Actress Esther Williams Dies at 91

Esther Williams in 1956.
Esther Williams in 1956.
 Gerald Smith/NBCU Photo Bank

Actress and champion swimmer Esther Williams, who showcased a combination of glamour and athleticism by starring in several spectacular and splashy MGM musicals of the 1940s and '50s, has died. She was 91.

Williams died peacefully in her sleep Thursday in Beverly Hills, family spokesman Harlan Boll announced.

Williams swam her way to stardom in such timeless motion pictures as Bathing Beauty (1944), Neptune's Daughter (1949) and Million Dollar Mermaid (1952).

The audience response to the athletic All-American girl was phenomenal as MGM put Williams' career into high gear. For more than 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 her in water, calling on the great Busby Berkeley to design lavish production numbers to show off Williams' assets.

"No one had ever done a swimming movie before," she once said, "so we just made it up as we went along. I ad-libbed all my own underwater movements."

Bathing Beauty, a Technicolor dream that co-starred Basil Rathbone and Red Skelton, was the most successful film of 1944. Million Dollar Mermaid is renowned for its spectacular sequences that include fountains, flames and a spewing volcano. She learned to water-ski for that film.

Throughout her illustrious career, Williams 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. Her name is synonymous with swimming.

"Esther Williams did more for a bathing suit than John Wayne ever did for a cowboy hat, Tom Mix for a horse, Errol Flynn for a sword, Ronald Colman for a pith helmet or Cary Grant for a tuxedo," the late Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray once wrote.

Like Norwegian ice skater Sonja Henie before her, Williams was one of the few female athletes to cross over to widespread entertainment success.

Williams was born Aug. 8, 1921, in Los Angeles, the fifth child of Lou and Bula Williams. She grew up swimming in playground pools and surfing at local beaches and got her first job at 8 counting towels at an Inglewood pool that her mother campaigned to have built for the neighborhood. She earned an hour of swimming for each 100 towels counted.

By age 14, she won a municipal swimming championship and was recruited by former Olympian Aileen Allen, the city's leading women's coach at the powerful Los Angeles Athletic Club who helped Williams develop her style.

She won the Women's Outdoor Nationals in the 100-meter freestyle, added crowns in the 100- and 50-meter breaststroke events and swam the anchor lap for the team that cut nine seconds off the world medley relay record.

By age 16, she represented the L.A. Athletic Club while earning three national championships in the breaststroke and freestyle. A sportswriters' favorite, she qualified for three spots on the U.S. Olympic team that was headed to Helsinki, Finland, for the 1940 Games.

However, because of the escalating war in Europe, the Olympics were canceled, and Williams went pro, modeling at I. Magnin in downtown Los Angeles. With her stunning good looks and tall, muscular frame, she was a standout.

It didn't take long for showman Billy Rose to notice the photogenic champion. He needed a female lead to star opposite former Olympian and Tarzan screen star Johnny Weissmuller in his San Francisco and Los Angeles Aquacade reviews. Following an audition at L.A.'s Ambassador Hotel, Williams was chosen from a casting call of 100 hopefuls.

MGM executives who saw her in the Aquacade were impressed. After a year of being hounded by the studio and William Morris agent Johnny Hyde, Williams finally agreed to a screen test that paired her with Clark Gable. At the time, she was married to a USC medical student and making $78 a week.

With the diminutive Hyde beside her, Williams made a jaw-dropping entrance to MGM chief Louis B. Mayer’s office but refused his first offer to make her a star.

"Somehow, if you say no to L.B. Mayer and his whole third floor of executives and a top agent as well, they just have to have you. … They had never heard of such a thing," she recalled.

She agreed to the studio's improved offer in October 1941 and made her feature debut alongside Mickey Rooney in Andy Hardy's Double Life (1942), in which she gave the hero a kiss -- underwater.

"The popular Andy Hardy series movies were MGM's tests for its promising stars such as Judy Garland, Lana Turner and Donna Reed," Williams said. "If you didn't make it in those pictures, you were never heard from again."

Williams became a pin-up favorite with G.I.'s and played a USO hostess in A Guy Named Joe (1943).

For Bathing Beauty, she stole the show in the finale when she starred in an elaborate water ballet amid fountains, blazing fires and scores of scantily clad swimmers. She would soon appear on the covers of as many as 15 fan magazines a year, and in 1953, the foreign press voted her the most popular actress in 50 countries.

In the late ’40s, she starred in a series of hugely popular, albeit predictable movies. Most adhered to the boy-meets-girl, girl-swims-away, boy-catches-girl formula, including Thrill of a Romance (1945), Ziegfeld Follies (1945), Easy to Wed (1946), On an Island With You (1948), Neptune’s Daughter, Pagan Love Song (1950) and Duchess of Idaho (1950).

In some of the films, such as Pagan Love Song, water performances were included, seemingly, only to fulfill audience expectation.

Her last big-budget aquatic musical was Jupiter’s Darling (1955), starring opposite Howard Keel, who played the conqueror Hannibal. Naturally, she swam with elephants.

By the mid-1950s, Williams' popularity had dipped, and MGM paved in her pool. She traveled to Europe to star in such films as The Big Show (1961) a circus yarn co-starring the dashing Argentine star Fernando Lamas. She retired from the movies in 1969 to marry Lamas, who starred in and directed her in her last film, Magic Fountain (1963).

Along with international stardom, Williams should be credited for her huge role in the U.S. boom in swim athletics and the sales of pools and swimsuits.

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 the sport, which reached world-class status upon its inclusion into the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. She appeared as an expert commentator for ABC Sports during those Games.

"When I first started swimming, not many girls participated in the sport," she said on ABC. "They either didn’t want to get their hair wet or wanted to go out on Friday nights instead of going to a meet. But as a result of the popularity of the water ballet, pretty girls began to swim."

Williams put her name on a line of backyard swimming pools. In 2009, she was one of nine "Legendary Ladies of Stage & Screen" whose careers were chosen by The Smithsonian Institution in Washington to inaugurate its newly opened Entertainment Division.

"I think the joy that showed through in my swimming movies comes from my lifelong love of the water," she once explained. "No matter what I was doing, the best I felt all day was when I was swimming."

Williams was married four times -- to Leonard Kovner (from 1940-44), singer-actor Ben Gage (1945-59), Lamas (until his death in 1982) and actor Edward Bell (1994 to the present).

In addition to Bell, survivors include children Benjamin and Susan, three grandchildren, three stepchildren and eight step-grandchildren.

Services have yet to be announced. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to The International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Watch this wonderful tribute to Williams on YouTube from Poetic Justice below:

 

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.

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