The First American Celebrity To Marry Into Royalty Had A Shocking Life

Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images.
Meghan Markle is living out what some actually, many — call a fairy tale romance. Markle is far from royal stock, though. She’s a 36-year-old biracial American divorcée who, before giving up her career for love and philanthropy, worked as an actress. Given the history of British monarchical marriages, that Prince Harry is marrying Markle is quite remarkable. Just a generation ago, Meghan’s future father-in-law, Prince Charles, was pressured to marry a virgin; two generations ago, Princess Margaret was forbidden from marrying Group Captain Peter Townsend because he had been previously married.
Markle and Harry's marriage is representative of the leaps and strides that the British monarchy is taking towards modernization. In one regard, though, Markle is actually not that unusual — she is hardly the first American actress to make the transition from Hollywood to royalty.
Likely, the instance of an actress marrying a royalty that immediately comes to mind is that of Grace Kelly. At 26 years old, Kelly was already a Hollywod mega-star, known especially for her collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock. During a photo shoot at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955, Kelly met Prince Rainier of Monaco, spurring a courtship similarly referred to as a “fairy tale romance." Within the year, Kelly and Rainier were married in an ornate and televised ceremony. After being initiated into the Monacan royal family, Kelly was expected to distance herself from her past. She gave up her American citizenship and her acting career, and her movies were banned in Monaco.
While Kelly is the most famous instance of an American actress trading in one type of fame for another, she’s actually not the first actress to do so. In 1949, six years before Kelly met her Monacan prince, Rita Hayworth married Prince Aly Khan in a swirl of drama that likely would make for a much more salacious movie adaptation than Kelly and Rainier’s romance, or Markle and Harry’s. Aly Khan was the son of the Aga Khan III, the spiritual leader the Ismaili Shia Muslims, and heir to his father's position.
If you’re a classic movie buff, you probably recognize Hayworth from her role as Gilda in the noir film Gilda (1947), or as Elsa in her then-husband Orson Welles’ movie The Lady From Shanghai. But the rest of us know Hayworth from a far more contemporary work of pop culture: The Shawshank Redemption. In that classic movie, Andy (Tim Robbins) digs an escape tunnel behind the poster of Hayworth he had hung in his jail cell (the original Stephen King novella was called Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption).
Hayworth, as the iconic Shawshank Redemption reference shows so well, was a total bombshell. So in 1948, when Aly Khan, international playboy, found out Hayworth was on the French Riviera when he was, he knew had to see her. Never mind that Hayworth was still reeling from her separation from husband Orson Welles, with whom she had a young daughter. Never mind that he was still married to another woman. Khan wasn't the kind of guy to worry about such practicalities.
Through a series of seductions, Khan had developed a reputation for extravagant and excessive romances. He supposedly went on a retreat to study an Egyptian tantric art that allowed him to stay virile for hours. An excerpt in Anne Edward’s book, Throne of Gold, gives a good picture: ‘“The trouble with Aly,’ an intimate of his ventured, ‘is that he is grossly oversexed. If he would stop chasing women he probably would be all right. But the man must have three or four of them at a time. He doesn’t chase tarts. He runs after lots of decent, respectable women. And he has made many enemies doing it.’”
It was simple: the “grossly oversexed” Khan saw Hayworth and decided he wanted her. Khan, like so many men, had been entranced by Hayworth’s “love goddess” image. Years before, in 1941, Welles pursued Hayworth after seeing her pin-up photos in Life Magazine. When it came to the actual relationship part, Welles faltered. Welles had affairs with many women (including Judy Garland) and had left her around the time that Khan met Hayworth.
Khan arranged the meeting through his friend, gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell. Maxwell invited Hayworth to her party at the Palm Beach Casino, which Khan was also attending. Hayworth made a grand entrance in a white gown; Khan was there to greet her when she descended the last stair and stayed with her for the rest of the party. In the ensuing weeks, Khan enacted a serious seduction plan. He invited Hayworth to his seaside villa, whisked her away for a motoring trip to Spain, and even got a psychic to tell her she'd fall in love.
Khan followed Hayworth to California, where she lived with her daughter, Rebecca. During that time, Hayworth got pregnant, which complicated their affair. Essentially, the threat of an illegitimate child forced Khan into marrying Hayworth. Miraculously, Khan’s father, the Aga Khan, agreed that his son could divorce his wife (whom he’d met while she was married) and be with Hayworth.
According to Welles, the marriage was doomed to fail. “She was marrying the most promiscuous man in Europe,” Welles said, “just the worst marriage that ever could have happened. And she knew it! It was a fatal marriage, the worst thing that could have happened to her. He was charming, attractive, a nice man...but the wrong husband for her," Edwards reports in her book.
Despite everyone’s misgivings, the lavish ceremony at l’Horizon on the Riviera proceeded, complete with 600 bottles of champagne and 50 pounds of caviar. But, as Welles predicted, the marriage soured. Hayworth gave birth to their daughter, Yasmin, in 1949. Soon after, the newlyweds went on a months-long tour of Africa, where they fought vehemently. Hayworth stormed off and flew back to the United States herself, where she initiated the divorce process.
By then, Khan already set his eyes on another American actress: Gene Tierney. This time around, Khan’s father was less cooperative with his son’s romantic whims. He refused his son’s wishes to marry her. Tierney, who was in love with Khan, was devastated. Khan left her after he was unable to handle her reaction. She went home to America and had a nervous breakdown.
Khan died in 1960, after the Aga Khan III disrupted thousands of years of tradition and chose his grandson — not his son — as his successor.
Moral of the story? Don’t let American actresses date Aly Khan. Or at least, warn American actresses before they get involved with royalty, because their lives are about to change.

More from Pop Culture

R29 Original Series