Esther Williams Exhibit 'Swimming Queen of the Silver Screen' Opens at Catalina Island Museum

Gerald Smith/NBCU Photo Bank

At the opening party, Williams' husband Ed Bell and stepson Lorenzo Lamas reminisced about the legendary actress and swimmer, whose design contributions helped revolutionize swimwear.

When Esther Williams signed a promotional deal with Cole of California swimwear in 1948, she was one of the first stars to ever do so, pioneering a businesswoman’s role in Hollywood and designing swimsuits in her own unique style that defied standards and expectations. At the Catalina Island Museum on Sept. 6, some of her original retro fashions were modeled along with new designs at a fashion show reception for the first museum exhibit, "Esther Williams: The Swimming Queen of the Silver Screen," on the legendary movie star. Seventy items from private lenders and family members chronicling her life in memorabilia, costumes, posters and photos are on display, with half of them on view for the first time.

At the party were Williams' fourth husband, Edward Bell, and actor Lorenzo Lamas, son of Williams' third husband, Fernando Lamas. "Esther used to say about bathing suits, it's the least amount of clothing a woman is going to wear in public, so she better look good. We're not going to use Dixie cups and dental floss. We make swimwear for women," Bell told the crowd, as bathing beauties of all ages and sizes walked the catwalk. 

Before Williams' time, swimsuits were made of cotton, hanging loosely instead of clinging to the body. While shooting Skirts Ahoy!, about three women who go in for Naval training, Williams characterized the swimwear as shapeless grey cotton sacks, calling them "the saddest bathing suits I’d ever seen." Consulting with designers at Cole of California (founded by silent film star Fred Cole), they came up with a form-fitting Lycra one-piece that was such a hit when she modeled it for the Secretary of the Navy that he ordered 50,000 of them as the official swimsuit of the Navy.

Not quite right for the pool, but right for the spotlight, is the gown she wore in 1955's Jupiter's Darling — elegant beige with black chevron stripes. More subdued is the navy-blue tailored traveling suit she wore in 1952's Million Dollar Mermaid, which she made with Victor Mature. Her marriage in shambles, she had a torrid affair with her co-star, which ended when she broke her neck on a 115-foot dive that put her in a body cast. The gold lame bathing suit she wore for the scene is on display at the show, and a copy was modeled on the runway.

Through the course of her career, co-stars included Spencer Tracy, Dick Powell, Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, as well as Van Johnson (with whom she made five films) and Fernando Lamas (with whom she made Dangerous When Wet in 1953). She married him 16 years later in 1969, taking a husband-enforced hiatus from entertainment until his death in 1982. 

"He was very Latin, very macho, like the woman belongs in the house taking care of the man. After dad died, she wrote that book, which was kind of inflammatory," Lamas' son Lorenzo says about The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography, in which she chronicles Lamas' abusive treatment of her. "I completely understand where she was coming from, because as an adult in the 21st century, a woman has more to her than just making empanadas. There’s a lot to a person besides what they can do for the man, and I respected that." 

Fourth husband Edward Bell met Williams when he was working for the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. He was asked if he had any Hollywood connections who could swim and who might comment on aquatic events. His first choice was Buster Crabbe, star of the 1930s serial, Flash Gordon. Crabbe swam in the 1932 Olympics, but at the age of 75 was in poor health and passed in 1983. So, Bell turned to Williams. 

They arranged to meet for lunch at Scandia, a popular West Hollywood eatery at the time, now closed. An hour late, she finally showed up. "She comes through the door. I get up, I knock the whole table over. Chaos at Scandia. She loved it. That's how I met her. She thought it was the funniest thing in the world," Bell recalls about their first encounter over coffee later at the island's Hotel Atwater. He told her he was a big fan, but he also loved Betty Grable movies. "She said to me, Betty Grable? That's a dimestore girl!"

A competitive swimmer since childhood, Williams was on her way to the Olympics when the 1940 games were cancelled on account of World War II. When Fox signed three-time Olympic champion skater Sonja Henie to star in movies, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer took countermeasures by signing Williams in 1941. With titles like Bathing Beauty and On an Island with You, one of Williams' "aqua-musicals" broke the box office top 20 each year between 1945 and 1949. In 1950, she won an Academy Award for best song for her duet with co-star Ricardo Montalban in Neptune's Daughter.

Lamas, whose mother is actor Arlene Dahl, recalls family cookouts as a child with Williams, when she taught him to body surf at Santa Monica beach. “She'd put me on her back. I had my arms around her neck and she'd catch a wave and I'd ride her like a porpoise. In so many ways, she was the real mom. Arlene is an amazing mom to me. She's very loving, but she's a businesswoman. Esther was as happy making us food on the beach as she was in front of 200 people on the stage," he reminisces. "My final memory was sitting with her at her house with Ed [Bell], with my ex-wife Kathleen Kinmont, and one of Kathleen's friends, and we celebrated her birthday. She adored my children. She lived long enough to see all of them."

Sept. 10, 5:25 p.m.: Updated caption