Esther Williams was a star of movie musicals, as well as a popular pin-up girl in the 1940s and 1950s. She is credited with popularizing swimming as an athletic and recreational activity in America, and with originating synchronized swimming as a viable sport. Her contribution to American entertainment has been so significant that her name is now a household word.
Esther Williams was born on August 8, 1922, in Los Angeles, California. From earliest childhood, she had a great affinity for the water; her favorite pastimes included swimming and surfing. By age 16, Esther was on the Los Angeles Athletic Club swim team and her breaststroke and freestyle had earned three national championships. She was to compete at the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo, but the advent of the Second World War resulted in the cancellation of the games.
However, Esther’s appearance in publicity shots of the team had garnered some attention from the entertainment industry. The young woman was beautiful and well-toned, as well as extremely photogenic. She was soon contacted by showman Billy Rose, who cast her opposite Olympian and performer Johnny Weissmuller (of Tarzan movie fame) in his Aquacade review. Rose wrote that, “With the possible exception of Eleanor Holm, she's the most beautiful swimming champion in the history of aquatics." And it’s worth noting that Billy Rose was married to Eleanor Holm!
Esther’s successful run in the Aquacade drew the attention of MGM executives in 1942, and they arranged for her to screen test with screen legend Clark Gable. They soon cast her in one of their popular but relatively insubstantial “Andy Hardy” films. Audience response was favorable, and the studio quickly commissioned the film “Bathing Beauty” for the express purpose of showcasing Esther’s talents. The film’s success cemented Esther’s image in the media, and it resulted in MGM’s formulation of an entirely new sub-genre centered around her. For fifteen years, Esther Williams was the “aqua musical.” Notable titles include “Million Dollar Mermaid” and “Dangerous When Wet.” These films are well known to the public’s collective consciousness in part as a result of the masterful choreography of Busby Berkely, a style which was parodied quite neatly by Mel Brooks in “History of the World Part I,” with the swimming nuns in the Spanish Inquisition sequence.
Due to her popularity in films, Esther Williams soon became a favorite poster girl as well. The studio made sure that she frequently graced the covers of magazines and that she had photo ops whenever possible. At this time, the nation saw a marked increase in swimming, particularly among young women. As International Swimming Hall of Fame literature explains, "If swimming would make his daughter grow up to look like Esther Williams, then father was willing to pay for the lessons." Esther was also a master of synchronized swimming, a sport that is often given short shrift in contemporary society. However, it requires unparalleled endurance and an extremely disciplined body.
Esther Williams has also proved herself to be quite enterprising. She realized early on that MGM could only make a finite number of swimming musicals before the concept would be completely played out. In fact, after interest in aqua musicals waned, an attempt at a dramatic career found little success. Not to worry, though. Esther had cleverly made licensing agreements with a swimming pool manufacturer and with a swimsuit company. This decision has proven itself to be both lucrative and professionally responsible. According to the Delair Group (the pool manufacturer), "Esther Williams is the most well-known name in the above-ground pool business today.'' Similarly, the Esther Williams Collection is extremely popular among mothers and mature women, because the swimsuits take into account the differences in body type that these women typically exhibit.
Esther Williams has been married four times. Her first marriage was from 1940-1944, to doctoral student Leonard Kovner. The marriage ended when Esther chose to pursue her acting career while Leonard expected her to be a full-time housewife. Her 1945-1959 marriage to singer Ben Gage produced three children (Benjamin, Kimball, and Susan) before they were divorced. In 1969, Esther married Latin heartthrob Fernando Lamas and remained with him until his death in 1982. She is now married to actor Edward Bell, whom she met in 1984 at the Olympics. Esther Williams remains poised and beautiful to this day, and her attendance is often a high point of benefits and premieres.
As a side note, Esther Williams’ fame extends to both sides of the Atlantic. A 1971 segment of Monty Python’s Flying Circus features a jury foreman conveying a verdict via a spirited game of charades. Having successfully communicated “not,” he moves onto the first syllable of the second word. Mimicking a fish and pointing to his neck, he is attempting to express “gill” (for guil, as in guilty). However, the clerk suggests “Esther Williams.” The Judge is quick to ask, “How can you find someone 'Not Esther Williams?'” And, indeed, one cannot. Sadly, the American and British judicial systems still lack this mechanism.
(Some information taken from www.imdb.com and www.esther-williams.com.)
Esther Williams died on June 6, 2013 in her sleep in her Los Angeles home. She was 91 years old.