Aquatic talents led to Hollywood fame




8-8-1921 - 6-5-2013

Esther Williams, a teenage swimming champion who became an enormous Hollywood star in a decade of watery MGM extravaganzas, has died in Beverly Hills, California. She was 91.

From Bathing Beauty in 1944 to Jupiter's Darling in 1955, Williams swam in Technicolor pools, lakes, lagoons and oceans, cresting onto the list of top-10 box-office stars in 1949 and 1950.

"Esther Williams had one contribution to make to movies - her magnificent athletic body," the film critic Pauline Kael wrote. "And for over 10 years MGM made the most of it, keeping her in clinging, wet bathing suits and hoping the audience would shiver."

In her autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid (1999), Williams spoke of movie stardom as her "consolation prize", won instead of the Olympic gold medal for which she had yearned. At the national championships in 1939, Williams, who was 17, won three gold medals and earned a place on the 1940 US Olympic team. But Hitler invaded Poland, and the 1940 Olympics were cancelled with the onset of World War II.

At a time when most movies cost less than $2 million, MGM built Williams a $250,000 swimming pool on Stage 30. It had underwater windows, coloured fountains and hydraulic lifts, and it was usually stocked with a dozen bathing beauties. Performing in that 7.5-metre-deep pool, which the swimmers nicknamed Pneumonia Alley, Williams ruptured her eardrums seven times.

Esther Jane Williams was born in Los Angeles on August 8, 1921, the fifth and last child of Lou and Bula Williams. Her father was a sign painter; her maternal grandparents had come west to Utah in a wagon after the Civil War. Unwanted by a mother who was tired of raising children, Esther was turned over to her 14-year-old sister, Maurine. The family's chief breadwinner was her brother, Stanton. A silent movie star at the age of six, Stanton died of a twisted intestine when he was 16 and Esther was eight.

That summer she learned to swim. From the beginning, Williams wrote in her autobiography, "I sensed the water was my natural element". She counted wet towels at the neighbourhood pool to earn the nickel a day it cost to swim there. The male lifeguards taught her the butterfly, a stroke then used only by men, and, at the Amateur Athletic Union championships in 1939, the butterfly won her a gold medal in the 300-metre medley relay.

Three years earlier, 20th Century Fox had signed the Norwegian ice skater Sonja Henie, a three-time Olympic gold medallist, and turned her into a movie star in a series of skating movies, and Louis B. Mayer, who ran MGM, wanted to match Fox. The studio found Williams performing in Billy Rose's Aquacade at the San Francisco World's Fair. She was, as she put it, learning to "swim pretty" in tandem with Johnny Weissmuller, a former Olympic gold medallist who was already the star of MGM's Tarzan films.

At first, Williams was one of two dozen MGM contract players who had, she wrote, "a look, a voice, a sparkle or a smolder". Few lasted more than a year. To test audience reaction to her, Williams was given the role of Mickey Rooney's love interest in an Andy Hardy movie. Half a dozen starlets - including Lana Turner, Judy Garland and Kathryn Grayson - had already been tested that way. Fan-mail response to the film, Andy Hardy's Double Life (1942), was unequivocal: audiences loved the girl in the two-piece swimsuit.

At 17, Williams married Leonard Kovner, a pre-med student whom she supported by working as a stock girl at a fancy department store. It was the first of her four marriages, and he would demand $1500 - all the money she had saved from the Aquacade - before he would agree to a divorce.

Her 13-year second marriage, to the singer Ben Gage, would bring her three children and cost her considerably more money. According to Williams, Gage frittered away $10 million of her money on alcohol, gambling and failed business ventures. He also neglected to pay taxes and left her in hock to the Internal Revenue Service for $750,000 by the time they divorced in 1959. By then, Williams wrote: "I was 37 and there was not much mileage left in my movie career."

A decade later she married Fernando Lamas, the Argentina-born actor and director, who had helped her to swim the English Channel in Dangerous When Wet (1953). He was the first man who gave Williams money rather than taking it from her, but he exacted a heavy price. Her three children were not allowed to live with them or even to come to their wedding.

That marriage lasted until Lamas' death in 1982. Six years later she married Edward Bell, a professor of French literature 10 years her junior, with whom she introduced a collection of swimwear. She also put her name on a line of successful above-ground swimming pools.

She is survived by Bell, a son, a daughter, three stepchildren, three grandchildren and eight step-grandchildren.

Asked once who her favourite leading man was, Williams offered a simple and unsurprising response: "The water."

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