Star of the Month: Esther Williams
August 7, 2020 | by Shannon
I grew up with the magic of Esther Williams and the swimming musical. And for that, I count myself lucky.
Loren Eiseley once said that
“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”
While I’m sure Eiseley wasn’t referring to Esther Williams, I’m reminded of his words every time I watch Esther swim. There’s nothing quite like seeing Esther, Hollywood’s real-life mermaid, gracefully gliding through the water, that radiant smile welcoming us into her seemingly perfect underwater world.
The story behind Esther Williams, “the godmother of synchronized swimming,” and how she came to be one of the most popular stars of the 1940s and 1950s through her swimming musicals, is one of my very favorites. Esther was one of my first Classic Hollywood loves, and she remains a favorite of mine today.
Many of us share this love of the talented and beautiful Esther. But did you know this swimmer, known for swimming “pretty” in her films, also competed on an Olympic level? That her sassy sense of humor kept Esther from falling prey to the “casting couch,” and earned her the respect of studio moguls like Louis B. Mayer? How about that, despite her squeaky clean image, Esther was inspired by her friend Cary Grant to experiment with LSD? Or that this independent woman, with her highly specialized and successful career, would still view her role as a mother the most important in her life?
Here are a few things about Esther Williams you didn’t know:
She Learned to Swim at Age 8
Esther Jane Williams was born August 8, 1921 in Inglewood, CA. This California girl learned to swim when her mother discovered that a city playground would be built not far from the Williams’ home, and petitioned for the park plans to include a swimming pool. When city officials asked Bula Williams which of her children swam, and would be available to inaugurate the pool on opening day, Bula volunteered her youngest daughter, eight-year-old Esther.
The only problem was, Esther didn’t know how to swim…
Not to worry, Esther’s oldest sister Maureen took her down to Manhattan Beach, where, it was quickly apparent, Esther was a natural. As Esther would remember in her 1999 autobiography [aff. link]:
“I had absolutely no fear…Somehow, I sensed, the water was my natural element. This is where I belonged. It was only a matter of days before I learned to swim—not well, but well enough for the opening ceremonies of the pool.”
Once the pool opened, Esther took a job counting wet towels so she could earn the 5 cents a day admission to swim. The lifeguards at the pool recognized the spirit and natural talent this little eight-year-old possessed, and would teach her strokes during their lunch breaks. One of the strokes Esther learned, the butterfly, would become her signature at a time when very few swimmers were cable of doing it.
She Was An Olympic-Level Swimmer
Esther continued to grow as a swimmer, and competed in local competitions until she caught the eye of the coaches at the prestigious LA Athletic Club. Esther tried out, made the club’s team, and started her training to become a championship swimmer.
And at the July 1939 national championships in Des Moines, Iowa, seventeen-year-old Esther Williams officially became a championship swimmer, earning three gold medals in the three events she competed in. It was the powerful butterfly stroke that placed Esther in a league of her own at the competition:
“I was racing against girls who were using the conventional breastroke, which kept their arms under the water at all times. But I thrust both my arms out of the water in every stroke in the much more difficult—and powerful—butterfly, which the lifeguards at the Manchester pool had taught me when I was only eight. In the years to come, the butterfly would become a separate event, but at that time, so few swimmers, especially girls, could master it that it was allowed in breastroke events.”
Esther’s speed in Des Moines was such that she broke national and international records by nine seconds. And most exciting of all, her three gold medals at the nationals guaranteed her a spot on the US Olympic team at the 1940 Summer Olympic Games.
But with Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, just months after Esther’s victories at nationals, the 1940 Olympic Games were canceled. Esther would never get her chance to become an Olympian, but other doors would open to her as a result of the cancellation:
“My dreams were crushed, a minor thing in comparison to the horrors that soon engulfed the world, but to a teenage girl the world can seem very small. It would not be until 1948 that the Olympics would be held again. By then, I was among the top ten box office stars in the world. Stardom would be my consolation prize.”
She Was A Stock Girl At A Department Store
Between her crushed Olympic dreams and superstardom, Esther would work as a stock girl at the I. Magnin department store on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Who would have thought that the million dollar mermaid once spent her days picking discarded clothing up off the floor of a posh department store for $76 a month???
But Esther loved her career at I. Magnin’s, and if MGM wouldn’t have come calling, Esther says she would have stayed in the clothing business, and become a buyer for the store.
She Had to Learn How to Swim Pretty
As an Olympic-level athlete, Esther Williams trained for speed swimming. So, when Billy Rose, aware of Esther’s beauty and talent after catching a glimpse of the national champion in the newspaper, asked her to star in his San Francisco Aquacade—the California extension of Rose’s successful water show at the 1939 New York World’s Fair— Esther had to learn how to “swim pretty.”
Swimming pretty entailed swimming with both head and shoulders up and out of the water, the exact opposite technique of swimming for speed. But as the star of Rose’s Aquacade, Esther soon became an expert at swimming pretty, and it was her great ability in this niche skill that primed her to become the star of MGM’s grand water musicals.
She Said No to MGM for An Entire Year
Yep, Louis B. Mayer courted Esther for a year before she agreed to sign a contract with MGM, the king of all Hollywood studios. Mayer’s vision of a swimming musical would give MGM a way to compete with the popular ice skating musicals of Sonia Henie at 20th Century Fox. In the beautiful, nineteen-year-old Esther Williams, Mayer thought he’d found the right girl to make these swimming musicals, these “water ballets,” a reality.
But Esther wasn’t interested, and turned MGM’s offers of a film contract and stardom down flat for a whole year. This of course just made Mayer even more interested in the young swimmer:
“…when I said no…it was like a declaration of war—nobody ever said no to MGM. It made its executives more tenacious than ever; the one who said no was the one they were determined to have.”
Eventually, MGM wore Esther down, and she said yes: According to Esther, it was her tour of the studio, and seeing what a star dressing room looked like, that finally sold her on the idea of stardom. Here was Esther’s chance to live a life of glamour, and she finally decided to take it, signing her first contract with MGM in October 1941.
She Was Smart
When Esther signed with MGM in 1941, she was smart enough to realize that most contract players never became stars. To give herself the best chance of success, Esther capitalized on MGM’s eagerness to sign her, and made them include a proviso in her contract that stated she would not appear in a film until nine months into her contract: Esther was trained to be a champion, and knew those nine months of learning at MGM University, as she’d call the studio, would prepare her for her first film role. As Esther would so adroitly put it,
“…my instincts told me I wasn’t ready for the camera…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.”
During her training at MGM University, Esther would learn how to act, sing, dance, and speak with non-regional diction.
Esther’s nine month stipulation was a smarter move than she could have realized at the time: when she finally did make her film debut in 1942’s Any Hardy’s Double Life, the public reaction to Esther and her brief swimming scene was overwhelmingly positive, and set the stage for superstardom.
Clark Gable Was the First to Call Her a Mermaid
Esther Williams would be known as Hollywood’s Mermaid during her years as an MGM star. And it was none other than Clark Gable who christened her with this incredibly fitting nickname, when, after filming a romantic screen test with the newcomer for his next big film, Gable turned to his wife, the lovely Carole Lombard, and said
“Well baby, I told you I was gonna kiss me a mermaid today.”
The nickname stuck, and from then on Esther Williams was known at The Mermaid.
She Had Terrible Luck With Men. (Mostly)
Esther Williams was a smart, confident, self-sufficient, and motivated woman.
But she had terrible luck with men. Mostly. Here’s a quick run down of the four fascinating men Esther tried to make a life with:
Leonard Kovner (m. 1940-1944)
Esther and Kovner met as students at LA City College, and married just before Esther’s eighteenth birthday. Kovner seemed like a nice, reliable guy who would rescue Esther from the promiscuous world she found so distasteful while starring in Billy Rose’s Aquacade. And at first, it seemed she was right about this pre-med student with the Tyrone Power looks. But Esther soon discovered that Kovner was also…dull. She could have accepted this, but it was Kovner’s violent objections to Esther’s desire to sign with MGM that led to the disintegration of their marriage. Kovner actually chased Esther out of their little apartment, and she was forced to hide out overnight with their sympathetic landlady until he calmed down…! End of marriage number one.
Ben Gage (m. 1945-1959)
The easy going, fun-loving Ben Gage seemed like the perfect guy to Esther after the brooding and dull Leonard Kovner. But with Gage’s carefree, boyish quality came a price: the man had absolutely no ambition, and in addition sitting back while Esther earned all the money and raised their three children, he also spent all that hard-earned money faster than she could make it.
After fourteen years of marriage, Esther couldn’t carry the load of work and family by herself any more. By the time Esther and Ben divorced in 1959, Gage had gambled and frittered away $10 million dollars. (Shades of Doris Day’s financial problems with Martin Melcher…). It would take years for the always frugal Esther to get her finances back in order, but she did.
Fernando Lamas (m. 1969-1982 [his death])
Esther and Fernando met while filming Dangerous When Wet (1953). Fernando was a champion swimmer himself, and Esther appreciated finally having a co-star who she didn’t have to hold up to keep from sinking while they swam! Lamas would re-enter Esther’s life in 1960, and sweep her off her feet.
Esther was crazy enough about Fernando to put up some difficult personality traits: he was bossy, insisted that she “stop being Esther Williams,” and stay home as much as possible. Worst of all, Lamas wasn’t a big fan of kids, and wouldn’t allow Esther’s three children, Benjie, Kim, and Susie, to live with them. Throughout her years with Lamas, Esther would have to get creative to remain a part of her children’s lives. Esther stuck with Lamas until the end, but by the time of his passing in 1982, Esther was ready to have her life back.
Edward Bell (m. 1994-2013 [her death])
Esther finally found Mr. Right in Edward Bell, a former SUNY Stony Brook professor who coordinated Esther’s participation in the 1984 Olympic Games. Bell would prove Esther’s perfect partner in life and business, and the two would launch Esther’s swimwear line together, which remains successful today.
She Was Nearsighted
Just a quick fact that I love, Esther Williams was nearsighted. My favorite candid shots of Esther are those of her wearing or holding a stylish pair of glasses.
Esther was so nearsighted in fact, that the day she met Clark Gable, Esther wasn’t wearing her glasses, and couldn’t make out who it was she was meeting until she was close enough to get an outline of Gable’s famously large ears.
She Was An Amazing Cook
Esther Williams loved to cook, and just like everything else she ever tried, she excelled at it! Esther’s cooking once even got her out of a traffic ticket (I’ll share that story later this month, so stay tuned!).
Third husband Fernando Lamas was particularly proud of Esther’s culinary accomplishments, and loved throwing dinner parties to show off Esther’s skills. And he always made sure guests to the Lamas house were aware that Esther, not some hired help, had make their meal. Lamas would announce before dinner that
“Just remember that Esther Williams cooked the dinner, so appreciate it!”
Fernando may have had his …quirks as a husband, but I think that’s incredibly sweet.
She Was the First to Sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”
Who would have thought that the classic holiday song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” made its feature film debut in a summery Esther Williams musical? It was Esther and co-star Ricardo Montalban who first sang the song on screen in 1949’s Neptune’s Daughter. The duet, written by Frank Loesser, would win the Academy Award for Best Original Song at the 1950 Academy Awards.
She Tried LSD
Like her friend Cary Grant, Esther survived some incredibly tragic events during her childhood that would haunt her as an adult. The death of Esther’s older brother Stanton, whom she adored, was a trauma that put the mantle of responsibility and success on Esther’s shoulders at a young age as she did her best to take Stanton’s place as the pride of the Williams family. If that weren’t enough of a responsibility, at age thirteen, Esther was raped by the the neighborhood boy her parents invited to live with them in the years following Stanton’s death.
Esther would try LSD in 1959, following her divorce from Ben Gage. Esther took inspiration from Cary Grant’s positive experience with acid that he shared in Look magazine. Like Grant, Esther would find the experience enlightening and clarifying, though she never became a regular user of the drug.
She Was Sassy
A self described “smart mouth,” if there’s a recurrent feel to the humor in her autobiography, it’s that Esther Williams was sassy.
And I love it!
Esther’s confident, sassy humor would earn her the respect of studio moguls like L.B. Mayer, and keep her from being taken advantage of by co-stars and colleagues.
I want to give you a little taste of Esther’s humor by briefly sharing a few of my favorite sassy Esther anecdotes from her book [aff. link]:
On the day the petite, 5’3 agent Johnny Hyde (also responsible for jump-starting Marilyn Monroe’s career), took nineteen-year-old, 5’8 Esther to meet L.B. Mayer, the very confident Esther told Hyde that
“’This isn’t going to work if we walk in together. Alongside you, I’ll look like a giraffe. You go ahead of me and be sitting down when I come in.’…Somehow it felt natural for me, at nineteen, to give him orders…”
Talk about sass and confidence! I love that Esther was only at MGM a few minutes before she began bossing people around !!!!
A FRESH Glass of Orange Juice, Please.
If you thought walking in to MGM alone was gutsy of the nineteen-year-old Esther, how about this: on meeting Louis B. Mayer, who, as a power play, poured himself a glass of orange juice without offering one to anyone else in the room, Esther asked if she could have one, too. When a surprised Mayer then proceeded to merely push his used glass of juice sullenly towards her, Esther asked
“You don’t have a clean glass?”
It would be the first of many confrontations with Mayer over the years, and L.B. would soon learn to respect this athlete who didn’t go for the tantrums he was so famous for.
Sit Up Straight, Gene
Esther was sometimes taller than her co-stars. One of those co-stars who had a chip on his shoulder about the situation was my favorite dancer, Gene Kelly. Gene and Esther co-starred together in Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949). According to Esther, Gene and his buddy Stanley Donen basically took over direction of the film, and taunted Esther incessantly about her height, as if it were something she could control. One scene required that Gene and Esther both be seated on a bench. When Kelly shouted to Donen while filming the scene that “this SOB even sits tall,” it was the last straw for Esther, who promptly responded
“Gene…I was born with long legs and a long waistline. Swimming gave me broad shoulders…I’m sorry that my physique doesn’t fit in with your plans…but there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t make myself five-two, and I can’t make you six-three, either. For this scene, it would help a lot if you’d just sit up straight. If that’s not enough, try tucking one foot under your ass.”
Go Esther! That’s certainly one way to deal with a bully.
On Why She Didn’t Fight for Dramatic Roles
One day at MGM, Esther and English star Deborah Kerr had a nice little talk while getting their hair done. Esther’s films were routinely romantic, swimming-musical comedies that always made tons of money, while Deborah Kerr was offered a wider variety of dramatic roles, but her films didn’t always turn a profit. Two of Kerr’s films before this conversation, If Winter Comes (1947) and Edward, My Son (1949), had fallen into the less successful category. On this particular day, Deborah turned to Esther and said
“Esther, I really love what you do on the screen…but I wonder…isn’t there anything you can do about getting a good story? You know, a good script?”
To which our sassy gal responded:
“Deborah, look at it this way. If I make one Neptune’s Daughter, you can make two If Winter Comes.”
A lack of respect for her “fluff” films was something Esther would frequently deal with throughout her career, and Kerr, to her credit, graciously realized the truth behind Esther’s answer: it was the guaranteed success of Esther’s films that allowed MGM to experiment with other pictures that may or not not be money makers.
Celebrate Esther with Me!
And that wraps it up for my introduction to our August Star of the Month, Esther Williams!
Be sure to join me next week as I cover 1944’s Bathing Beauty, all the fascinating behind-the-scenes tricks that went into creating the first swimming musical, and Esther’s role in the birth of synchronized swimming.