Most of my readers are too young to know who Esther Williams was. But if you like bathing beauties, pin-up girls, singing, acting, swimming, big production numbers (Busby Berkeley) and corny romances, you’ll want to know more about the legend we just lost at the age of 91.
I grew up watching her beautiful face -predominately smiling at me from underwater- and marveled at her swimming, acting, singing, figure and ability to seemingly do it all submerged in a pool. She aged as gracefully as she swam, a beauty until the very end.
above: Esther William’s in Neptune’s Daughter, 1949
I’ve gathered some of my favorite images, facts, movies and more about the Million Dollar Mermaid for your entertainment and education.
“Wet she was a star.” –Hollywood producer Joe Pasternak
She was born Esther Jane Williams in Inglewood, CA on Aug. 8, 1921, to Lou, an artist and Bula, a member of the Inglewood Board of Education who helped raise funds for neighborhood school’s swimming pool. Esther took to the water at a very early age, earning her first paycheck at the age of eight as a towel girl at a local swimming pool. Her older brother Stanton Williams was the first member of the family to become a star by appearing in a handful of silent films and stage productions before his untimely death at age 16. His sister took the athletic route and gained fame as a teenage swimming champion; by 16, she had earned three national championship titles in freestyle and breaststroke. Eventually, she made the 1940 Olympic swimming team, but her dreams of a medal were dashed by the outbreak of World War II.
Undaunted, she took up part-time work as a model while studying at Los Angeles City College. Theater impresario Billy Rose saw one of her print layouts and immediately contacted her to audition for his Aquacade, an all-singing, all-dancing, all-swimming production at the San Francisco World’s Fair. Former Olympic swimming medalist-turned-movie Tarzan, Johnny Weismuller, was the star of the show, and according to showbiz legend, he personally selected her to be his Aquabelle No.1.
Williams’ looks and flawless skill with the show’s choreographed swimming duets captured the attention of audiences, as well as executives at MGM, who saw a box office bonanza in her abilities. She was quickly signed up for a screen test opposite none other than Clark Gable, the then-reigning King of the Movies. Both the star and the studio liked what they saw, and Williams was signed to a contract. Her movie debut came with a small role in 1942’s “Andy Hardy’s Double Life,” with star Mickey Rooney giving Williams her first screen kiss.
above: Mickey Rooney and Esther Williams on the set of Andy Hardy’s Double Life, 1942
Audience response to Williams was overwhelming. She was already a star by her third picture, a Red Skelton comedy originally titled “Mr. Coed” that was transformed into a starring vehicle for Williams and re-dubbed “Bathing Beauty” (1944). A special tank was built at Stage 30 on the MGM lot to accommodate choreographer Busby Berkeley’s elaborate water routines. The film’s climax, which sees Williams crowned as queen amidst an orgy of smoke, flames, synchronized swimmers and gushing fountains, became one of the most iconic numbers in Hollywood history. The film itself became the third highest-grossing title in MGM’s history to that date.
above: Esther Williams in Bathing Beauty, 1944
The film’s success led to a 10-year string of aquatic-themed musicals for Williams, each more lavish than its predecessor. There were occasional forays out of the MGM pool, such as 1946’s “The Hoodlum Saint,” which paired the 24-year-old actress with the 54-year-old William Powell as her love interest, and Berkeley’s terrific “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (1949), in which baseball players Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly vied for the hand of new owner Williams.
above: Esther Williams publicity still from Hoodlum Saint
above: Esther Williams in Take Me Out To The Ballgame in which Busby Berkeley was sure to give her a swimming scene
But for the most part, audiences preferred seeing Williams in the water in features like “Million Dollar Mermaid” (1953), a biopic about real-life swimming star Annette Kellerman, or “Jupiter’s Darling” (1955), which found her in the improbable role of a Roman woman who helps Hannibal (Howard Keel) swim the Tiber River. The aquatic features were challenging and even dangerous – prolonged exposure to the studio tank led to repeated eardrum ruptures, near drownings and a broken neck during a diving sequence for “Mermaid” – but Williams was “America’s Mermaid,” as the press dubbed her, so she had little choice in the matter.
above: images of Esther in Million Dollar Mermaid
But she was also shrewd enough to realize that her particular brand of musical was limited – there were just so many films that could be built around her swimming routines. She departed MGM as audience demand for their musical product began to dry up, and moved to Universal for her first drama, “The Unguarded Moment” (1956). A lurid melodrama about a high school teacher (Williams) who becomes the object of obsession for a deranged student (John Saxon), the film raised eyebrows with its sexually suggestive subject matter but failed to translate into a lasting dramatic career for Williams. She appeared in several more forgettable features before retiring at the demand of her third husband, actor Fernando Lamas, in the early 1960s.
In the late latter part of that decade, Williams was approached by swimming pool manufacturers, the Delair Group, to license her name to their above-ground models. The decision was a savvy one, and the line became one of the most popular for suburbanites across the United States. Further licensing agreements led to her own line of swimwear for older women, based on the suits she wore in her movies, and a modern line for younger women. All three business decisions proved to be lucrative and popular for the former actress.
above: Esther designing her line of swimwear
above: The Esther Williams Collection of Swimwear, still in business
In 1999, Williams penned her autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid, with co-author Digby Diehl. The tome generated a great deal of press for its controversial stories about her love life, which included trysts with co-stars Victor Mature and Jeff Chandler; a revelation about the latter actor’s penchant for women’s clothing was among the book’s most scandalous statements.
Williams also discussed her three marriages (she had a fourth after the book was written), which included loveless unions with a former college classmate and singer/actor Ben Gage, whom she described as an alcoholic spendthrift.
In addition, the book recounted her various struggles with studio heads, fending off the amorous advances of Weismuller and Howard Hughes, and dealing with the egos of co-stars like Gene Kelly and Lamas, who reportedly demanded total servitude from Williams.
Some career milestones:
1941: Signed MGM contract
1942: Film acting debut in “Andy Hardy’s Double Life”
1942: First came to attention in her first swimming film, “Bathing Beauty”
1949: Twice made the annual exhibitors’ poll of top ten box office stars; placed eighth both years
1955: Last major aqua-musical, “Jupiter’s Darling”
1955: Ended MGM contract (date approximate)
1957: Made TV debut in “Lux Video Theatre’s The Armed Venus”
1958: Last film for three years, “Raw Wind in Eden”
1961: Made one-shot return to films to play a leading role in “The Big Show”
:Retired from the industry in the early 1960s
1994: Was one of the hosts of the musical compilation documentary “That’s Entertainment III”
above: publicity stills of Esther in Pagan Love Song
Hubby #1: Leonard Kovner. Married in 1940; divorced in 1944; met when he was pre med student at USC.
Hubby #2: Ben Gage. Radio announcer. Married in 1945; divorce became final in 1958.
Companion: Jeff Chandler. Actor. Worked together on “Raw Wind in Eden” (1958).
Hubby #3: Fernando Lamas. Actor. Married in two separate ceremonies: a civil ceremony in Europe (some sources say in 1963, others 1967) and one in a church (Founders’ Church of Religious Science, near Hollywood) on December 31, 1969; born on January 9, 1915; died in 1982.
Hubby #4: Edward Bell. Businessman. Married on October 24, 1994; met during 1984 Summer Olympics.
10 Fun Facts About Esther
1. She First Gained Fame in California as a Competitive Swimmer.
Born in 1921, Williams started swimming at an early age and quickly distinguished herself for her speed. By 16 she was winning national championships, and by 19 she had shattered records for breast stroke and freestyle. Williams planned on competing in the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, but the event was canceled due to the outbreak of World War II.
2. in 1941, she signed with MGM studios, with whom she began starring in “Aqua-musicals.”
In her memoir, Williams said that just a year after the end of her swim racing career she, “walks through the gates of MGM a year later and swims her way to movie stardom.” Her first films helped to show off her swimming abilities by prominently featuring her in pools and bathing suits.
3. She appeared in some of the highest-grossing movies of the 1940s and 1950s.
The 1940s and 50s catapulted her to stardom. During this movie she started in movies with Mickey Rooney, Lucille Ball, Gene Kelly, and Frank Sinatra. Many of her films, like Thrill of Romance and Neptune’s Daughter were some of the highest grossing films in the years they were made.
above: Esther in Neptune’s Daughter, 1949
4. Her nickname was the “Million Dollar Mermaid.”
The name of one of her most popular films, Million Dollar Mermaid would stick with her as a nickname for the rest of her life. The 1952 film was a major hit and earned an Academy Award Nomination for Best Cinematography. The nickname also stuck because as her fame grew in the 1940s and 1950s, so too did her income.
5. She left MGM in 1959 and retired from movies in the 1960s.
Her memoir explains that the time period around 1959 was a dark time for her.She had recently gotten a divorce, she suffered from alcoholism and exhaustion, and she found herself in an increasingly fragile mental state. She eventually retired from film.
6. She created a line of swimwear and lent her name to a brand of swimming pools.
Later in her life, Williams helped to create a line of retro-style swimwear like the kind she wore in her hit films. This business, as well as the pool company named after her, helped to keep her busy until her death.
Vintage Cole of California Esther Williams Swimwear ads:
7. She served as a commentator during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
In 1984 she served as a commentator for swimming events, specifically synchronized swimming, in the Los Angeles olympics. According to a New York Times interview, she had a face lift before the event to look her best.
8. She was married four times, the last marriage being to Edward Bell. She had three children: Benjamin Gage, Born in 1949; Kimbell Gage, Born in 1950 and Susan Gage, Born in 1953.
9. In 1959, Cary Grant claims he used LSD with Williams, she confirmed this in her autobiography.
10. She suffered a stroke in 2007.
some of the above 10 facts are courtesy of Heavy
Her complete filmography:
Cast (feature film)
1. Busby Berkeley: Going Through The Roof (1998) as Interviewee.
2. That’s Entertainment! III (1994) as Host; Song Performer.
3. MGM: When the Lion Roars (1992)
4. The Big Show (1961) as Hillary Allen .
5. Andy Hardy Comes Home (1958) as “Sheila Brooks” from Andy Hardy’s Double Life .
6. Raw Wind in Eden (1958) as Laura .
7. The Unguarded Moment (1956) as Lois Conway .
8. Jupiter’s Darling (1955) as Amytis .
9. Easy to Love (1953) as Julie Hallerton .
10. Dangerous When Wet (1953) as Katy [Higgins] .
11. Skirts Ahoy! (1952) as Whitney Young.
12. Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) as Annette Kellerman .
13. Texas Carnival (1951) as Debbie Telford .
14. Callaway Went Thataway (1951) as .
15. Duchess of Idaho (1950) as Christine Riverton Duncan .
16. Pagan Love Song (1950) as Mimi Bennett .
17. Neptune’s Daughter (1949) as Eve Barrett .
18. Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) as K. C. Higgins .
19. On an Island with You (1948) as Rosalind Rennolds .
20. Fiesta (1947) as Maria Morales .
21. This Time for Keeps (1947) as Leonora “Nora” Cambaretti .
22. Till the Clouds Roll By (1947) as Movie star .
23. The Hoodlum Saint (1946) as Kay Lorrison .
24. Ziegfeld Follies (1946) as Dancer in “A Water Ballet” .
25. Easy to Wed (1946) as Connie Allenbury .
26. Thrill of a Romance (1945) as Cynthia Glenn .
27. Bathing Beauty (1944) as Caroline Brooks .
28. A Guy Named Joe (1944) as Ellen Bright .
29. Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1942) as Sheila Brooks .
30. Glorious Technicolor (1998) as Interviewee.
31. Golden Globe’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, The (1994)
32. Stars and Stripes: Hollywood and World War II (1991)
33. 48th Annual Golden Globe Awards, The (1991) as Presenter.
34. Thalians, The (1991)
35. Happy Birthday, Hollywood! (1987)
36. Esther Williams at Cypress Gardens (1960) as Host.
37. INFLATION (1943) as Mrs. Smith.
Esther Williams aged beautifully as you can see from these later photos (with the admitted help of a face lift or two):
Purchase her Autobiography:
An Esther Williams Paper Doll Book:
The Million Dollar Mermaid will be missed. Swim In Peace, Esther.