Rita Hayworth/Star archives

Legend has it that Rita Ranch, on Tucson’s southeast side, was named after actress Rita Hayworth by one-time beau Howard Hughes, who once owned the land on which the master-planned community now stands.

Hughes bought leases and options for 32,000 acres near Tucson International Airport in 1951. Real estate magnate Roy P. Drachman romanced Hughes from afar and convinced him to build a Hughes Aircraft Company manufacturing plant here rather than Phoenix, El Paso or Albuquerque. The Falcon missile was the first product it produced. Raytheon Co. purchased the company in 1997.

The eccentric billionaire built a ranch home on the property, and is said to have referred to the land as “Rita’s Ranch.”

Hughes held on to much of the land until he died in 1976, when his estate sold it off to come up with cash to handle government claims against it. Aries Corp. bought the land, but later went bankrupt. Cottonwood Properties purchased the majority of the development in 1991 and developed it.

According to the 2004 book “Howard Hughes: The Untold Story” Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske, Hughes and Hayworth carried on a torrid affair in 1947, engaging in secretive trysts at the Santa Monica mansion owned by Marion Davies. The book said Hayworth was dodging two teams of detectives, one hired by bitter estranged husband Orson Welles and the other by Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn, who was looking for dirt that would let him exercise the morality clause in her contract. Hughes saw Hayworth on the sly while he was dating Jean Peters, whom he would marry in 1957.

Although the possibility that the naming of Rita Ranch is a lasting relic from the Hughes-Hayworth romance, which was said to have continued off and on into the 1950s, it may be just  wishful thinking.

J.J. Lamb of the Vail Preservation Society said Rita Ranch was named after Rita Station, a train station in the area that predates the Hughes-Hayworth affair. She said she’s seen records of the station existing before 1920, but does not know where the station got its name.

The Arizona Historical Society was unable to provide information about the naming of Rita Ranch.

Contact reporter Phil Villarreal at 573-4130 or pvillarreal@azstarnet.com