Esther Williams

  • Born: August 8, 1921
  • Died: June 6, 2013
  • Location: Los Angeles, California

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Technicolor aquatic superstar dies at age 91

BOB THOMAS, The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — As a teenager, Esther Williams dreamed of Olympic glory on the U.S. swim team.

She had to settle instead for becoming a movie star.

The self-described "Million Dollar Mermaid," whose wholesome beauty, shapely figure and aquatic skills launched an entire genre of movies — the Technicolor "aqua musicals" — died Thursday at 91. She was remembered for her Hollywood fame but also her influence on fashion and on synchronized swimming, the Olympic sport inspired by her cinematic water ballet.

Williams followed in the footsteps of Sonja Henie — who went from skating champion to movie star — and became one of Hollywood's biggest moneymakers after she lost the chance to compete in the Olympics when they were canceled due to the onset of World War II. She appeared in glittering swimsuit numbers that featured towering fountains, waterfalls, pools, lakes, slides, water skis and anything else that involved water.

"The girl you will dream about!" raved the 1944 trailer for "Bathing Beauty," the first big aqua musical. It showed a smiling Williams posing in a bright pink one-piece suit with the pointy chest popular at the time, a matching pink bow in her hair.

Co-starring Red Skelton, the show was first called "Mr. Coed." But MGM executives changed the title when they realized how big the actress was going to be during filming, according to a biography on Williams' website.

"No one had ever done a swimming movie before," Williams said later. "So we just made it up as we went along. I ad-libbed all my own underwater movements."

That film was followed by many more. "It appeared as if I had invited the audience into the water with me," Williams said, "and it conveyed the sensation that being in there was absolutely delicious."

Such films as "Easy to Wed," ''Neptune's Daughter" and "Dangerous When Wet" all followed the same formula: romance, music, a bit of comedy and a flimsy plot that provided excuses to get Williams in the water.

"They were the ultimate example of Hollywood escapism," says film historian Leonard Maltin. "To their endless credit, the studio seized upon this asset — a beautiful, graceful woman — and figured out a way to make her a movie star."

Williams' film extravaganzas dazzled a second generation via television and the compilation film "That's Entertainment." Her co-stars included the pick of the MGM contract list, including Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Skelton, Ricardo Montalban and Howard Keel.

She also was a favorite swimsuit pinup for GI's in World War II, and a refreshing presence among MGM's stellar gallery — warm, breezy, with a frankness and self-deprecating humor that delighted interviewers.

As news of her death spread Thursday, pinup shots of her circulated on Twitter. Three-time Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Rowdy Gaines tweeted: "Esther Williams...our first female Michael Phelps...RIP."

USA Synchro, the governing body of U.S. synchronized swimming, also paid tribute. "Her movies with a swimming theme inspired many young girls and women to get into the pool and try to copy her movements," said Judy McGowan, the group's president.

Williams also left her mark on the swimwear industry, popularizing styles that showed just enough cleavage and leg, without being too risque. Her signature suits were colorful, with flattering ruching. She later turned them into a business, forming her own swimwear label.

"Swimwear during that period was all about creating the hourglass shape," says Janie Bryant, a current Hollywood costume designer. "The bust, the waist, the hips. There's been a whole resurgence in the love of vintage and appreciating the hourglass figure that she helped make famous."

The bathing caps also were "decorative and fabulous," said Bryant, who designs for the 1960s-era TV show "Mad Men."

When hard times signaled the end of big studios and costly musicals in the mid-'50s, Williams tried non-swimming roles — with little success. After her 1962 marriage to Fernando Lamas, her co-star in "Dangerous When Wet," she retired from public life.

Lamas' son, actor Lorenzo Lamas, tweeted Thursday: "My stepmom Esther Williams passed peacefully this morning. The best swim teacher and soul mom. RIP."

Esther Jane Williams grew up destined for a career in athletics. She was born Aug. 8, 1921, in Inglewood, a suburb southwest of Los Angeles, one of five children.

A public pool was not far from the modest home where Williams was raised, and it was there that an older sister taught her to swim.

When she was in her teens, the Los Angeles Athletic Club offered to train her four hours a day, aiming for 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 a part of several winning relay teams. But the outbreak of war in Europe led to cancellation of the 1940 Olympics, and Williams dropped out of competition to earn a living.

She was selling clothes in a Wilshire Boulevard department store when showman Billy Rose tapped her for a bathing beauty job at the World's Fair in San Francisco.

While there, she was spotted by an MGM producer and an agent. She laughed at the suggestion that she do films that would popularize swimming, as Henie had done with ice skating.

"Frankly I didn't get it," she recalled. "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."

She finally agreed to visit MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, and recalled that she took the job after her mother told her: "No one can avoid a challenge in life without breeding regret, and regret is the arsenic of life."

As with Judy Garland, Donna Reed and other stars, Williams was introduced in one of Mickey Rooney's Andy Hardy films, "Andy Hardy's Double Life" (1942).

She also played a small role in "A Guy Named Joe" before "Bathing Beauty" in 1944 began the string of immensely popular musical spectaculars. Among them: "Thrill of a Romance," ''Take Me out to the Ballgame" and "Million Dollar Mermaid" (as Annette Kellerman, an earlier swimming champion turned entertainer).

After leaving MGM, she starred in two Universal dramatic films, "The Unguarded Moment" and "Raw Wind in Eden." Neither was successful. In 1961 Lamas directed her last film, "The Magic Fountain," in Spain. It was never released in America.

When she published her autobiography in 1999, she titled it "The Million Dollar Mermaid."

Lamas was Williams' third husband. Before her fame she was married briefly to a medical student. In 1945 she wed Ben Gage, a radio announcer, and they had three children, Benjamin, Kimball and Susan. They divorced in 1958.

After Lamas' death in 1982, Williams regained the spotlight. Having popularized synchronized swimming with her movies, she was co-host of the event on television at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. She issued a video teaching children how to swim and sponsored her own line of swimsuits.

"I've been a lucky lady," she said in a 1984 interview with The Associated Press. "I've had three exciting careers."

___

Noveck reported from New York. Fashion writer Samantha Critchell in New York and Beth Harris in Los Angeles also contributed to this report.


Condolence & Memory Journal

You saved me a lot of haslse just now.

Posted by Tasmine - xJTmmxfkj, NM - bcCUO6LuQk   July 02, 2015

I read your ponistg and was jealous

Posted by Misty - igcgaMRe, LA - X4Ywfq2QJG   July 02, 2015

Unpaeallelrd accuracy, unequivocal clarity, and undeniable importance!

Posted by Janesa - C7EEFjaA4iRI, FL - 8rrDVbgGwV   April 12, 2015

Miss Williams was a lady in every sense of the word. She was such a beauty, inside and out, and was a good example to all the women, young and old, in her lifetime. She is truly a loss to the world.

Posted by Karen Murphy - Mountain Home, ID - admirer   July 03, 2013

She was a stunning & talented beauty that will be truly missed. I can remember when I was a little girl being mesmerized watching her swim in movies with beautiful & lavish backdrops!!!! You felt like you where there inside a colorful kaleidoscope and you wanted the movie to last forever! She was a true kind hearted sweetheart. To know her was to love her. Rest in peace Esther!!

Posted by D. Catterton - Dallas, TX - Fan   July 02, 2013

Ms. Williams was such a lovely person, beautiful inside and out.

Posted by Shirley P - Trinity, TX - Fan   July 01, 2013

I always enjoyed her films. I think it's the reason I started competitive swimming and did fairly well as a long distance swimmer, finishing, did not medal, but10th or so in the Natlonal 3-mile long distance event when I was 16. We wiii miss her presence. RIP Fran Stricker

Posted by Fran Stricker - Indianapolis, IN - Devotee   July 01, 2013

A true 'star' from the days the word had real meeting. Also unlike even true stars today, she had real talents AND was always a lady. No scandals, no gossip hype, etc. The term 'class act' comes to mind. When many of today's names have faded, Esther Williams will be remembered as part of the 'gold' from the Hollywood golden days. We'll miss you Esther! (and popularizing swimming probably saved a few lives as kids, especially girls, learned to swim as a result of seeing Esther exhibit her talents)

Posted by Gerald Edgar - Garner, IA   July 01, 2013

Candle

Esther Williams was a beautiful lady, both inside and out, who projected class with confidence at the same time! Esther Williams helped pave the way for women working in the business word today, here in America as well as across the world!

Posted by Karen - Newark, DE - Admirer of a wonderful person!   July 01, 2013

My late father would talk about Esther occasionally as a great athlete and movie star! World War II also interrupted my father's plans on becoming an Olympic men's hurdler. Esther will be missed but remembered always by the millions of fans and movies she made!

Posted by Kenneth Whitney JR - Castro Valley, CA - Admiring Fan   June 08, 2013

Mrs. Williams lived a long and successful life. We can look forward to the time when "sickness and death will be no more" Revelation 9:21.

Posted by Zyniell - Friend   June 07, 2013

I very much enjoy watching Esther Williams films both for her witty acting and effortless swimming. I, and may the family too, look forward to the day when your dear Esther hears Jesus voice saying "come out" (John 5:28, 29). Yes she has the wonderful prospect of living again on a paradise earth with beautiful, clean waters where she can swim freely with no worry or fear. (Isaiah 35:1; 33:24; 45:18; Psalm 37:29; Revelation 21:4)

Posted by A. King - NC - Fan   June 07, 2013

Miss Williams, thank you for the many hours of happiness you brought this teenaged girl. May your family know you are remembered and cherished. May the heaven's remove the pain of your loss.

Posted by J. Foster - Toledo, OH - Fan   June 06, 2013


Family Album

Esther Williams, the theme girl of the first annual Los Angeles Swimming and Diving Contest to be held in September 1942, is seen in this August 1942 photo.Williams is in the hospital for treatment of a minor infection and will stay there for the rest of the week, the actress' publicist said Tuesday Oct. 24, 2006. The nature of the infection was not disclosed. The actress, in her mid-80s, is expected to recover fully, spokesman Harlan Boll said. Williams was a swimming champion who turned to acting where she was able to use her aquatic skills in such films as "Easy to Wed," "Neptune's Daughter" and "Dangerous When Wet." (AP Photo)
MGM film star Esther Williams was given a ride through the Sony Columbia Studios lot in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 1999. Williams, who was on her way to do a special segment for the "Today Show," spoke with the show's reporter Jim Brown about the many studio stories revealed in her upcoming autobiography, "The Million Dollar Mermaid," was released Sept. 14.
This May 1950 file publicity photo originally released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer shows Esther Williams on location for the film "Pagan Love Song. According to a press representative, Williams died in her sleep on Thursday, June 6, 2013, in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was 91.
FILE - This June 1944 file photo shows actress and swimmer Esther Williams rehearsing her underwater-ballet for the motion picture musical "Ziegfeld Follies" in Los Angeles. According to a press representative, Williams died in her sleep on Thursday, June 6, 2013, in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was 91.