with much of her success. And from what I can gather, they had admirable mutual respect, neither one overstepping boundries but instead supporting each other in all aspects.
One only has to look at the little house on Moore Street to really appreciate the humble beginnings for this mother-daughter team. The house was recently up for sale, and was purchased this past August for around $30K. Ginger visited the home in 1994 and the city presented her a plaque recognizing the home as her birthplace. Ginger Rogers also made an appearance at the opening of the JC Penney store at the Blue Ridge Mall, Kansas City. Ginger Rogers was inducted into the Hall of Famous Missourians in the State Capitol in 2009.
Backwards and in High Heels (The Ginger Rogers Musical)
Gingerology – Listen to Ginger Rogers read from her book Ginger: My Story here