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Ginger Rogers Waltzed and Acted Her Way Into Americans' Hearts

GINGER ROGERS, who passed away Tuesday, will always be remembered as America's favorite working girl and as Fred Astaire's most glamorous dancing partner.

Her years on stage and in the movies coincided with the country's recovery from the Depression of the 1930s, and the onset of the war years in the '40s. Audiences loved to see the young working girl, usually from the wrong side of the tracks, wind up with the handsome millionaire or become lost in a spin of satin and feathers as she and Astaire whirled across the ballroom floor.

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The only mentor she credited in her 1991 autobiography, ''Ginger, My Story,'' was her mother, Lela Rogers. ''She loved show business as much as I did,'' Rogers said in 1992, when I interviewed her at her home in Palm Springs, Calif.

Lela Rogers took 14-year-old Virginia on the vaudeville circuit, and then watched her go on to Broadway in the musical ''Top Speed'' in 1929. That path eventually led Ginger to the movies, where she appeared in 73 films and won the Oscar for best actress in 1940 for ''Kitty Foyle.''

The actress recalled her first meeting with Astaire. ''I was in New York rehearsing for George Gershwin's 'Girl Crazy.' The producer brought in this well-dressed man and explained that he was going to re-choreograph some of the numbers.

''Fred took my hand, and began showing me a few new steps,'' Rogers remembered. ''Later he took me out to dinner. We might have become an 'item' but I had to tell him I was leaving for Hollywood.'' They never did become a couple, but in their 10 movies together they personified romance and grace.

Her life as a film star reads like the plot of one of her movies. The first day she arrived in Hollywood by train, she attended a party and met the actor she had loved when watching movies as a youngster in Missouri. It was Lew Ayres, who became her husband. Rogers, who married five times, said that Ayres was her deepest attachment.

Rogers, who identified closely with her Christian Science faith, wanted to make movies that presented humorous, happy, entertaining characters. She disliked what she called the frankness of movies that emerged in the '60s.

When other big names were fading into the sunset, Rogers launched a new career on Broadway in 1965. She starred in ''Hello Dolly'' for the next three years, both in New York and on national tour. This led to her directing an updated version of Richard Rodgers's ''Babes in Arms.''

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At the end of my interview, just before she left for Washington to accept a Kennedy Center Honors award for lifetime achievement, I asked her to name some of her unforgettable moments.

''Seeing tears in my mother's eyes when I first held the Oscar....'' ''Working with Ronald Reagan in 'Storm Warning' and doing a really different dramatic role....'' ''Learning to dance the Carioca with Fred in our first featured role together in 'Flying Down to Rio'....'' ''Having George Gershwin ask me to sit on the piano bench with him while he played a song he'd just written for me. It was 'Embraceable You.'''

Rogers then took me on a house tour, lingering in her all-pink kitchen, where she made ''the world's best spaghetti sauce,'' and in the new room where, for the first time, friends could see her paintings, sculptures, awards, and the computer where she was working on a book about her mother.

''I hope Mom would have been proud of me,'' she said, smiling.

Audiences loved to see the young working girl become lost in a spin of satin and feathers as she whirled across the floor.

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