Esther Williams, 'first female Michael Phelps,' dead at 91

Robbed of Olympic glory, she put synchronized swimming on the map. Photo: MGM

LOS ANGELES, June 7, 2013 — Greatest Generation movie stars don’t seem to gain much media traction these days when the spotlight is always being trained on the latest “hot” starlet or pop singer of the week. But back in the day, someone like a tremendously talented athlete, movie star and entrepreneur Esther Williams could hold her spot in the limelight far longer than today’s paltry fifteen minutes of fame.

This self-described “Million Dollar Mermaid,” who launched an entire genre of movies —“aqua musicals” in Technicolor — died Thursday at 91. She was remembered not only for her Hollywood fame, but also for her influence on synchronized swimming, the Olympic sport inspired by her cinematic water ballets, and, later on, for her line of fashionable swimwear.


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Like Sonja Henie, who turned her competitive ice-skating skills into box office gold, Esther Williams hit it big in Hollywood after a potentially career ending accident of historical fate. Touted as one of the top competitors in Olympic swimming, she lost her opportunity to grab the gold when the Olympic games were canceled due to the outset of World War II.

She appeared in extravagent swimsuit production numbers boasting towering fountains, waterfalls, pools, lakes, slides, water skis and anything else that involved water.

“The girl you will dream about!” trumpeted 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 a matching pink bow in her hair.

Co-starring comic actor Red Skelton, later to be a major TV star in his own right, 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.


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“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. Such films as “Easy to Wed,” ”Neptune’s Daughter” and “Dangerous When Wet” all sticking to the same formula: romance, music, a bit of comedy and a flimsy plot that provided even flimsier excuses to get Williams into the water.

Her co-stars in these films 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.

Those movies “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’ movie extravaganzas dazzled the new generation of Baby Boomers via the then-new medium of television and the popular compilation film “That’s Entertainment.”

The following attractive composite video displays examples of Williams’ still impressive aqua-choreography.

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 risqué. Her signature suits were colorful, with flattering ruching. She later turned them into a business, forming her own swimwear label and backing a line of above-ground swimming pools.

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.”

Fernando Lamas was Williams’ third husband. Before her fame she was married briefly to Leonard Kovner, 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, but not before Gage had drunk or gambled away much of Williams’ bank account.

Williams remained married to Fernando Lamas until his death in 1982. According to the “New York Times,” “six years later she married Edward Bell, a professor of French literature 10 years her junior.”

Esther Jane Williams was born one of five children on Aug. 8, 1921, in Inglewood, a suburb southwest of Los Angeles. A public pool was not far from the modest home where Williams was raised, and it was there that an older sister first 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, an MGM producer and an agent spotted her. She recalls laughing at his suggestion that she do films that would popularize swimming, as Sonja 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). It was hardly surprising, then, when she titled her 1999 autobiography, “The Million Dollar Mermaid.”

Here’s another video compilation of Williams’ cinematic spectaculars, this time assembled with an upbeat contemporary musical score.

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.

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

Williams is survived by her fourth husband, Edward Bell; a son, a daughter, three stepsons including Lorenzo Lamas, three grandchildren and eight stepgrandchildren.

    —AP contributed to this report.

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17

 


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  

 

 

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