Esther Williams, the swimming champion turned actress who starred in those water filled and glorious Technicolor musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, has died. She was 91. According to her longtime publicist Harlan Boll, Ms Williams passed away in her sleep early Thursday.
Ms Williams followed the trend set by Sonja Henie, who went from being a professional athlete in the world of skating to become a movie star. Williams soon left Henie behind to become one of the biggest moneymakers in Hollywood. Her spectacular swimming numbers left fans mesmerised and clamouring for more of the same.
All of her films followed a formula that guaranteed success with audiences. Films like, Easy to Wed, Neptune’s Daughter, and Dangerous When Wet followed the formula which consisted of romance, music and touch of comedy and a flimsy enough plot that allowed for Esther to get into the water.
The films gained a second or third generation new fans for Williams when they were sown on television and featured heavily in the compilation films, such as That’s Entertainment.
When the studios were encountering difficulties, the musicals, wet and dry were some of the first casualties. Esther moved on to “non-swimming” roles without much success. As Fanny Brice says in the original Funny Girl, “Esther Williams? Wet, she’s a star. Dry, she ain’t.” Williams herself, found Brice’s observation very funny and laughed as loudly as anyone when she heard it.
In 1962 she married her co-star from Dangerous When Wet, Fernando Lamas and she retired from public life. She obviously felt like she’d made a good choice.
In a 1984 interview she said, ‘‘A really terrific guy comes along and says, ‘I wish you’d stay home and be my wife,’ and that’s the most logical thing in the world for a Latin. And I loved being a Latin wife — you get treated very well. There’s a lot of attention in return for that sacrifice.’’
Williams was born on August 8, 1921 in Inglewood, California one of five children. It was as though she was fated to become first a famous swimming star and then film star.
Not far from where Esther grew up was a public pool where her older sister taught her to swim. The two were able to save on the pools admission price by counting out towels for the pools management.
Those early swimming lessons paid off when she became a teenager and the Los Angeles Athletic Club offered to train her four hours a day so she could compete in the 1940 Olympic Games at Helsinki. In 1939, she won the Women’s Outdoor Nationals title in the 100-meter freestyle, set a record in the 100-meter breaststroke and was on several winning relay teams.
But despite that promising start, the beginning of World War II cancelled the European Olympics in 1940 and Williams left the competition to work. She also enrolled in Los Angeles City College to retake an Algebra course she’d done badly on in High School.
To earn money to pay tuition, Williams took a job as a stock girl at I. Magnin department store, where she also modelled clothing for customers and appeared in newspaper advertisements. It was while she worked at I. Magnin, she was contacted by Billy Rose’s assistant and asked to audition as a replacement for Eleanor Holm in his Aquacade show. Williams impressed Rose, and she got the role.
The Aquacade was part of the Golden Gate International Exposition, and Williams was partnered with Olympic swimmer and Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller. Williams wrote in her autobiography that “Tarzan” repeatedly tried to seduce her during the show’s run.
It was at Aquacade that Williams first attracted attention from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer scouts. MGM’s head, Louis B. Mayer, had been looking for a female sports star who could compete with Fox’s figure skating star, Sonja Henie. Williams signed her contract with MGM in 1941.
In her contract were two clauses: the first being that she receive a guest pass to The Beverly Hills Hotel where she could swim in the pool every day, and the second that she would not appear on camera for nine months to allow for acting, singing, dancing and diction lessons.
Williams wrote in her 1999 autobiography, “If it took nine months for a baby to be born, I figured my ‘birth’ from Esther Williams the swimmer to Esther Williams the movie actress would not be much different.
Esther Williams enjoyed a long and eventful life before she died at age 91. But it was as an MGM star of those shinning musical numbers that she will always be remembered. A career that might have started like so many others, but one that definitely became her own.
As with Judy Garland, Donna Reed and other stars, Williams “on-screen introduction was be in one of the very popular Mickey Rooney Andy Hardy films. The film that she made her debut in was 1942’s Andy Hardy’s Double Life.
Esther Williams in a swimsuit became a favorite pinup of GI’s in World War II, and her popularity continued afterward for quite a while afterward. She was considered a refreshing presence among MGM’s star studded studio often described as being warm and breezy with a frankness and self-deprecating humor that delighted interviewers.
After leaving MGM Williams starred in two Universal dramatic films, The Unguarded Moment and Raw Wind in Eden. Neither film did well at the box office and in 1961 husband Fernando Lamas directed her in her last film, The Magic Fountain which was shot in Spain. The film was never released in the US.
Williams wrote and she published her autobiography in 1999, she titled it The Million Dollar Mermaid.
The swimming musical star said that she laughed at the suggestion she do films that would popularize swimming, as Henie had done with ice skating. Williams recalled, “Frankly I didn’t get it. If they had asked me to do some swimming scenes for a star, that would have made sense to me. But to ask me to act was sheer insanity.”
Williams also recalled that she only took MGM’s offer after her mother told her, “No one can avoid a challenge in life without breeding regret, and regret is the arsenic of life.”
After Fernando Lamas died in 1982, Williams regained the spotlight. Due to her having done so much for synchronised swimming with her movies, she was the co-host of that event on the televised airing of 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. She also produced a video teaching children how to swim and she sponsored her own line of swimsuits.
About her career, she said in a 1984 interview, ‘”I’ve been a lucky lady. I’ve had three exciting careers. Before films I had the experience of competitive swimming, with the incredible fun of winning. … I had a movie career with all the glamor that goes with it. That was ego-fulfilling, but it was like the meringue on the pie. My marriage with Fernando — that was the filling, that was the apple in the pie.”
Due to a resurgence of interest in Williams and her legacy Aqualillies the water ballet dance company released a tribute video for the star’s 90th birthday.
Esther Williams, the musical swimming star, died aged 91 in her sleep. To paraphrase from the old MGM publicity statement of having “more stars than heaven” another MGM star has now joined that heavenly group.
By Michael Smith