Esther Williams: Hollywood's Sassy Mermaid

Esther Williams
Esther Williams Is Sassy, Almost An Olympian, An Excellent Cook, Learns How to Swim Pretty, and Invents the Swimming Musical.
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“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

—Loren Eiseley

Eiseley’s words could be used to describe the magic of an Esther Williams aquamusical.

Watching Esther Williams swim on film is magic.  She’s beautiful and glamorous; she combines the strength of an Olympic level athlete with the delicate grace of a principal ballerina.  Flashing that gorgeous smile through difficult strokes and underwater darings, Esther has an uncanny ability to make us feel we’re right there with her. 

Or, at the very least, wish we were.

Esther Williams

Esther Williams was Hollywood’s real-life mermaid. 

But earning this enchanted title wasn’t easy.  A child of the Great Depression, Esther rose from the challenges of an impoverished youth and broken Olympic dreams to become one of the most beloved stars of the Golden Age.  With her sassy self-confidence, Esther successfully navigated fickle Hollywood and the disappointments of three marriages without losing her sense of self-worth. 

Esther Williams was an independent woman.  Yet for all the fulfillment that came with her highly specialized skill set and successful career, Esther believed the most important role in her life was that of mother to her three children.

As we celebrate Esther this month, here are a few things about Hollywood’s sassy mermaid you didn’t know:

Esther Williams

She Learned to Swim at Age 8

Esther Jane Williams was born August 8, 1921 in Inglewood, CA.  When Esther was eight years old, her mother Bula learned of a city playground being built not far from the Williams family home.  The spunky Bula petitioned for the park plans to include a swimming pool.  City officials heeded Bula’s request, and asked which of her children swam: the lucky youngster would get to inauguate the pool on openning day.

Bula volunteered her youngest (and cutest) daughter, eight-year-old Esther.

Who incidentally, didn’t know how to swim.

Luckily, Esther’s older sister Maureen did.  To prepare for the big day, Maureen took Esther down to Manhattan Beach for swimming lessons.

It was quickly apparent that Esther was a natural.  As Esther recalled in her 1999 autobiography [aff. link]:

Young Esther Williams at the pool.

“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.  The chore earned her the necessary 5 cent admission to swim at the pool each day.  Soon Esther’s talent and spirit were recognized by the pool lifeguards, who taught the eight-year-old various strokes on their lunch breaks.  One of the strokes young Esther learned was the butterfly, at the time a rare stroke among male and female swimmers alike, which became Esther’s signature.

Esther Williams

Esther Williams Was An Olympic-Level Swimmer

Teenage Esther continued to grow as a swimmer.  She competed in local competitions, and caught the eye of coaches at the prestigious LA Athletic Club.  Esther tried out for the club’s swim team, and made it.  From that point on, young Esther’s mission in life was to become a championship swimmer.

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 Williams

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 nationals guaranteed her a spot on the US Olympic team at the 1940 Summer Olympic Games.

But Esther Williams never got her chance to complete in the Olympics.

With Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, just months after Esther’s victories at nationals, the 1940 Olympic Games were canceled. 

Esther was devastated.  But other doors opened 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.”

Esther Williams

She Was A Stock Girl At A Department Store

After her crushed Olympic dreams, but before achieving movie stardom, Esther Williams worked as a stock girl at the I. Magnin department store on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.  

Yes, Hollywood’s million dollar mermaid once spent her days picking discarded clothing up off the floor of a posh department store for $76 a month.

And she loved it. 

Esther shared in her autobiography that if MGM hadn’t come calling, she would have stayed in the clothing business, and eventually become a buyer for I. Magnin.

Esther Williams

Esther Williams Had to Learn How to Swim Pretty

As an Olympic-level athlete, Esther Williams was trained to swim fast.  For Esther, swimming was about speed, not necessarily beauty.

But showman Billy Rose saw potential for swimming to be about something other than speed.  Swimming could be beautiful.  And after seeing a picture of the gorgeous national swimming champion Esther Williams, Rose believed he’d found the swimmer who could bring his vision to life on the west coast.  Billy Rose asked Esther 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 accepted the offer.  Now all she had to do was learn how to “swim pretty.” 

Swimming pretty entails 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 Williams quickly became an expert at swimming pretty.

It was her great ability in this niche skill that primed Esther for stardom in MGM’s grand water musicals.

Esther Williams

Esther Williams Said No to MGM for An Entire Year

Similar to Billy Rose, Louis B. Mayer of MGM saw great potential in the idea that swimming could be beautiful.  Mayer envisioned a swimming musical, something akin to the ice skating musicals of Sonia Henie over at 20th Century Fox, but with swimming.  To make these water ballets, Mayer knew he needed a beautiful leading lady who could swim.  He believed he found her in Esther Williams.

The only problem was, nineteen-year-old Esther wasn’t interested.  

After the overall disappointing experience of Billy Rose’s Aquacade—complete with unwanted advances from her swimming partner, Johnny Weissmuller of Tarzan fame—Esther Williams wanted nothing to do with show business.

For a full year, Esther said no to Mayer’s offer of a film contract and stardom.  Which of course, just made him all the more determined to get her.  As Esther remembered:

Esther Williams

“…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, Esther changed her mind.  But it wasn’t Mayer’s promises of fame and fortune that convinced Esther to sign with the studio: it was seeing the luxurious star dressing rooms on a studio tour.  Here was Esther’s chance to live a life of glamour.  She decided to take it.  Esther signed her first contract with MGM in October 1941.

Esther Williams

She Was Smart

When Esther signed with MGM in 1941, she was smart.  Esther realized that most contract players never became stars.  As a swimmer, Esther trained to be a champion, and she applied the same logic to her new film career.  To give herself the best chance of success, Esther capitalized on MGM’s eagerness to sign her, and insisted that the studio include a proviso in her contract, stipulating that she would not make a single film for nine months.  This would give Esther time to learn the business of filmmaking before appearing onscreen:

“…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.”

Esther with Mickey Rooney in her first film, Andy Hardy's Double Life (1942).

Esther referred to this nine month period as her training at “MGM University.”  She learned how to do just about every movie skill imaginable, from acting to singing and dancing; to speaking with non-regional diction.

Esther’s nine month stipulation was an even 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 Williams and her brief swimming scene was overwhelmingly positive.

Esther with Clark Gable in her screen test for Somewhere I'll Find You (1942). Esther was offered the role opposite Gable, but turned it down, feeling she was not ready to appear on camera. Lana Turner eventually got the part.

Clark Gable Was the First to Call Her a Mermaid

Esther Williams is still known as Hollywood’s Mermaid.  And it was none other than Clark Gable who coined the nickname.

Esther, newly signed at MGM, was shocked when, on the day of her first screen test, Clark Gable walked through the door.  The biggest stars almost never did screen tests with newcomers.  And here was the King, ready to test with Esther.

It was a romantic scene they filmed together that day.  Afterwards, Gable turned to his wife—the lovely Carole Lombard, who’d come to observe—and said:

“Well baby, I told you I was gonna kiss me a mermaid today.”

The nickname stuck.  From that moment on, Esther Williams was known as Hollywood’s Mermaid.

Esther Williams

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 men Esther married:

Esther in court getting her divorce from Leonard Kovner, 1944.

Leonard Kovner (m. 1940-1944)

Esther and Leonard Kovner met as students at LA City College.  Kovner seemed like a nice, reliable guy who could rescue Esther from the promiscuous world she found so distasteful while starring in Billy Rose’s Aquacade.  They married just before Esther’s eighteenth birthday.  

At first, it seemed she was right about this pre-med student with the Tyrone Power looks.  But Esther soon discovered that Leonard Kovner was…dull.  She could have accepted this, but Kovner also violently opposed Esther’s wish to try her hand at a film career.  When Esther told him she wanted to sign with MGM, Kovner literally chased  Esther out of their little apartment.  She was forced to hide out overnight with their sympathetic landlady until he calmed down…

End of marriage number one.

Esther with husband number two, Ben Gage.

Ben Gage (m. 1945-1959)

After the dull and brooding Leonard Kovner, easy going, fun-loving Ben Gage seemed like the perfect guy to Esther.  But Gage’s carefree, boyish quality came with a price: the man had no ambition.  In addition to sitting back while Esther made all the money and raised their three children, Ben spent Esther’s 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.

Esther with husband number three, Fernando Lamas.

Fernando Lamas (m. 1969-1982 [his death])

Esther and Fernando Lamas first met while filming 1953’s Dangerous When Wet.  Fernando was a champion swimmer himself, and Esther appreciated finally having a co-star whom she didn’t have to hold up to keep from sinking while they swam.  But, despite Lamas’ best efforts, no romance developed off camera.

Ferdando re-entered Esther’s life in 1960, and swept her off her feet. 

Fernando Lamas was also a champion swimmer, which gave Esther a nice break: she usually had to hold her co-stars up in the pool.

Esther was crazy enough about Fernando to put up with some difficult personality traits: he was bossy, insisted that she “stop being Esther Williams,” and that she 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 had 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.

Esther Williams
Esther with Mr. Right, fourth husband Edward Bell.

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 was Esther’s perfect partner in life and business: the two launched Esther’s swimwear line together, which remains successful today.

Esther Williams

She Was Nearsighted

Esther Williams was nearsighted. 

Some of the most stylish candid photos of Esther are those of her wearing or holding a classy pair of glasses. 

Esther Williams

Esther was so nearsighted that the day she met Clark Gable—a day she wasn’t wearing her glasses—Esther had no idea who she was meeting.  It wasn’t until she was close enough to Gable to get an outline of his famously large ears that Esther realized who the mystery man was.

Esther Williams
She does it all! Esther takes a phone call while cooking.

Esther Williams Was An Amazing Cook

Esther Williams loved to cook.

And just like everything else she ever tried, Esther excelled at it.  Once, Esther’s cooking even got her out of a traffic ticket.

Third husband Fernando Lamas was particularly proud of Esther’s culinary accomplishments, and loved throwing dinner parties to show off Esther’s skills. Fernando always made sure that guests to the Lamas home were aware that Esther, not some hired help, had made their meal.  Fernando did this by announcing to guests before dinner to:

“Just remember that Esther Williams cooked the dinner, so appreciate it!”

Fernando was a creep in many ways, but it’s awesome that he appreciated Esther’s cooking skills.

Esther with Ricardo Montalban in Neptune's Daughter (1949).

She Was the First to Sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”

It’s hard to believe, but the classic winter holiday/Christmas 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 onscreen in 1949’s Neptune’s Daughter. The duet, written by Frank Loesser, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song at the 1950 Academy Awards.  

Esther Williams
Esther prepares her makeup for an underwater sequence.

She Tried LSD

Like her friend Cary Grant, Esther survived incredibly tragic events during her childhood that haunted her as an adult.  The death of Esther’s older brother Stanton, whom she adored, was a trauma that put the mantle of success on young Esther’s shoulders.  She did her best to take Stanton’s place as the pride of the Williams family.  And 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 tried LSD in 1959, following her divorce from Ben Gage, hoping the drug would help her make sense of these early traumas and their impact on her adult life.  She was inspired by what Cary Grant deemed his positive experience with acid—he later revoked this opinion—in Look magazine. 

 Like Grant, Esther found the experience enlightening and clarifying, though she never became a regular user of the drug.

Esther Williams

Esther Williams Was Sassy!

A self described “smart mouth,” if there’s a recurrent theme to the humor in Esther’s autobiography, it’s that she was sassy.  

Esther’s confident, sassy humor earned her the respect of studio moguls like L.B. Mayer.  It also kept her from being taken advantage of by co-stars and colleagues.

Here’s a taste of Esther’s humor, courtesy of a few sassy Esther anecdotes from her book [aff. link]:

Nineteen-year-old Esther was already confident her very first day on the MGM lot.

Esther Williams: the 19-Year-Old-Know-It-All

On the day the petite, 5’3″ agent Johnny Hyde 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…”

The unproven, nineteen-year-old had only been at MGM a few minutes, yet she was already bossing people around.

Talk about sass.

Esther Williams

A FRESH Glass of Orange Juice, Please.

If you thought walking alone into the the most successful movie studio in Hollywood was gutsy of nineteen-year-old Esther, how about this: when Louis B. Mayer first met Esther in his office at MGM, he poured himself a glass of orange juice without offering one to anyone else in the room.  It was Mayer’s attempt at a power play. 

But Esther surprised him by asking if she could have one, too.  When a shocked Mayer proceeded to merely push his used glass of juice sullenly towards her, Esther refused to accept it.  She then asked Mayer:

“You don’t have a clean glass?”

It was the first of many confrontations between Esther and Mayer over the years.  L.B. eventually learned to respect this athlete who didn’t put up with the tantrums he was so famous for.

Esther and Frank Sinatra became good friends during filming of Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949). But Gene Kelly and Esther were another story...

Sit Up Straight, Gene

Sometimes, Esther Williams was taller than her male co-stars.  One such co-star who had a chip on his shoulder about the situation was Gene Kelly.  Gene and Esther made Take Me Out to the Ball Game together in 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 in the film required Gene and Esther to both be seated on a bench.  While filming the scene, Kelly shouted to Donen that:

“This SOB even sits tall.”

It was the last straw for Esther.  And she 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.

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.  It was about the type of films they each made.

Esther’s films were always romantic, swimming-musical comedies that consistently smashed the box office.  Deborah on the other hand was routinely offered a wide variety of dramatic roles, but her films didn’t always turn a profit. 

Two of Kerr’s films not long before this conversation with Esther, If Winter Comes (1947) and Edward, My Son (1949), fell into the less successful category: the former film lost MGM half a million dollars, while the latter lost the studio over $1 million…  

On this particular day at the studio hair salon, 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 frequently dealt with throughout her career.  To her credit, Deborah Kerr graciously realized how true Esther’s words were: the success of Esther Williams films allowed MGM to experiment with pictures like the ones Deborah made–dramatic, artsy, but not necessarily good box office.

Esther Williams

More Esther Williams Next Week

That wraps up my introductin to Hollywood’s sassy mermaid, Esther Williams. 

Join me next week for all about the pioneering work of Esther and MGM in creating the first swimming musical, 1944’s Bathing Beauty.

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