In the summer of 1941, just a few months before Pearl Harbor was attacked, LIFE magazine ran a black-and-white photograph of an up-and-coming movie actress named Rita Hayworth. The redheaded beauty was kneeling on a bed made up with satin sheets. Her silky nightgown is white, with black lace trimming the low-cut top. She’s smiling slightly for photographer Bob Landry. Landry took many photos of Hayworth, but his favorite was an accidental one–his flash was too bright and this is reflected in the black silhouette reflected at Hayworth’s back. However, Landry thought this added more depth and mystery allure to the picture and submitted it to the magazine.
The details surrounding the photo shoot are unclear. One story has it that the photo was taken in Hayworth’s own bedroom, but another suggests that she knelt on a bed on the movie set of You’ll Never Get Rich. The sexy lace nightie was either made by the press agent’s mother or came from Columbia Pictures’ prop department. A flashbulb may or may not have failed — sculpting the shadow on Hayworth’s chest. One rumor has it that someone told Hayworth to take a deep breath before the famous shot, making the image even more provocative.
The snapshot would become one of the most popular pin-ups of World War II, but LIFE refused to put it on its cover, saying it was too risque. By the end of the war, more than 5 million copies of this photo were sold. Only Betty Grable sold more pin-ups. The U.S. Navy named her, “The Red-Head We Would Most Like to be Ship-Wrecked with”. She was so loved during this period that there was actually a record available with the sound of her heartbeat. A shy girl in her private life, she never enjoyed being a sex goddess. However, she took part in USO shows for the enlisted men; her then boyfriend, and soon to be husband, Orson Welles saw her in half for his magic show. Her mystique survived the World War. Alluding to her bombshell status, in 1946, her likeness was placed on the first nuclear bomb to be tested at the Bikini Atolls.