skip navigation
Esther Williams

Esther Williams

Up
Down

| VIEW ALL

TCM Messageboards
Post your comments here
ADD YOUR COMMENT>

share:

TCM Archive Materials VIEW ALL ARCHIVES (18)

Recent DVDs

 
 

TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams, Vol. 1... Bathing BeautyA big splash in her first starring role: Williams is a teacher at... more info $49.98was $49.98 Buy Now

Take Me Out To The Ball Game... Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly play ball in a big way as 1900s vaudevillians who... more info $12.98was $12.98 Buy Now



Also Known As: Esther Jane Williams Died:
Born: August 8, 1921 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Inglewood, California, USA Profession: actor, swimmer, singer, model, stock clerk, businesswoman

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Like Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe before her, Esther Williams achieved the seemingly impossible by transforming her skill at competitive swimming into a popular movie career. A star athlete and Olympic hopeful in her teens, she gained her earliest exposure to show business as the female lead in showman Billy Rose's Aquacade. Executives at MGM who saw her swimming abilities and pin-up worthy looks signed her immediately to a contract with the studio. There she starred in a series of musicals built around Williams' extraordinarily graceful water ballets. Audiences ate up the ultra-lightweight fare, making her one of the most popular movie stars of the 1940s and 1950s, though her career declined whenever she decided to pursue roles on dry land. After retiring in the early sixties, she parlayed her association with all things aquatic into lucrative licensing deals for ladies' swimwear and swimming pools. Due to these savvy decisions, she enjoyed her later decades out of spotlight and lived to be 91, with her physically fit background likely contributing to her longevity.Born Esther Jane Williams in Inglewood, CA on Aug. 8, 1921, she took to the water at a very early age, earning her first...

Like Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe before her, Esther Williams achieved the seemingly impossible by transforming her skill at competitive swimming into a popular movie career. A star athlete and Olympic hopeful in her teens, she gained her earliest exposure to show business as the female lead in showman Billy Rose's Aquacade. Executives at MGM who saw her swimming abilities and pin-up worthy looks signed her immediately to a contract with the studio. There she starred in a series of musicals built around Williams' extraordinarily graceful water ballets. Audiences ate up the ultra-lightweight fare, making her one of the most popular movie stars of the 1940s and 1950s, though her career declined whenever she decided to pursue roles on dry land. After retiring in the early sixties, she parlayed her association with all things aquatic into lucrative licensing deals for ladies' swimwear and swimming pools. Due to these savvy decisions, she enjoyed her later decades out of spotlight and lived to be 91, with her physically fit background likely contributing to her longevity.

Born Esther Jane Williams in Inglewood, CA on Aug. 8, 1921, she took to the water at a very early age, earning her first paycheck at the age of eight as a towel girl at a local swimming pool. Her older brother Stanton Williams was the first member of the family to become a star by appearing in a handful of silent films and stage productions before his untimely death at age 16. His sister took the athletic route and gained fame as a teenage swimming champion; by 16, she had earned three national championship titles in freestyle and breaststroke. Eventually, she made the 1940 Olympic swimming team, but her dreams of a medal were dashed by the outbreak of World War II.

Undaunted, she took up part-time work as a model while studying at Los Angeles City College. Theater impresario Billy Rose saw one of her print layouts and immediately contacted her to audition for his Aquacade, an all-singing, all-dancing, all-swimming production at the San Francisco World's Fair. Former Olympic swimming medalist-turned-movie Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, was the star of the show, and according to showbiz legend, he personally selected her to be his Aquabelle No.1.

Williams' looks and flawless skill with the show's choreographed swimming duets captured the attention of audiences, as well as executives at MGM, who saw a box office bonanza in her abilities. She was quickly signed up for a screen test opposite none other than Clark Gable, the then-reigning King of the Movies. Both the star and the studio liked what they saw, and Williams was signed to a contract. Her movie debut came with a small role in 1942's "Andy Hardy's Double Life," with star Mickey Rooney giving Williams her first screen kiss.

Audience response to Williams was overwhelming. She was already a star by her third picture, a Red Skelton comedy originally titled "Mr. Coed" that was transformed into a starring vehicle for Williams and re-dubbed "Bathing Beauty" (1944). A special tank was built at Stage 30 on the MGM lot to accommodate choreographer Busby Berkeley's elaborate water routines. The film's climax, which sees Williams crowned as queen amidst an orgy of smoke, flames, synchronized swimmers and gushing fountains, became one of the most iconic numbers in Hollywood history. The film itself became the third highest-grossing title in MGM's history to that date.

The film's success led to a 10-year string of aquatic-themed musicals for Williams, each more lavish than its predecessor. There were occasional forays out of the MGM pool, such as 1946's "The Hoodlum Saint," which paired the 24-year-old actress with the 54-year-old William Powell as her love interest, and Berkeley's terrific "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (1949), in which baseball players Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly vied for the hand of new owner Williams. But for the most part, audiences preferred seeing Williams in the water in features like "Million Dollar Mermaid" (1953), a biopic about real-life swimming star Annette Kellerman, or "Jupiter's Darling" (1955), which found her in the improbable role of a Roman woman who helps Hannibal (Howard Keel) swim the Tiber River. The aquatic features were challenging and even dangerous - prolonged exposure to the studio tank led to repeated eardrum ruptures, near-drownings and a broken neck during a diving sequence for "Mermaid" - but Williams was "America's Mermaid," as the press dubbed her, so she had little choice in the matter.

But she was also shrewd enough to realize that her particular brand of musical was limited - there were just so many films that could be built around her swimming routines. She departed MGM as audience demand for their musical product began to dry up, and moved to Universal for her first drama, "The Unguarded Moment" (1956). A lurid melodrama about a high school teacher (Williams) who becomes the object of obsession for a deranged student (John Saxon), the film raised eyebrows with its sexually suggestive subject matter but failed to translate into a lasting dramatic career for Williams. She appeared in several more forgettable features before retiring at the insistence of her third husband, actor Fernando Lamas, in the early 1960s.

In the late latter part of that decade, Williams was approached by swimming pool manufacturers, the Delair Group, to license her name to their above-ground models. The decision was a savvy one, and the line became one of the most popular for suburbanites across the United States. Further licensing agreements led to her own line of swimwear for older women, based on the suits she wore in her movies, and a modern line for younger women. All three business decisions proved to be lucrative and popular for the former actress.

In 1999, Williams penned her autobiography, Million Dollar Mermaid, with co-author Digby Diehl. The tome generated a great deal of press for its controversial stories about her love life, which included trysts with co-stars Victor Mature and Jeff Chandler; a revelation about the latter actor's penchant for women's clothing was among the book's most scandalous statements. Williams also discussed her three marriages, which included loveless unions with a former college classmate and singer/actor Ben Gage, whom she described as an alcoholic spendthrift. In addition, the book recounted her various struggles with studio heads, fending off the amorous advances of Weissmuller and Howard Hughes, and dealing with the egos of co-stars like Gene Kelly and Lamas, who reportedly demanded total servitude from Williams.

Spending her later retirement with her fourth husband, actor Edward Bell, Williams largely stayed out of the limelight in her final decades, occasionally making public appearances, more often than not at swimming-related events. She died in 2013 at age 91, fondly remembered as a classic Hollywood star and an icon of the swimming world.

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
2.
 That's Entertainment! III (1994) Host; Song Performer
4.
 The Big Show (1961) Hillary Allen
5.
 Raw Wind in Eden (1958) Laura
6.
 Andy Hardy Comes Home (1958) "Sheila Brooks" from Andy Hardy's Double Life
7.
 The Unguarded Moment (1956) Lois Conway
8.
 Jupiter's Darling (1955) Amytis
9.
 Dangerous When Wet (1953) Katy [Higgins]
10.
 Easy to Love (1953) Julie Hallerton
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

:
Won several local swimming championships; after earning the Pacific Coast Championship was signed for the 1940 Olympics (which were ultimately cancelled when WWII began)
:
Left college and worked as stock clerk and part-time model at I Magin store
:
Impressario Billy Rose co-starred her with Johnny Weissmuller in his San Francisco Aquacade; quit to marry first husband
1941:
Signed MGM contract
1942:
Film acting debut in "Andy Hardy's Double Life"
1942:
First came to attention in her first swimming film, "Bathing Beauty"
1949:
Twice made the annual exhibitors' poll of top ten boxoffice stars; placed eighth both years
1955:
Last major aqua-musical, "Jupiter's Darling"
1955:
Ended MGM contract (date approximate)
1957:
Made TV debut in "Lux Video Theatre's The Armed Venus"
1958:
Last film for three years, "Raw Wind in Eden"
1961:
Made one-shot return to films to play a leading role in "The Big Show"
:
Retired from the industry in the early 1960s
1994:
Was one of the hosts of the musical compilation documentary "That's Entertainment III"
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

Los Angeles City College: Los Angeles , California -

Notes

"Esther Williams was to MGM what Sonja Henie had been to Twentieth Century-Fox--an athletically talented woman who for a virtual decade brought countless filmgoers to theatres. With her ... apple-pie-on-water escapist motion pictures, she racked up some $80 million at the boxoffice between 1944 and 1955."

"Wet she was a star." --Hollywood producer Joe Pasternak

"All they ever did for me at MGM was change my leading men and the water in my swimming pool." --Williams, quoted in "Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion"

She was named to the Swimming Pool Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1967.

Companions close complete companion listing

husband:
Leonard Kovner. Married in 1940; divorced in 1944; met when he was pre med student at USC.
husband:
Ben Gage. Radio announcer. Married in 1945; divorce became final in 1958.
companion:
Jeff Chandler. Actor. Worked together on "Raw Wind in Eden" (1958).
husband:
Fernando Lamas. Actor. Married in two separate ceremonies: a civil ceremony in Europe (some sources say in 1963, others 1967) and one in a church (Founders' Church of Relgious Science, near Hollywood) on December 31, 1969; born on January 9, 1915; died in 1982.
husband:
Edward Bell. Businessman. Married on October 24, 1994; met during 1984 Summer Olympics.
VIEW COMPLETE COMPANION LISTING

Family close complete family listing

father:
Lou Williams. Artist.
mother:
Bula Williams. Member of Ingelwood Board of Education and helped raise funds for neighborhood school's swimming pool.
sister:
Maureen Williams.
son:
Benjamin Gage. Born in 1949.
son:
Kimbell Gage. Born in 1950.
daughter:
Susan Gage. Born in 1953.
step-daughter:
Alejandre Lamas.
step-son:
Lorenzo Lamas. Actor. Mother, Arlene Dahl; best known for his role as Lance on the long-running primetime soap opera, "Falcon Crest".
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

Bibliography close complete biography

"The Million Dollar Mermaid" Simon & Schuster

Contributions

JWishnia ( 2007-08-03 )

Source: The Movie TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME

Contrary to what it states in the Biography, Esther DID swim in TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME although it wasn't one of the spectacular water ballets. She swam in a swimming pool while Frank Sinatra sang.

Magna ( 2007-10-12 )

Source: The documents from Southwest Consulting; My mother; Esthers book.

Problems with this biography: Bula left teaching school to start a business called, SouthWest Consulting, along with Maurine and several other people. Bula had another daughter called June, which she rarely mentioned. Also, Bula's only son died at a young age.

Please support TCMDB by adding to this information.

Click here to contribute