May 20, 2010 Leave a comment
For the Fijian academic and business woman, see Esther Williams (academic).
from the trailer for Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)
August 8, 1921 (1921-08-08) (age 89)
Inglewood, California, U.S.
Ben Gage (1945–1959) (divorced) 3 children
Fernando Lamas (1969–1982) (his death)
Edward Bell (1994–present)
Esther Jane Williams (born August 8, 1921, although some sources incorrectly cite 1922) is a retired American competitive swimmer and MGM movie star. Williams set multiple national and regional swimming records in her late teens as part of the Los Angeles Athletic Club swim team. Unable to compete in the 1940 Summer Olympics because of the outbreak of World War II, Williams joined Billy Rose’s Aquacade, where she took on the role vacated by Eleanor Holm after the show’s move from New York City to San Francisco. There, she spent five months swimming alongside Olympic swimmer and Tarzan star, Johnny Weissmuller.It was at the Aquacade that Williams caught the attention of MGM scouts. After appearing in several small roles, alongside Mickey Rooney in an Andy Hardy film, and future five time co-star Van Johnson in A Guy Named Joe, Williams made a series of films in the 1940s and early 1950s known as “aquamusicals“, which featured elaborate performances with synchronized swimming and diving.From 1945 to 1949, Williams had at least one film listed among the 20 highest grossing films of the year. In 1952, Williams appeared in her only biographical role, as Australian swimming star Annette Kellerman in Million Dollar Mermaid, which would go on to become her nickname while at MGM. Williams left MGM in 1956 and appeared in a handful of unsuccessful feature films, followed by several extremely popular water-themed television specials, including one from Cypress Gardens, Florida.Since her retirement from film in the 1960s, Williams has become a businesswoman, lending her name to a line of swimming pools and retro swimwear, instructional swimming videos for children, and serving as a commentator for synchronized swimming at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. As of 2010 Williams lives with her fourth husband, Edward Bell, in Beverly Hills.
Born in Inglewood, California, Williams was the fifth and youngest child of Louis Stanton Williams and Bula Myrtle Gilpin (October 8, 1885 – 1975). Louis Williams was a sign painter and Bula Williams was a psychologist. The two lived on neighboring farms in Kansas and carried on a nine year courtship until June 1, 1908, when they eloped and set off for California. However, they ran out of money in Salt Lake City, Utah, and settled there. William’s brother, Stanton (September 4, 1912 – March 3, 1929) was discovered by actress Marjorie Rambeau, which lead to the family (including sisters Maurine and June and brother David) moving to the Los Angeles area to be near the studios. Louis Williams purchased a small piece of land in southwest area of town, and had a small house built there. Williams was born in the living room, which was also where the family slept until Louis Williams was able to add bedrooms. In 1929, Stanton Williams died after his colon burst.In 1935, Bula Williams invited 16-year-old Buddy McClure to live with her family. McClure had recently lost his mother and Mrs. Williams was still grieving over the death of her son. One night, when the rest of the family was visiting relatives in Alhambra, McClure raped Williams. Williams was terrified to tell anyone about the incident, and waited two years before finally revealing the truth to her parents. They seemed unsure of Williams’s story, claiming that McClure was “sensitive” and were sympathetic towards him when he admitted his guilt. After Williams stood up to him and banished him from her home, McClure joined the Coast Guard, and Williams never saw him again.
Williams at the L.A. Athletic Club in 1939.Williams was enthusiastic about swimming in her youth. Her older sister, Maurine, took her to Manhattan Beach and to the local pool.She took a job counting towels at the pool to pay the five cent entry fee, and while there, had swimming lessons from the male lifeguards. From them, she learned the ‘male only’ swimming strokes, including the butterfly breaststroke, with which she would later break records.Her medley team set the record for the 300-yard relay at the Los Angeles Athletic Club in 1939, and was also National AAU champion in the 100 meter freestyle, with a record-breaking time of 1 minute 0.09 seconds. By age 16, Williams had won three U.S. National c
mpionships in breaststroke and freestyle swimming. Williams planned to compete in the 1940 Summer Olympics but it was canceled due to the outbreak of World War II.Williams graduated from Washington Preparatory High School in 1939, where she served as class Vice President, and later President. However, Williams never trained in swimming while there.During her senior year of high school, Williams received a D in her algebra course, preventing her from getting a scholarship from the University of Southern California. She enrolled in Los Angeles City College to retake the course. In 1939, Williams expressed interest in pursuing a degree in physical education in order to teach it one day. To earn money to pay tuition, Williams took a job as a stock girl at I. Magnin department store, where she also modeled clothing for customers and appeared in newspaper advertisements.While Williams was working 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, who, as Williams wrote in her autobiography, repeatedly tried to seduce her during the show’s run. Despite this, Williams remained with the show until it closed on September 29, 1940.
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 for the studio to 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 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.”
A pin-up of Williams from a 1945 issue of Yank, the Army Weekly.While top stars at the studios such as Judy Garland, Betty Grable and Shirley Temple took part in bond tours during, Williams was asked to take in hospital tours. At this point, Williams had achieved pin-up status due to the number of photographs of her in bathing suits. To prepare, Williams and her publicity assistant would listen of Bob Hope and Jack Benny‘s radio programs and retell the funniest jokes while at the hospitals. Williams also invited GIs to dance with her on stage and take part in mock screen tests. The men would receive a card telling them their lines, and they would act out the scene in front of the other soldiers. These tests were always romance scenes, and included Williams begging the men to make love to her character, to which they were required to say refuse … multiple times. When the men said the final “no”, Williams would pull at her tear-away skirt and sweater, leaving nothing but a gold lamé swimsuit. The scenes would always end with the men giving in and kissing her after that stunt. Her hospital tours continued into the 1950s. A (forged) signed, waterproof portrait of Williams was circulated among men in the US Navy for a “capture the Esther” competition.
Three weeks after signing her contract, George Sidney directed William’s first screen test. The studio was impressed, and when Lana Turner eloped with Artie Shaw, Williams screen tested with the leading man Clark Gable, for the film Somewhere I’ll Find You. However, Turner divorced Shaw after four months of marriage, and rejoined the cast of the film. After several short subject films, Williams appeared in Andy Hardy‘s Double Life as Sheila Brooks, a coed with whom Andy falls in love. This was followed by a small part in the film A Guy Named Joe, which starred Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne. It was there that she first worked with Van Johnson, with whom she would later partner in five films.Bathing Beauty, previously titled Mr. Coed, starred Red Skelton as a man who enrolls in a women’s college to win back his swimming instructor fiance, played by Williams. This was her first Technicolor musical, and the studio changed the title of the film to showcase Williams. Nearly all of the posters for the film featured Williams in a bathing suit, though the swimming sequences make up a small portion of the film. Her date to the premiere at the Astor Theater in New York City was future husband Ben Gage. For the event, MGM publicity set up a six story-tall billboard of Williams diving into Times Square with a large sign that said “Come on in! The story’s fine!”
Williams, Van Johnson and Carleton G. Young in Thrill of a Romance.Williams appeared in the film Ziegfeld Follies as herself, which was followed by the musical romance Thrill of a Romance. Van Johnson co-starred as a decorated war veteran who falls in love with Williams while on her honeymoon. Thrill of a Romance was the 8th highest grossing film of 1945. Williams had to help Johnson swim, and she placed her hand under his back to keep him afloat. The studio’s publicity department also tried put the two together in public as much as possible, in hopes of encouraging a romance, though Williams was involved with Gage at the time. When asked why they didn’t date, Johnson replied, “because I’m afraid she can’t get her webbed feet into a pair of evening sandals”.Williams tried a more serious role in 1946’s The Hoodlum Saint, with William Powell. Audiences were expecting Powell’s Nick Charles persona, and rejected the idea of a romance between Williams and Powell onscreen. She also appeared in Easy to Wed, a remake of 1936’s Libeled Lady, with Johnson and Lucille Ball.
Williams as Maria in FiestaFiesta (originally called Fiesta Brava) starred Williams as Ricardo Montalbán‘s twin sister, Maria, who pretends to be her bullfighting brother in hopes of luring him back home. Audiences, and Williams, thought the film was silly, as Williams and Montalbán had vastly different accents. Montalbán was born in Mexico and was a native Spanish speaker, and Williams had a midwestern accent she had picked up from her Kansas-born parents. Production was difficult, with a multitude of problems. By 1947, Gage and Williams were married, and Gage had traveled to Mexico for the making of the film. He got into a fight with an employee of the hotel the cast was staying at, and was arrested and subsequently thrown out of the country.The director of photography, Sidney Wagner, and one other crew member died from cholera from eating contaminated street food, and many of the film’s stuntmen were sent to the hospital after being gored by bulls. Director Dick Thorpe hadn’t wanted the bulls killed (as they usually were at the end of a bullfight) because he believed them to be too expensive to replace.After filming was completed on Fiesta, Williams appeared in the romance film This Time for Keeps with singer Johnnie Johnston. In 1948, Williams signed a contract with swimwear company Cole of California to appear as their spokesperson. Because of this, Williams and the other swimmers in her films wear Cole swimsuits. Because the aqua-musicals were an entirely new genre, the studio’s costume designers had little experience designing practical swimsuits. William’s plaid flannel swimsuit for Thrill of a Romance was so heavy that Williams was dragged to the bottom of the pool. She had to unzip the suit and swim naked to the edge of the pool to avoid drowning. Cole swimsuits used latex, which meant zippers were no longer necessary. While filming 1952’s Skirts Ahoy, Williams discovered that members of the WAVES program received thin, cotton, shapeless swimsuits as part of their uniforms. Williams modeled a Cole swimsuit for the Secretary of the Navy and explained that the new swimsuits helped support women’s figures; the United States Navy ordered 50,000 suits immediately.In 1949, Williams began filming Take Me Out to the Ball Game. It was a period musical which starred Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as players on a baseball team owned by Williams’s character, K.C. Higgins. In her autobiography, she described filming as “pure misery”, claiming that Kelly and writer Stanley Donen treated her with contempt and went out of their way to make jokes at her expense. The film was well-received critically and became a major commercial success, raking in $3.4 million in rentals and becoming the 11th highest earning film of the year. Williams also made Neptune’s Daughter that year, co-starring with Ricardo Montalbán, Red Skelton and Betty Garrett, who had also been in Take Me Out to the Ball Game. In the film, Williams sings the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Montalbán.The song won the Academy Award for Best Original Song at the 22nd Academy Awards. Williams and Montalbán were originally slated to sing “(I’d Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China“, but studio censors thought the song was too sexual (interpreting the word “get” as “have”) and instead used gave them “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. Neptune’s Daughter went on to be the 10th highest grossing film of 1949.
Williams as Annette Kellerman in Million Dollar Mermaid.In 1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid, Williams played Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimming and diving star. Williams co-starred with Victor Mature, who played Kellerman’s husband and manager, James Sullivan. The two engaged in a passionate affair during filming. Williams has often called this her favorite film, and named her autobiography after it. Williams also won the Henrietta Award at the 1952 Golden Globes, for World Film Favorite – Female.1953’s Easy to Love (also with Johnson) was filmed on location in Cypress Gardens, where a Florida-shaped pool had been built specifically for the film. Williams was pregnant during shooting, but still performed her own waterskiing stunts.In Dangerous When Wet, Williams worked with three important males – Tom and Jerry and future husband Fernando Lamas. During casting, Lamas told Williams he did not want to star in the film with her because he only wanted to be involved in “important pictures”. His part had to be rewritten to convince him to take part in the film. Williams then made Duchess of Idaho, shot on location in Sun Valley, Idaho, co-starring Van Johnson. MGM then paired her with Howard Keel for two films, Pagan Love Song and Jupiter’s Darling. They both had cameos in the film Callaway Went Thataway.In 1953, Williams had been on maternity leave for three months while pregnant with daughter Susan, and had assumed that she would get straight to work on the film Athena when she got back. However, production started without her, and the studio cast Jane Powell in the lead role, and rewrote much of the premise that Williams and writers Leo Pogostin and Chuck Walters had come up with. The studio moved her to Jupiter’s Darling. Two more films were planned, Bermuda Encounter and Olympic Venus, about the first Olympic swimmers, however, these were never made.Many of her MGM films, such as Million Dollar Mermaid and Jupiter’s Darling, contained elaborately staged synchronized swimming scenes, with considerable risk to Williams. She broke her neck filming a 115 ft dive off a tower during a climactic musical number for the film Million Dollar Mermaid which landed her in a body cast for seven months. She subsequently recovered, though she still suffers headaches as a result of the accident. Her many hours spent submerged in a studio tank resulted in her rupturing her eardrums numerous times. She also nearly drowned after not being able to find the trap door in the ceiling of a tank. The walls and ceiling were painted black and the trap door blended in. Williams was only pulled out because a member of the crew realized the door wasn’t opening.
After 15 years of appearing in films, Williams was threatened with contract suspension from MGM after refusing to play the lead role in the 1956 film The Opposite Sex, a musical remake of 1939’s The Women. The role of Mary would have been rewritten to be an aquacade star. Williams redecorated her dressing room to accommodate returning star Grace Kelly, packed her terry cloth robes and swimsuits and drove off the studio lot.As a result of leaving her contract, Williams lost almost $3 million in deferred contract payments, which had been taken from her paychecks over the past 14 years and put aside as both a nest egg and a
tax dodge. She was, however, still able to collect on the $50,000 signing bonus from when she first signed her contract.In 1956, she moved to Universal International and appeared in a non-musical dramatic film, The Unguarded Moment. After that, her film career slowly wound down. She later admitted that husband Fernando Lamas preferred her not to continue in films. She would, however, make occasional appearances on television, including mystery guest appearances on What’s My Line?, Toast of the Town and two aqua-specials, The Esther Williams Aqua Spectacle in 1956 and Esther Williams at Cypress Gardens on August 8, 1960. More than half of all television sets in use in the United States were tuned in to watch the Cypress Gardens special. She also starred in an aqua-special in Wembley Stadium.In 1966, Williams was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Williams retired from acting in the early 1960s and currently lends her name to a line of retro women’s swimwear. “Women worldwide are fighting a thing called gravity,” said Williams. “I say to women when I talk to them, You girls of 18 have until about 25, 30 at the most, and then you have to report to me. My suits are quality fabric.” “I put you in a suit that contains you and you will swim in. I don’t want you to be in two Dixie cups and a fish line.”She is also the namesake of a company that manufactures swimming pools and swimming pool accessories. She came out with a line of Swim, Baby, Swim videos, which helped parents teach their children how to swim. She also appeared as a commentator for synchronized swimming at the 1984 Summer Olympics. Williams met her fourth husband as a result of his calling her to coordinate her appearance. She co-wrote her autobiography The Million Dollar Mermaid (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999) with popular media critic and author Digby Diehl.In a 2007 interview with Diane Sawyer, Williams admitted that she had recently had a stroke. “I opened my eyes and I could see, but I couldn’t remember anything from the past”, she said. She has been recovering since then.In June 2008, Williams went to the Cyd Charisse funeral in a wheelchair.In April 2010, Williams appeared at the first Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, California, alongside two time co-star Betty Garrett. Her 1949 film Neptune’s Daughter was screened at the pool of the Roosevelt Hotel, along with a performance of the Williams-inspired synchronized swimming troupe, The Waterlilies. South Beach Miami’s 2010 Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Swim, a showcase of designer swimwear, included an Esther Williams suite, complete with a beach summer theme and sand palette with aqua accents.
Williams has been married four times. She met her first husband Leonard Kovner while attending Los Angeles City College. She later wrote in her autobiography The Million Dollar Mermaid that “he was smart, handsome, dependable…and dull. I respected his intelligence, and his dedication to a future career in medicine. He loved me, or so he said, and even asked me to marry him.” They were married in the San Francisco suburb of Los Altos on June 27, 1940. On their split she said “I found, much to my relief, that all I needed for my emotional and personal security was my own resolve and determination. I didn’t need a marriage and a ring. I had come to realize all too quickly that Leonard Kovner was not a man I could ever really love.” They divorced on September 12, 1944.She married singer/actor Ben Gage on November 25, 1945; they had three children, Benjamin Stanton (born August 6, 1949), Kimball Austin (October 30, 1950 – May 6, 2008) and Susan Tenney (born October 1, 1953). In her autobiography, she portrayed Gage as an alcoholic parasite who squandered $10 million of her earnings. Gage and Williams separated in 1952, and divorced in April 1959.While Williams was pregnant with her first child, Ben, Williams reduced her amount of water exercise, but began working with a program that taught blind children how to swim.During her filming of Pagan Love Song in Hawaii, Williams found out she was pregnant with her third child, and she needed to notify the studio back in California. Gage had met a man at the hotel who owned a ham radio and convinced the man to let them use it to call California. What they failed to realize at the time, though, was that anyone could be listening in on their conversation, and news of her pregnancy was broadcast to the entire West Coast.She also disclosed in her autobiography that she had a passionate affair with actor Victor Mature while they were working on Million Dollar Mermaid, citing that at the time her marriage was in trouble and, feeling lonely, she turned to Mature for love and affection, and he gave her all she wanted. The affair stopped while Williams was recovering from her fall during the shooting of Million Dollar Mermaid. She was romantically linked with Jeff Chandler, but broke off the relationship because, she claimed in her autobiography, Chandler was a cross-dresser.She then married former lover, Argentine actor/director, Fernando Lamas on December 31, 1969. For 22 years, she lived in total submission to him, where she had to stop being “Esther Williams” and could not have her children live with her. In return, he would be faithful. They were married until his death from pancreatic cancer on October 8, 1982.She currently resides in Beverly Hills with actor husband Edward Bell, whom she married on October 24, 1994.
In September 1959, Cary Grant confessed to Look magazine that he had taken LSD under a doctor’s supervision, and it had changed his life. Grant’s therapist, Dr. Mortimer Hartman, described LSD as “a psychic energizer which empties the subconscious and intensifies emotion and memory a thousands times.” Grant said that, with the help of LSD, he had “found that [he] had a tough inner core of strength,” and that when he was young, he “was very dependent upon older men and women. Now, people [came] to [him] for help.” Williams stated that she wanted to be one of those people. As she said in Million Dollar Mermaid, “At that point, I really didn’t know who I was. Was I that glamorous femme fatale?… Was I just another broken-down divorcée whose husband left her with all the bills and three kids?” S
hortly after reading the article, she contacted Grant. He called his doctor and made an appointment for her. Williams said that LSD seemed like instant psychoanalysis, and allowed her insight into why she had taken on the role of the firstborn son.
|1942||Andy Hardy’s Double Life||Sheila Brooks||with Mickey Rooney|
|1943||Guy Named Joe, AA Guy Named Joe||Ellen Bright|
|1944||Bathing Beauty||Caroline Brooks||with Red Skelton|
|1945||Thrill of a Romance||Cynthia Glenn||with Van Johnson|
|1946||Hoodlum Saint, TheThe Hoodlum Saint||Kay Lorrison|
|1946||Easy to Wed||Connie Allenbury Chandler||with Van Johnson and Lucille Ball|
|1946||Till the Clouds Roll By||Herself|
|1947||Fiesta||Maria Morales||with Ricardo Montalbán|
|1947||This Time for Keeps||Leonora ‘Nora’ Cambaretti||with Johnnie Johnston|
|1948||On an Island with You||Rosalind Reynolds||with Peter Lawford and Ricardo Montalbán|
|1949||Take Me Out to the Ball Game||K.C. Higgins||with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra|
|1949||Neptune’s Daughter||Eve Barrett||with Ricardo Montalbán and Red Skelton|
|1950||Duchess of Idaho||Christine Riverton Duncan||with Van Johnson|
|1950||Pagan Love Song||Mimi Bennett||with Howard Keel|
|1951||Texas Carnival||Debbie Telford||with Howard Keel|
|1951||Callaway Went Thataway||Herself|
|1952||Skirts Ahoy!||Whitney Young|
|1952||Million Dollar Mermaid||Annette Kellerman||with Victor Mature|
|1953||Dangerous When Wet||Katie Higgins||with Fernando Lamas|
|1953||Easy to Love||Julie Hallerton||with Van Johnson|
|1955||Jupiter’s Darling||Amytis||with Howard Keel|
|1956||Unguarded Moment, TheThe Unguarded Moment||Lois Conway|
|1958||Raw Wind in Eden||Laura||with Jeff Chandler|
|1961||Big Show, TheThe Big Show||Hillary Allen|
|1994||That’s Entertainment! III||Herself|
- Personalities (1942)
- Inflation (1942)
- Some of the Best (1949)
- 1955 Motion Picture Theatre Celebration (1955)
- Screen Snapshots: Hollywood, City of Stars (1956)
- Hay, Peter (1991). MGM: When the Lion Roars (1st ed.). Atlanta, Georgia: Turner Publishing, Inc. ISBN 9781878685049. OCLC 499304130. http://books.google.com/?id=WxEIAQAAMAAJ. Retrieved 2010-07-30.
- Sherrow, Victoria (1996). The Encyclopedia of Women and Sports. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9780874368260. OCLC 34658767. http://books.google.com/?id=N599QgAACAAJ. Retrieved 2010-07-30.
- Williams, Esther (1999). The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography (Autobiography) (First ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9780156011358. OCLC 43706619. http://books.google.com/?id=qItZAAAAMAAJ. Retrieved 2010-07-30.
- Wayne, Jane Ellen (2003). The Golden Girls of MGM: Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Judy Garland, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, and Others (First ed.). New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers. ISBN 9780786713035. OCLC 54010001. http://books.google.com/?id=TwMw7HsE_WMC&printsec=frontcover. Retrieved 2010-07-30.
- Esther Williams at the Internet Movie Database
- Official Esther Williams website
- The Golden Years
- Esther Williams Swimming Pools website
- The Shelf: Review of The Esther Williams Collection, vol. 1
- Photographs of Esther Williams
- Vaudeville theater named in honor of Esther Williams