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Esther Williams: Swimming champion who became known as 'Hollywood's Mermaid'

She became known as one of the toughest and shrewdest negotiators in Hollywood

Champion swimmer Esther Williams became a leading Hollywood star in the 1940s and remained one of MGM’s biggest attractions for 11 years, the only swimming superstar whose carefully created movies created a new genre. She achieved stardom with the appropriately titled Bathing Beauty in 1944, and her films thereafter were just what escapism-hungry audiences desired in the closing days of the Second World War and the austere time that followed.  

Lavishly mounted in rich Technicolor and usually set in a world of luxury, glittering nightclubs and glamorous holiday resorts, they made Williams a star and her studio a fortune. With the decline of the studio system in the 1950s, costly musicals faded and Williams had little success as a straight actress, prompting the comedian Fanny Brice’s oft-quoted remark, “Wet she’s a star, dry she ain’t.”   She achieved a new burst of popularity with MGM’s compilation musical That’s Entertainment, in which clips of her aquatic ballets astounded audiences, and she became a successful businesswoman promoting a line of swimming pools and creating schools teaching the synchronised swimming that had been featured in her films.

Born in Los Angeles in 1921 (her studio later clipped a couple of years off), she was described by her mother as “being able to swim before she was able to walk.” Aged eight she counted towels at the local pool in exchange for free use of the facilities and won the first of several championships at 15. Her swimming ambitions were about to be fulfilled when she was chosen for the 1940 Olympics in Finland, but the Games were cancelled due to war.

She was attending Los Angeles High School and modelling part-time when asked by producer Billy Rose to replace Eleanor Holm in his Acquacade. Later regarded as one of the shrewdest and toughest stars in Hollywood, she asked for and received top salary and co-star billing alongside Johnny Weissmuller.   An MGM talent scout saw her in the show, and recognised her potential as a rival to 20th Century-Fox’s ice-skating star, Sonja Henie.

The studio frequently used its popular Andy Hardy series as a testing ground for new talent, and Williams made her debut in Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1942). After extensive training, and a small role in A Guy Named Joe (1943), she was given a major launch in Bathing Beauty, in which she wore a shocking pink swimsuit and matador cape as the Colombian singer Carlos Ramirez serenaded her with “Te Quiero Dijiste (Magic is the Moonlight)”, which became a signature song. “Later, when I would enter a nightclub like Mocambo’s, the orchestra would stop what they were playing and begin ‘Magic is the Moonlight’.”

Like most of her films, Bathing Beauty featured her gliding through pools of brightest blue, plus a slight story on which to hang musical numbers, comic routines and speciality acts, climaxing with an extravagant water ballet – Bathing Beauty’s was staged by John Murray Anderson. The studio had its stage 30 converted to a huge pool with equipment for underwater effects and a hydraulic lift.

MGM next teamed Williams with their leading male star of the time, teenage favourite Van Johnson, in The Thrill of a Romance (1945). It featured Williams as a swimming instructor who falls in love with a recuperating soldier. The same year she filmed an underwater ballet directed by Vincente Minnelli for the film Ziegfeld Follies (released in 1946). MGM teamed her with Johnson again for Easy to Wed (1946), a bright musical remake of the comedy Libelled Lady. Said Williams around this time, “I can’t act, I can’t sing, I can’t dance. My pictures are put together out of scraps they find in the producer’s wastebasket.”

Actually, critics were noting that Williams’ acting was improving – it was certainly better than that of her skating counterpart Henie, and she was developing an adept way with a wisecrack. This Time for Keeps (1947) and On an Island With You (1948) were frothy, lightweight fare in which she was given sterling support by comic Jimmy Durante, and in 1949 she was eighth in a list of the top 10 money-makers.   

In Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) she co-starred with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, but had only one brief swimming sequence, She was rumoured to have an uneasy relationship with Kelly, who was unhappy at playing with the statuesque star.

Neptune‘s Daughter (1949) gave her admirers just what they wanted: Williams playing a swimsuit designer, often in the water, comedy from Red Skelton and Betty Garrett, a romantic leading man in Ricardo Montalban and a lavish climactic water ballet. It also had an Oscar-winning song, Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It‘s Cold Outside”, sung by Williams and Montalban, then by Skelton and Garrett. The film would have had two big hits if a second Loesser song sung by Williams, “On a Slow Boat to China”, had not been cut on instruction of the Breen office for being “too suggestive”.

Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) was a biography of Annette Kellerman, the champion Australian swimmer who had starred in several silent films. The production sequences were the most spectacular of Williams’ career, opulently staged by Busby Berkeley with scores of swimmers,  stunning aerial and crane shots, fire and smoke effects and precision diving. Williams had an affair with her leading man, Victor Mature, stating, “Romances with beautiful leading men don’t last forever but don’t knock it until you’ve had one.”

In Dangerous When Wet (1953) she was part of a family determined to swim the English Channel; it had catchy songs by Arthur Schwartz and Johnny Mercer and a sequence in which she swam with Tom and Jerry. Easy to Love (1953), her last hit, had a climax staged by Busby Berkeley, with Williams leading over 100 water skiers through lakes and over ramps. Her last MGM musical was Jupiter’s Darling (1955), based on Robert Sherwood’s satirical play The Road to Rome, with Howard Keel as Hannibal.

She then left MGM, and her pool on the back-lot was converted into a temple for the Lana Turner epic The Prodigal. After two unsuccessful Universal dramas she retired and in 1969 married Fernando Lamas, having been married earlier to a medical student she met at college, and to broadcaster Ben Gage. After Lamas’ death in 1982 she married businessman Edward Bell, who promoted swimsuits and pools in her name. She was proud of introducing synchronised swimming to the Olympics in 1984, saying, “I’m godmother to a sport!”

Esther Jane Williams, swimmer and actress: born Los Angeles 8 August 1921; married 1940 Leonard Kovner (divorced 1944), 1945 Ben Cage (divorced 1958; three children), 1969 Fernando Lamas (died 1982), 1988 Edward Bell; died Los Angeles 6 June 2013.