Esther Williams Has Left the Pool
If I told you that Joey Covington died last week, you might think for a moment then say, “Oh yeah, drummer for the Jefferson Airplane”. But if I were to tell you that Esther Williams also died last week, you would probably scratch your head and ask, “Who’s that?” And I would reply “another part of your past who has been moved out during the night”.
All Wet She Was A Star
Back in the day—as people are fond of saying—movies were a lot different. Action heroes were found only in comic book pages. The lone space traveler was Buck Rogers. Cowboy meant Gene Autry or Roy Rodgers. And movie stars were one-trick ponies—literally. Fred Astaire danced. In an Astaire movie, there were a few lines of dialogue, the orchestra would play and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers would glide across the dance floor.
Deanna Durbin sang. In all her movies adults would do something foolish, Deanna would straighten them out and sing. Sonja Henie skated. Again, there was virtually no script. Everything revolved around getting Sonja on the ice. And there was Esther Williams. She couldn’t sing, dance, or act, but the lady could swim, and that was enough for audiences back then. One of her colleagues went so far as to say, “Wet, she’s a star. Dry, she ain’t”.
Esther Williams started swimming when she was eight. She counted towels at a neighborhood L.A. pool for a nickel a day—which she paid to swim there. The lifeguards recognized her talent, and adopted her. They taught her the butterfly stroke—used only by men up to then. She started using the butterfly in amateur championship meets, hoping to become an Olympian. In 1939, she won a gold medal in the 300-meter medley relay and earned a spot on the 1940 U. S. Olympic team. But her dream of Olympic glory vanished when Hitler invaded Poland. World War II broke out, and the Olympics were cancelled. Heartbroken, Esther joined the Billy Rose Aquacade. She was swimming at the 1940 San Francisco World’s Fair with Olympic champion and Old Town favorite son Johnny Weissmuller—better known as Tarzan in the movies, when an MGM talent scout spotted her.
The rest of her story is pure Hollywood. Fox had signed Sonja Henie, a 3-time Olympic gold medalist and was making a fortune producing her skating movies. Louis B. Mayer, who ran MGM, wanted to match Fox. When his talent scouts saw Williams, they signed her to a contract and put her in a pool. They had her swim in an Andy Hardy movie opposite Mickey Rooney, and the fans went crazy for the girl in the two-piece swimsuit. Next thing she knew, she was a star--a really big star!
Williams always considered the movies her consolation prize for not being able to go to the Olympics, but that prize made her rich and famous. MGM thought so much of their prodigy they built her a $250,000 swimming pool on Stage 30, complete with underwater windows, colored fountains, and hydraulic lifts. This was 1950, when big budget films cost about $2 million to make. (Iron Man 3 cost $200 million to produce.)The studio filled the pool with bathing beauties and made Esther Williams the centerpiece. She was the first person to popularize synchronized swimming. Her elaborate swimming sequences were choreographed by the legendary Busby Berkeley. In “Million Dollar Mermaid,” she wore a swimsuit made of 50,000 gold sequins and a golden crown. The crown was so heavy that when she did a swan dive into the pool from a 50-foot platform, the impact broke her back.
In addition to being a formidable swimmer, Williams was a beautiful All-American girl. MGM capitalized on both by casting her in a series of lightweight comedies whose plots and characters were almost interchangeable. If the studio wanted to make a male actor a star, they cast him opposite Esther Williams. As Williams grew older, she got tired of swimming with the newbies. She wanted to do more serious roles. But MGM’s position was-- it ain’t broke, we’re not fixing it.
Esther Williams retired from the movies in the early 1960s at the insistence of her third husband, Latin actor Fernando Lamas. He was handsome, charming, talented, and interesting, so of course the studio immediately cast him in an Esther Williams movie. He was also a gifted athlete--actually beat her at her own game in the pool. Even his friends were fascinating. His best friend was his sailing buddy Jonathan Goldsmith--you know him from the Dos Equis ads where he plays "the most interesting man in the world". If Lamas were alive today, he might challenge Goldsmith for that title. Incidentally, it was Goldsmith who scattered Lamas' ashes over the waters of the Pacific.
Esther was content just being Mrs. Fernando Lamas--for a while. Early on she wrote, “A really terrific guy comes along and says, “I wish you’d stay home and be my wife, [so I did] ... and I loved being a Latin wife.” But her marriage to Lamas was complicated--whose isn't. Williams herself gave conflicting accounts of the relationship. In 1984, two years after his death, she wrote "I've been a lucky lady. I had the experience of competitive swimming with the incredible fun of winning. I had a movie career with all the glamour that goes with it. And I had my marriage with Fernando Lamas. Everything else was meringue. He was the filling." But she told a different story in her tell-all autobiography, published in 2000. In that account, she said he was controlling, expected her to wait on him hand and foot, and would not allow her three children from a previous marriage to live with them although she took in his son Lorenzo. He even tore out pages in her scrapbook that contained pictures of them. I guess your perspective on life is different at 80 than it was at 40. The fact remains, she loved him. When Lamas died of pancreatic cancer in 1982, she thought her life was over.
A Dream Come True
But her life was far from over. In 1984, she got a call from Edward Bell, a former French literature professor turned actor. He was arranging some events for the Los Angeles Olympics and asked Esther to be the television commentator for synchronized swimming. She agreed. Esther Williams finally made it to the Olympics. She and Bell were married in 1994. He became her business partner, and together they launched a successful line of swimwear and backyard swimming pools, so lucrative she became known as “the mermaid tycoon”.
Death of a Mermaid
She died on June 6, 2013 at her home in Beverly Hills, California. She was 91 years old. The pool was closed. But do you know what I think? I think that somewhere, in celestial waters, a 17-year old mermaid named Esther Williams is still swimming in search of Olympic glory.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times