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Rita Moreno: Life can be bright in America

As tell-all celebrity memoirs go, the one written by Rita Moreno may be worthy of a film adaptation. 

The woman born Rosita Dolores Alverio 81 years ago was the first Hispanic to win an Emmy, Tony, Grammy and Oscar, although she reveals in her new autobiography, "Rita Moreno: A Memoir," that Hollywood success did not come without early stereotyping, emotional cruelty, chronic infidelity and at least one suicide attempt.

"It's one thing to write a book, but it’s quite another thing to have someone play you in a movie. Ooh, toi toi toi!" Moreno says with a laugh, pretending to spit the way stage performers do to rid themselves of superstitions. The actress, the star of "The Electric Company," "Oz," and "West Side Story," will discuss her book Friday at Books and Books in Coral Gables and Saturday at the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale.

Moreno, speaking by phone from the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, says she was convinced to write a memoir after reliving the grandeur of her career in 2011's one-woman show "Life Without Makeup." In it, she covered her early "Latin spitfire" roles portraying sexpots and her romantic flings with Hollywood heavyweights Dennis Hopper, Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando.

In her book, she delves further, dedicating three chapters to her protracted and torrid affair with Brando, describing how she was "addicted to the challenge of winning him over and over again," she writes. The emotionally draining affair would last several years, even while Brando married twice, ending when Moreno’s depression led to a suicide attempt in 1961.

"It really was an obsessive love affair," Moreno recalls, describing the time she would date Elvis Presley "just to make Brando jealous." "I had no use for Elvis Presley. I wasn’t even curious. He had nice smile, and the truth was, he was an attractive young man. So I really tried to be kind in the book, but he was shy, and we had nothing in common. He was a man-child and not very well-educated. When you compare him with Marlon, I mean, dear God!"

Ripped from her "paradisiacal" home in Puerto Rico at age 5 by her mother, Moreno came to the Bronx in 1936, enrolling in dance classes until a talent scout helped land her an audition with Hollywood studio impresario Louis B. Mayer at age 16.

"Oh, my goodness, my mother was soooo brave when I think of it now," Moreno says. "She came to this country not knowing a word of English. She got a job very quickly sewing at a sweatshop factory, and she was a pioneer moving to New York in the 1930s before the big Puerto Rican immigration. But when you’re a kid, you don’t realize things like that. You think you’re being torn away. It was only after I was married that I realized she was a hell of a woman."

Although she imitated the style and fashion of bombshells such as Elizabeth Taylor as a teenager, Moreno would be thrown into ethnic and sexist roles throughout the 1950s, until she received a Best Support Actress Oscar for her role as "Anita" in "West Side Story."

"Anita was a very real person, a young Latin woman of opinions and pride," she says. "It was so frustrating before that, like being a painter and not being able to show your paintings. The really frustrating part was getting another script sent to me, and realizing that it was another caricature role. It was so distressing."

Among Moreno’s most-surprising revelations was a Hollywood dinner party, describing her flirtatious stare-downs with a red-headed, middle-aged senator, whose freckled mug she recognized weeks later on the cover of Life magazine.

"It was John F. Kennedy!" she says. "Isn’t that a great story? What really got me was J.F.K.'s hubris. He was doing out-and-out imitations with his face and eyes at me across the room. Oh, yes, I just got ridiculously playful, point at him and go, 'A-ha! I caught you staring!' "

For all of Brando’s irresistability, she says, the versatile actor awakened Moreno to the world’s political causes, including the plight of African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. She describes joining the March on Washington and “sitting not 10 feet from Dr. Martin Luther King" during his "I Have a Dream" speech.

"It was a really thrilling moment. We were sitting at the Lincoln Monument and I would turn around constantly to look at the reflecting pool, and it was jammed on all sides by thousands of people wearing denim coveralls, which became the symbol of the working person," Moreno says. "I was not only there, but I could see the sweat on Dr. King’s brow and above his lip. There were tears in my eyes. I just inhaled that moment."

Moreno's nearly 70-year career in television and film will be celebrated with a Lifetime Achievement Award next January at the 2014 Screen Actors Guild Awards, an honor she ranks as high as her Academy Award trophy for "West Side Story."

"To me, it’s astonishing. I equate that with the Oscar," Moreno says. "It’s that huge and that important."

Rita Moreno appears 8 p.m. Friday at Books and Books (265 Aragon Ave.) in Coral Gables and 3 p.m. Saturday at Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale (One E. Las Olas Blvd.). Free for both. 305.442.4408 or and 954-262-0255 or

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