Written By: Ben Cosgrove
Rita Moreno, who turned 90 on December 11, 2021, is a member of one of the entertainment world’s most exclusive clubs: she’s one of only 16 performers in history to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony—the famous “EGOT” awards superfecta. In 2015 she was honored at the Kennedy Center, and in 2019 she was given a Peabody Award for her career of achievement.
LIFE was a fan of Rita Moreno before she had won a single one of those awards. She appeared on the cover of the magazine on March 1, 1954, issue as a vivacious, bare-shouldered 22-year-old, gazing at the viewer in what might well be the most playfully sexy portrait ever to appear on the cover of LIFE.
In a recent interview Moreno, said that the way she made it on to that cover, and not the picture itself, that stirred her remarkably sharp memory.
“Do you know how I got on the cover in the first place?” she asks. “Oh, it was such a wacky thing. I Love Lucy was enormously popular at the time, sitcoms were just taking hold on television, and the Desilu people decided to go into production with some other shows including one starring Ray Bolger [best-known today as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz]. It turned out that he just wasn’t right for the medium, and the show didn’t get off the ground, but during rehearsals I happened to be on set one day when a LIFE photographer showed up to chronicle the action. Well, the pictures made it back to the editors at LIFE and, the way I heard it, someone saw me in one of the shots and said, ‘Who’s that girl?'”
“Next thing I know, LIFE calls me up about a photo shoot. The idea behind Loomis Dean’s pictures showing me in all sorts of silly poses, pretending to act out this huge gamut of emotions was ridiculous, but the photos were lovely. And I was happy to be in LIFE.” She pauses. “Oh, who am I kidding? I was fucking thrilled.
“The writer assigned to the piece, who was there during the shoot, told me that the magazine wanted a picture for the cover. I could not believe it. Twenty-two years old, and I was going to be on the cover of LIFE! But then he says, ‘I have to warn you—if Eisenhower gets a cold, you’ll get bumped.'”
At this, Moreno lets out a full, hugely contagious laugh.
As excited and proud as she was about her LIFE cover—”I was running all over, buying copies and giving them to friends, beside myself with happiness,” she says—Moreno recalls that, to her surprise, it didn’t immediately translate into significantly more work, or better, more nuanced roles. “Maybe because I was a Latina,” she says. “Who knows?”
But she also remembers that Daryl Zanuck, the legendary Hollywood producer and studio head, reportedly saw the cover and said, “Get me that girl. Can she speak English?”
“Who says that sort of thing?” the Puerto Rico-born Moreno asks, with a bemused but far from bitter chuckle.
Moreno offers one further insight into how “delicious” (her word) it was for a young actress to suddenly see her own face on the cover of arguably the most influential magazine on the planet at the time. Chuckling at the memory, she says that she “would walk into stores with a copy of the magazine, carrying it so you could see the cover, or laying it down on the counter face up, of course while I looked at a scarf or something. Oh, it was so wonderful.” And then she laughs, even louder this time.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.