Tragic Details About Rita Moreno's Life

The following article contains references to racism, sexual assault, domestic abuse, and suicide. 

Rita Moreno's tragic life story is, unfortunately, an all too common one among the stars of Hollywood's golden era. There was no shortage of ways to control women wishing to break into the industry — from the bizarre diets Hollywood stars were expected to follow to rampant casting couch horror stories. Having endured racism, sexism, and abuse, Moreno's experiences remain salient today. Subsequently, she is defiant in wanting to tell her story to the world. "My story was profoundly relevant to what's happening in our society right now," she told The Telegraph. "I promised myself I would not indulge in any bulls***. ... At my age, what the hell am I protecting, anyway? I have the power to give people the truth and I think that can be immensely helpful."

Throughout her multiple traumas, Rivera has persevered. She made history in 1962 as the first Latina to win an Oscar and later became one of the few recipients of the prized EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award). Moreover, Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story" remake saw Moreno introduced to a whole new generation, who can learn from her wise ruminations on the pitfalls of stardom.

Get ready to cry as we run down tragic details about Rita Moreno's life.

From a young age, Rita Moreno experienced racism

Born into poverty in Puerto Rico, Rita Moreno relocated to New York City with her mom when she was 4 years old. From the outset of her arrival in the Big Apple, Moreno, who was born Rosa Dolores Alverio, was subjected to racial slurs due to her Puerto Rican heritage. "I grew up filled with self-loathing because I was a Puerto Rican," she told "60 Minutes." "When you're little, you're told you're not worth anything, you believe it."

This racism continued once Moreno entered the Hollywood sphere in the 1950s, with the young star forced to change her name by studio execs. She was also typecast. "I always had to have an accent," she told Variety in 2014, "even though I spoke better English than many of the people (who hired me). ... It dismayed me; I began to feel demeaned, that my dignity was on the line." But as the actor told BBC News, she feared that turning down such roles would be the death of her career.

It wasn't until she was cast in 1961's "West Side Story" that she began to be taken seriously as an actor. However, speaking exclusively to Women Lifestyle in 2022, Moreno told us that she was also subjected to wearing makeup that was too dark for her skin tone. "[The makeup artist] didn't understand that Puerto Ricans come in so many different colors," she said.

Rita Morena became estranged from her father and brother

Rita Moreno's mom was just 17 when she had her. She later left Moreno's father and relocated to New York. Moreno's little brother, Francisco, was left behind, with the star growing estranged from both her brother and father. She wouldn't see her father again until she was 17, when he sought an emotional reconciliation following one of Moreno's performances. However, a hurt Moreno rejected her absent father and never saw him again.

Initially, Francisco was supposed to eventually join Moreno in New York. As Moreno told Vulture, her mom initially couldn't afford to care for two kids. Though she tried to connect with her long-lost brother in the years that followed, she never saw him again. "I tried to find him, and couldn't ever make contact," she told SFGate. "I heard he died."

As she settled into her new life in New York, Moreno also began to resent her mom, who relied on her daughter to be the sole breadwinner in the family. She was also physically abused by her mom. As she detailed to Elle, "She would take a strap and smack me on the legs when she was unhappy about something that I had done or said. Or she would rap me on the head with her knuckles, which was such a loss of dignity." However, in time, she learned that her mother had also endured considerable trauma and abuse, having been sexually assaulted by her brothers as a young girl. "With my mother, it was always about her, and how things affected her," she told SFGate. "My anger toward her came out much later, followed by forgiveness."

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

Her agent sexually assaulted her

Rita Moreno revealed to CBS News that she was raped by her agent when she was a teenager — a traumatic incident that led to her developing a deep insecurity. But as the breadwinner for her impoverished family, she was forced to stay with her abusive agent. "It's an important story because of what it says about me, that I continued to let him act as my agent," she told The Telegraph. "I didn't value myself then. And I have no doubt, no doubt, that my ethnicity made him feel I was less valuable than other girls."

As her career progressed, she was subjected to further torment. When she was 17, she was approached by MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer, who offered her a contract with the prestigious studio. But with this success came the horrors of the casting couch. Moreno told The Guardian that Columbia Pictures co-founder, Harry Cohn, made vulgar sexual threats after meeting her at a party, while 20th Century Fox exec Buddy Adler began stalking her.

Seventy years after being sexually assaulted by her agent, Moreno bumped into him. She accepted an invitation to have dinner with him and his wife, as she detailed to The Guardian. "When his wife went to the bathroom, he came back to the day he raped me and said: 'You know, I always wished I had made you pregnant' ... I was so horrified that all I was able to say was: 'You're a piece of work.'" She walked out and didn't look back.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Rita Moreno was mocked over her looks

Many of Old Hollywood's beauty standards were rooted in white supremacy. As a Latina, Rita Moreno was frequently reduced to sexist and stereotypical roles. "I feel very sad—for me," she told The New York Times. "I didn't know how to fight back. I was, believe it or not, a rather shy girl, because I had been made to feel that I had no value."

Moreover, due to her ethnic background and beauty, she was routinely viewed as a sex object. In an interview with Yahoo! Entertainment, she conceded that she once engaged in victim-blaming, believing that she was asking to be viewed as a sex object due to the fact that she enjoyed wearing a lot of makeup, tight clothing, and statement jewelry. However, she now realizes that she wasn't inviting criticism of her appearance. "On the other hand, as the #MeToo movement would say right now: Well, f*** them!" she said. "You can dress any damn way you please. You can wear as many loop earrings, and as low-cut a neck as you want, and that's also true."

The actor was betrayed by friends

Hollywood is a cut-throat industry. Rita Moreno learned this the hard way following the dissolution of a number of friendships. During an appearance on "The View," she revealed that she was bullied by mean girls during her early career. She was able to channel her resentment when she played an unsavory character in the film "The Prank." "I thought of all the women in my life — particularly in show business — who'd really been awful to me. All of these b****es," she revealed (via Entertainment Weekly). "I said to myself, I thought, I'm going to use all of the things that they did with me and my little Puerto Rican past, and that's what I do. Boy was that fun."

Appearing on "CBS Sunday Morning" in 2023 with her "80 for Brady" co-stars Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sally Field, Moreno opened up about being betrayed by her pals in the industry. "I don't have many friends," she said. "And I don't have many friends in show business either. I don't trust them. I've been betrayed so many times by them and my stupid insistence on believing in people who were really not very nice to me." Fonda reassured her co-star that she, Tomlin, and Field would always be there for her, with Moreno accepting the sweet gesture of friendship from her peers.

Rita Moreno attempted suicide

Rita Moreno and Marlon Brando's relationship was a tragic one, blighted by abuse and infidelity. The pair first met in 1954, and Moreno was instantly smitten. Over the next seven years, the two embarked on an affair that was equal parts torrid and toxic, with Brando exhibiting his cruel side. "He broke my heart and came close to crushing my very spirit with his physical infidelities and, worse, with his emotional betrayals," Moreno wrote in her eponymous memoir.

In 1961, Moreno tried to end her life in Brando's home and would have died had her lover's assistant not promptly called an ambulance. "It wasn't done for drama, that's for sure," she told The Guardian. "What I really wanted to do was kill the bad Rita who was always getting me in trouble, but it turned out if you're going to kill the bad Rita, you're also going to kill the good one."

It took years for Moreno to recover from the emotional abuse that Brando inflicted. "I was in therapy," she told The Telegraph. "I was in love with him for a long time after it ended. But I knew this man was poison. My doctor told me he was poison. I could never see him again." Ultimately, Moreno chose life over Brando. Nevertheless, the two rekindled their friendship some years later, and Moreno spoke to Brando frequently until his death in 2004. When Brando died, a photo of him and Moreno was found in his house.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.

She almost died from a botched abortion

During the course of her relationship with Marlon Brando, Rita Moreno became pregnant. Her lover ordered her to have an abortion, which was illegal at the time. Moreno told Variety that Brando paid a doctor to perform an abortion, but the procedure went terribly wrong. As was common for women before the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, Moreno suffered life-threatening complications; she began bleeding and was admitted to the hospital. "The doctor didn't do anything really, except make me bleed," she told Variety. "In other words, he didn't do it right. I didn't know it then, but I could have died. ... What a dreadful mess." Thankfully, Moreno's life was saved.

When Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022, Moreno was devastated. "I wept," she told BBC News. "I couldn't believe it. I'm absolutely astonished because of what it does to very young women. It's always the poor people, the people who are struggling to survive who get the worst of this."

Moreover, she told Variety that she feared the end of Roe v. Wade would lead to women once again seeking out potentially dangerous back-alley abortions. "I'm really nervous and frightened and horrified that this is taking place," she said.

She lost her husband of 45 years

For 45 years, Rita Moreno was married to cardiologist Leonard Gordon, with whom she had a daughter, Fernanda. In 2010, Gordon died at the age of 90. The following year, Moreno channeled her grief in her autobiographical play "Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup," in which she reflected on the couple's relationship. "It's very touching, but it's not morose. ... When I do talk about him in the play, boy, it's hard not to cry," she told the Bay Area Reporter. "But I don't want the audience to feel they're being worked."

In an interview with HuffPost, she revealed that her husband's death led to her experiencing money woes, since Gordon was in charge of the couple's finances. "Looking back, it would have been much wiser for us to have taken the time to share that information with each other," she reflected. "Losing him was hard enough, but the added stress of not knowing anything about our insurance or finances made it even tougher." Subsequently, she has campaigned for widows to take charge of their finances, lending her name to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners' "Life Unscripted" initiative.

Rita Morena regrets not leaving her controlling husband

Though she loved Leonard Gordon, Rita Morena was plagued by uncertainty throughout her 45-year marriage. As she told SFGate, she and Gordon were polar opposites, he being stubborn and restrained, whereas she was always vivacious and emotional. As such, she sometimes wondered if she was better off without him. "But if you are with a really fine person, as I was, despite the difficulties, you stay," she said.

For all of Gordon's positive attributes, he became unhappy when Moreno decided that she wanted to forge her own path in life rather than be reliant on a man. "The day I wanted to start growing up is when my marriage really became torture for me," she told The New York Times. "And for him. My husband was a terrific man, just not a good husband."

Speaking to The Daily Beast, she described her husband as possessive and controlling of her every move. "I was going insane," she said. "It was horrific because no one else had a clue. I played a role for a very, very long time." Gordon's death, though devastating, ultimately proved liberating for Moreno. Subsequently, she admitted to People that were it not for the couple's daughter, she would have left Gordon long ago – a regret that she still lives with. "This marriage taught me something about relationships that I didn't like, and that is having to be with somebody forever and ever is not necessarily a fabulous thing," she conceded.

She was devastated by the death of Chita Rivera

In the original 1957 Broadway run of "West Side Story," Chita Rivera starred as Anita, a role later made famous by Rita Moreno in the big screen adaptation. For many years, Rivera and Moreno were close friends, with people often mistaking the two actors due to their shared role.

In January 2024, Rivera died, aged 91. Moreno paid a heartfelt tribute to her late friend. "Chita Rivera is eternal," she said in a statement to People. "I remember seeing her for the first time in Mr. Wonderful and exclaiming, 'Oh my God, who is that?' When I found out that this astonishing creature was one of my people, I crowed with pride." Moreno added that she found comparisons between herself and Rivera to be an honor.

Appearing at the Academy Awards ceremony two months later, Moreno paid a sweet tribute to Rivera via her black pixie cut, the late star's signature hairdo. "When I looked in the mirror, I thought, 'My god, I look like Chita,'" she told Entertainment Tonight. "So you can say it's an homage."

In her later years, Rita Moreno has struggled with loneliness

Widowed and in her 90s, Rita Moreno began to experience a profound sense of loneliness. These feelings intensified when she moved out of her large house and into a condo in 2023. These struggles became so severe that they ended up affecting the actor's appetite. When her daughter, Fernanda, asked her what was wrong, Moreno struggled to articulate her feelings. "I really didn't understand what was happening," she told People. "I remember thinking, 'I can't go on like this.' I'm in the most beautiful apartment in the world as far as I'm concerned, and this is happening. Why is this happening?"

She underwent psychotherapy and came to the realization that she was struggling to adjust to change, namely being farther away from friends and family after moving into the condo. Subsequently, she decided to make new friends, befriending people at the grocery store.

As she gets older, Moreno has also come to terms with her mortality. "I do think about death now," she told Elle. "I'm in the third act of my life and it's very important for me to be realistic and face things. I'm constantly saying to Fernanda [my daughter], 'If there's anything you need to say to me, say it now. Don't spend your life regretting that you didn't share something with me.'"