Esther Williams, Swimming Champion Turned Actress
Though best known for her movies, especially a string of aquatic-themed musicals for MGM, Williams also worked in television.
Esther Williams, a champion swimmer who achieved fame as the star of several movie musicals in which she showed off her world-class aquatic skills, died June 6, 2013, in Los Angeles. She was 91.
According to news reports, she died in her sleep.
Born in Inglewood, California, on August 8, 1921, Williams was the fifth child of Lou and Bula Williams. She grew up swimming in playground pools and surfing at local beaches. As a child of eight she got her first job, counting towels at an Inglewood pool — which her mother campaigned to have built for the neighborhood. She earned an hour of swimming for each 100 towels she counted. By age fourteen, she won a municipal swimming championship and was recruited by Aileen Allen, the city’s leading women’s coach, at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, who helped Williams develop her style.
Williams won the Women’s Outdoor Nationals in the 100 meter freestyle, added further crowns in the 100 and 50 meter breaststroke events, and swam the anchor lap for the team that cut nine seconds to set the world medley relay record. By age 16, she represented the Los Angeles Athletic Club swim team while earning three national championships in both the breaststroke and freestyle.
Williams qualified for three events as a member of the U.S. Olympic team headed for Helsinki, Finland, in May 1940. However, due to the escalating war in Europe, the games were canceled — along with her hopes for an Olympic medal. Instead, she switched from breaking pool records to breaking records at the box office.
In 1940 newspaper sports reportage, swimmers were frequently lined up for cheesecake photos, flashing big smiles and lots of leg. With her striking good looks and tall, muscular frame, Williams caught the eye of legendary showman Billy Rose, who was looking for a woman to star opposite Olympian and screen star Johnny Weismuller in his San Francisco Aquacade Review. Following an audition at the world-famous Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Williams was chosen from a casting call of 100 hopefuls.
Executives from the movie studio MGM who saw her in the Aquacade agreed, and offered Williams a screen test — paired with none other than Clark Gable. Gable liked her, the studio liked her, and MGM chief Louis B. Mayer signed her to a contract in October 1941.
She made her screen debut alongside Mickey Rooney in Andy Hardy’s Double Life, in which she gave the popular hero his first kiss — underwater. As Williams explained, “The popular Andy Hardy series movies were MGM’s tests for its promising stars such as Judy Garland, Lana Turner and Donna Reed. If you didn’t make it in those pictures, you were never heard from again.”
Possessing an impressive combination of glamour and athleticism, Williams swam her way to stardom in such MGM features as Bathing Beauty, Neptune’s Daughter and Million Dollar Mermaid. The audience response to the athletic All-American girl was phenomenal, and the studio put Williams’s career into high gear. For over a decade, she reigned in a new Hollywood genre created just for her: the aqua-musical. A special 90-foot square, 20-foot deep pool was built at Stage 30 on the MGM lot, complete with hydraulic lifts, hidden air hoses and special camera cranes for overhead shots.
Over the years, MGM concocted dozens of pretenses for getting Williams in water, calling on the great Busby Berkley to design some of the more lavish production numbers to show off her assets. “No one had ever done a swimming movie before,” she said, “so we just made it up as we went along. I ad-libbed all my own underwater movements.”
It worked. Case in point: Bathing Beauty was the most successful film of 1944. Especially notable are the spectacular sequences in Million Dollar Mermaid — complete with fountains, flames, and smoke in the telling of the story of Australian swimmer-performer Annette Kellerman — and Easy to Love, for which she learned to water-ski. Throughout her film career, she swam more than 1,250 miles in 25 aqua-musicals for MGM and continually proved that she was a champion in the pool and at the box office. A champion, an American dream, her name is synonymous with swimming.
During the mid-’40s, the MGM musicals were the most popular form of entertainment in the world. By the tail end of World War II, Williams was a pin-up favorite with returning Gl’s. Meanwhile, MGM’s publicity mill kept churning out headlines and photo opportunities — she once counted 14 magazines on a local newsstand featuring her picture on the cover. Williams was America’s sweetheart for more than 18 years, appearing in 26 movies from the early 1940s to the end of the 1950s, all but the last few for MGM. By 1953, the foreign press voted Esther the most popular actress in fifty countries. Along with international stardom, she must be credited for part of the U.S. boom in swim athletics and the sales of swimming pools and swimsuits.
Although she had a few dry-land roles in such films as Take Me Out to the Ball Game, it was the lavish water spectaculars that made WIlliams a top box-office draw and that became her cinematic trademark. Like ice skater Sonja Henie before her, Williams was one of the few female athletes to successfully cross over to widespread entertainment success. Her movie career played a major role in the promotion of competitive and synchronized swimming, which she is credited with popularizing. To millions of fledgling water ballerinas, she is the personification of synchronized swimming, a sport that reached world-class status in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
Throughout her career, Williams made television appearances, most frequently on variety shows, game shows and talk shows such as The Jimmy Durante Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, What’s My Line? and The Mike Douglas Show. She also hosted her own variety specials, the 1956 production The Esther Williams Aqua Spectacle and the 1960 production Esther Williams at Cypress Gardens.
In addition, she had guest roles in episodes of the series Lux Video Theatre, The Donna Reed Show, Zane Grey Theater and The Bob Hope Show.
Away from the pool and cameras, Williams demonstrated shrewd business instincts. “I got into business because I knew those musicals couldn’t go on forever,” she said. “In fact, I was doing some department store modeling at the time, and I told my bosses to hold my job. This moviemaking thing wouldn’t last. I mean, how many swimming movies could they make?”
When someone approached her with the offer of putting her name on a line of backyard swimming pools, she agreed. Years later, Esther Williams is the best known name in both the above-ground and in-ground pool business today.
Although officially uncredited for doing so, Williams also revolutionized the swimsuit industry. During WWII, the availability of fabrics was greatly limited. The bathing suit industry was limping along with suits made of shirred cotton and lingerie satin, which was very fragile when stretched, and other equally un-swimmable and unflattering fabric. Working with her noted costume designer, Irene, on the wardrobe for Bathing Beauty, Williams decided swimsuits needed to stretch in order to be beautiful.
Determined to get what they needed they located and convinced a textile firm to incorporate latex into fabric (pre- Lycra/Spandex). The result was a hot-pink satin latex used to fashion the now-legendary suit from the movie.
Williams continued her involvement with designing swimwear in all 25 of her subsequent films. Women no longer settled for traditional clumsy suits and demanded suits like those worn by Williams. They wanted glamour and refinement. The industry had to respond, changing the look of swimwear forever. Williams continued to design beautiful swimwear, with her Esther Williams Swimsuit Collection reflecting the glamour and styles so uniquely a part of Hollywood’s legendary swim star and based on the retrospective look of her full-cut movie swimsuit designs.
Williams had a full life as an athlete, movie star, mother, businesswoman, spokesperson and an inspiration to millions. But the one thing that bound it all together and kept her going was her connection to water and to swimming. “I think the joy that showed through in my swimming movies comes from my lifelong love of the water,” she said. “No matter what I was doing, the best I felt all day was when I was swimming.”
Asked if she still swam, she would laugh and answer, “Yes, every day. It’s the only sport you can do from your first bath to your last without hurting yourself.”
In 2009, Williams was one of nine Legendary Ladies of Stage & Screen whose careers were chosen by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to inaugurate the newly opened Entertainment Division.
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