Esther Williams


Actor, Swimmer
Esther Williams

About

Also Known As
Esther Jane Williams
Birth Place
Inglewood, California, USA
Born
August 08, 1921

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 pi...

Photos & Videos

Take Me Out to the Ball Game - Group Publicity Stills
Andy Hardy's Double Life - Kapralik Trade Ad
The Unguarded Moment - Movie Posters

Family & Companions

Leonard Kovner
Husband
Married in 1940; divorced in 1944; met when he was pre med student at USC.
Ben Gage
Husband
Radio announcer. Married in 1945; divorce became final in 1958.
Jeff Chandler
Companion
Actor. Worked together on "Raw Wind in Eden" (1958).
Fernando Lamas
Husband
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.

Bibliography

"The Million Dollar Mermaid"
Esther Williams with Digby Diehl, Simon & Schuster (1999)

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

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 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.

Filmography

 

Cast (Feature Film)

Busby Berkeley: Going Through The Roof (1998)
That's Entertainment! III (1994)
MGM: When the Lion Roars (1992)
Tom & Jerry's 50th Birthday Bash (1990)
Herself
The Big Show (1961)
Hillary Allen
Raw Wind in Eden (1958)
Laura
Andy Hardy Comes Home (1958)
"Sheila Brooks" from Andy Hardy's Double Life
The Unguarded Moment (1956)
Lois Conway
Jupiter's Darling (1955)
Amytis
Dangerous When Wet (1953)
Katy [Higgins]
Easy to Love (1953)
Julie Hallerton
Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)
Annette Kellerman
Skirts Ahoy! (1952)
Whitney Young
Texas Carnival (1951)
Debbie Telford
Callaway Went Thataway (1951)
Duchess of Idaho (1950)
Christine Riverton Duncan
Pagan Love Song (1950)
Mimi Bennett
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)
K. C. Higgins
Neptune's Daughter (1949)
Eve Barrett
On an Island with You (1948)
Rosalind Rennolds
Fiesta (1947)
Maria Morales
This Time for Keeps (1947)
Leonora "Nora" Cambaretti
Till the Clouds Roll By (1947)
Movie star
Ziegfeld Follies (1946)
Dancer in "A Water Ballet"
Easy to Wed (1946)
Connie Allenbury
The Hoodlum Saint (1946)
Kay Lorrison
Thrill of a Romance (1945)
Cynthia Glenn
A Guy Named Joe (1944)
Ellen Bright
Bathing Beauty (1944)
Caroline Brooks
Andy Hardy's Double Life (1942)
Sheila Brooks

Cast (Special)

Glorious Technicolor (1998)
The Golden Globe's 50th Anniversary Celebration (1994)
Stars and Stripes: Hollywood and World War II (1991)
The Thalians (1991)
The 48th Annual Golden Globe Awards (1991)
Presenter
Happy Birthday, Hollywood! (1987)
Esther Williams at Cypress Gardens (1960)
Host

Cast (Short)

Motion Picture Theatre Celebration (1955) (1955)
Herself
1955 Motion Picture Theatre Celebration (International) (1955)
Herself
Screen Actors (1950)
Herself
INFLATION (1943)
Mrs. Smith
Personalities (1942)
Herself

Misc. Crew (Short)

The Costume Designer (1950)
Archival Footage

Life Events

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"

1994

Was one of the hosts of the musical compilation documentary "That's Entertainment III"

Photo Collections

Take Me Out to the Ball Game - Group Publicity Stills
Here are a number of group publicity stills from the MGM musical Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949). Publicity stills were specially-posed photos, usually taken off the set, for purposes of publicity or reference for promotional artwork.
Andy Hardy's Double Life - Kapralik Trade Ad
Here is a trade ad for MGM's Andy Hardy's Double Life (1942), starring Mickey Rooney and Esther Williams. The art is by mixed-media caricaturist Jaques Kapralik. Trade Ads were placed by studios in industry magazines like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.
The Unguarded Moment - Movie Posters
The Unguarded Moment - Movie Posters
The Unguarded Moment - Original Movie Poster Art
The Unguarded Moment - Original Movie Poster Art
The Unguarded Moment - Lobby Cards
The Unguarded Moment - Lobby Cards
The Unguarded Moment - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
The Unguarded Moment - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
Million Dollar Mermaid - Publicity Stills
Here are a few Publicity Stills from Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). Publicity stills were specially-posed photos, usually taken off the set, for purposes of publicity or reference for promotional artwork.
Pagan Love Song - Publicity Stills
Here are a few photos taken to help publicize MGM's Pagan Love Song (1950), starring Esther Williams, Howard Keel, and Rita Moreno.
The Hoodlum Saint - Esther Williams Publicity Stills
Here are several beachfront stills taken of Esther Williams to promote the release of The Hoodlum Saint (1946).
This Time for Keeps - Esther Williams Publicity Stills
Here are several stills of Esther Williams, taken to help publicize This Time for Keeps (1947). Publicity stills were specially-posed photos, usually taken off the set, for purposes of publicity or reference for promotional artwork.
Neptune's Daughter - Publicity Stills
Here are a few Publicity Stills from Neptune's Daughter (1949), starring Esther Williams and Red Skelton. Publicity stills were specially-posed photos, usually taken off the set, for purposes of publicity or reference for promotional artwork.
Easy to Wed - Publicity Still
Here is a publicity still from MGM's Easy to Wed (1946), starring Esther Williams, Van Johnson, and Lucille Ball. Publicity stills were specially-posed photos, usually taken off the set, for purposes of publicity or reference for promotional artwork.
Easy to Wed - Lobby Card Set
Here is a set of Lobby Cards from MGM's Easy to Wed (1946), starring Van Johnson, Esther Williams, and Lucille Ball. Lobby Cards were 11" x 14" posters that came in sets of 8. As the name implies, they were most often displayed in movie theater lobbies, to advertise current or coming attractions.
Andy Hardy's Double Life - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
Here are a few photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of MGM's Andy Hardy's Double Life (1942), starring Mickey Rooney and Esther Williams.
Neptune's Daughter - Movie Poster
Here is an original-release American movie poster for Neptune's Daughter (1949), starring Esther Williams and Red Skelton.
Duchess of Idaho - Lobby Card
Here is a Lobby Card from Duchess of Idaho (1950). Lobby Cards were 11" x 14" posters that came in sets of 8. As the name implies, they were most often displayed in movie theater lobbies, to advertise current or coming attractions.
Anchors Aweigh - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
Here are a number of photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of MGM's Anchors Aweigh (1945). Look for stars Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Kathryn Grayson, director George Sidney, and even MGM cartoon stars Tom & Jerry!
Bathing Beauty - Movie Posters
Here are a few original-release American movie posters for Bathing Beauty (1944), starring Esther Williams and Red Skelton.
Dangerous When Wet - Movie Poster
Here is the American One-Sheet Movie Poster for MGM's Dangerous When Wet (1953), starring Esther Williams. One-sheets measured 27x41 inches, and were the poster style most commonly used in theaters.
Easy to Wed - Movie Poster
Here is the American one-sheet movie poster for Easy to Wed (1946). One-sheets measured 27x41 inches, and were the poster style most commonly used in theaters.
This Time for Keeps (1947) - Movie Poster
Here is an original release movie poster for This Time for Keeps (1947), starring Esther Williams. This poster is an insert, which measures 14" x 36"
Bathing Beauty - Red Skelton Publicity Stills
Here are some photos of Red Skelton taken to help publicize MGM's Bathing Beauty (1944), co-starring Esther Williams. The working title of the film was Mr. Co-Ed, as seen in several of these stills.
Duchess of Idaho - Esther Williams Publicity Stills
Here are several Publicity Stills of Esther Williams taken for Duchess of Idaho (1950). Publicity stills were specially-posed photos, usually taken off the set, for purposes of publicity or reference for promotional artwork.

Videos

Movie Clip

On An Island With You (1948) — (Movie Clip) Nightingale (Dance) Smitten Navy movie technical adviser Kingsley (Peter Lawford) gets turned down by the star Roz (Esther Williams, backed by her director, Dick Simmons), slipping into a dance number for her fiancè and co-star (Ricardo Montalban) and the second lead (Cyd Charisse), Xaiver Cugat’s group backing with his own composition, in MGM’s On An Island With You, 1948.
Bathing Beauty (1944) - Nastursiums To You! Comedy with Red Skelton and Esther Williams, him a songwriter, her a swimming teacher, who walked out at their wedding after he was wrongly accused of being already married, now trying to win her back by enrolling at her school, Bill Goodwin the foil, in MGM’s Bathing Beauty, 1944.
Ziegfeld Follies (1946) - A Water Ballet There had only been one full-blown Esther Williams swimming feature (Bathing Beauty, 1944) when this came out so it was pretty extravagant at the time, Merrill Pye the uncredited director, an early number in MGM's variety showcase Ziegfeld Follies, 1946.
Easy To Love (1953) - -- What Do You See In That Girl? Opening cleverness, Charles (Chuck) Walters directing for MGM and producer Joe Pasternak, Van Johnson is Florida water-park operator Ray, at the real Cypress Gardens, showing off his star Julie (Esther Williams) for a guy shooting a promo film (Paul Bryar), in Easy To Love, 1953.
Easy To Love (1953) - -- You Said She Swims And Types New York night club attraction Barry (Tony Martin) has gotten an audition for visiting underpaid-overworked Florida aquatic star Julie (Esther Williams) with producer Levenson (Benny Rubin), with a small scale Busby Berkeley swimming bit, in MGM’s Easy To Love, 1953.
Easy To Love (1953) - -- Water-Ski Finalè These days it might prompt snark about “jumping the shark” but not in 1953, with Busby Berkeley’s giant undertaking on Lake Eloise at Cypress Gardens, Fla., Esther Williams playing aquatic star Julie, did lots of water-skiing but not the tricks, in Easy To Love, from MGM and producer Joe Pasternak.
Easy To Love (1953) - -- Look Out! I'm Romantic Esther Williams as Florida water-skiing star Julie in New York with boss and not-boyfriend (Van Johnson as Ray), catching singer Barry (Tony Martin), with whom she’s making a commercial, with Carroll Baker’s whole performance as a jealous girlfriend, and an original tune by Vic Mizzy and Mann Curtis, in MGM’s Easy To Love, 1953.
Jupiter's Darling (1955) - If This Be Slavery High society Roman Amytis (Esther Williams) with her slave (Marge Champion), for whom she buys a slave (Gower Champion), who together perform If This Be Slavery by Burton Lane and Harold Adamson, in MGM's Jupiter's Darling, 1955.
Jupiter's Darling (1955) - I Have A Dream Esther Williams' first big number in her last big MGM aqua-musical, as Roman bride-to-be Amytis, finishing the song by Burton Lane and Harold Adamson, then swimming with statues, in Jupiter's Darling, 1955.
Jupiter's Darling (1955) - -- Never Trust A Woman Curious Roman Amytis (Esther Williams) has pretty much caused herself to be captured by conqueror Hannibal of Carthage (Howard Keel), who offers a tune by Burton Lane and Harold Adamson as he considers whether to rely on her intelligence, George Sidney directing, in MGM’s Jupiter’s Darling,1955.
Hoodlum Saint, The (1946) - Everything Is Sweetness And Love Crashing a Baltimore society wedding in 1919, out-of-work WWI vet reporter Terry (William Powell) has charmed Kay (Esther Williams), whom he learns is the niece of the publisher (Charles Trowbridge) and friend of the financier Malbery (Henry O’Neill) he hoped to meet, in The Hoodlum Saint, 1946.
Guy Named Joe, A - Twin Hooks, Rhode Island Monitoring in-training pilot Ted (Van Johnson) at a night-spot, deceased aviator Pete (Spencer Tracy) encourages him to approach Ellen (Esther Williams), who's worried about recruit Sanderson (Charles Smith), in A Guy Named Joe, 1944.

Trailer

Neptune's Daughter (1949) -- (Original Trailer) A polo player romances a bathing suit designer in MGM's Neptune's Daughter (1949), starring Esther Williams.
Duchess of Idaho - (Original Trailer) During a Sun Valley vacation, a woman tries to solve her roommate's romantic problems in Duchess of Idaho (1950), starring Esther Williams.
Ziegfeld Follies - (Original Trailer) Legendary showman Flo Ziegfeld imagines the kind of Follies he could produce with MGM's musical stars in Ziegfeld Follies (1946) starring Judy Garland.
Take Me Out to the Ball Game - (Original Trailer) A beautiful woman takes over a turn-of-the-century baseball team in this MGM color musical starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.
Skirts Ahoy! - (Original Trailer) Three women join the Navy to find husbands in the MGM Technicolor musical Skirts Ahoy! (1952) starring Esther Williams.
Andy Hardy's Double Life - (Original Trailer) A new college student lets romance get in the way of his studies in Andy Hardy's Double Life (1942) starring Mickey Rooney and Esther Williams in her first film role.
Easy to Wed - (Original Trailer) A tough newspaper editor hires a gigolo to compromise a woman suing his paper for libel in Easy to Wed (1946), starring Esther Williams.
Dangerous When Wet - (Original Trailer) A family of fitness freaks sets out to swim the English Channel in the Technicolor musical Dangerous When Wet (1953) starring Esther Williams.
Easy To Love (1953) - (Original Trailer) Busby Berkeley's musical number for speedboats and handgliders is one of the highlights of Easy To Love (1953) starring Esther Williams.
Million Dollar Mermaid - (Original Trailer) Esther Williams plays the movie's first swimming star, Annette Kellerman, in the splashy, Technicolor Million Dollar Mermaid (1952).
Texas Carnival - (Original Trailer) Esther Williams is far from the water at the Texas Carnival (1951) in this MGM Technicolor musical co-starring Red Skelton.
This Time for Keeps (1947) - (Original Trailer) A famous singer's son falls for a swimming star in This Time For Keeps (1947) starring Esther Williams and Jimmy Durante.

Family

Lou Williams
Father
Artist.
Bula Williams
Mother
Member of Ingelwood Board of Education and helped raise funds for neighborhood school's swimming pool.
Maureen Williams
Sister
Benjamin Gage
Son
Born in 1949.
Kimbell Gage
Son
Born in 1950.
Susan Gage
Daughter
Born in 1953.
Alejandre Lamas
Step-Daughter
Lorenzo Lamas
Step-Son
Actor. Mother, Arlene Dahl; best known for his role as Lance on the long-running primetime soap opera, "Falcon Crest".

Companions

Leonard Kovner
Husband
Married in 1940; divorced in 1944; met when he was pre med student at USC.
Ben Gage
Husband
Radio announcer. Married in 1945; divorce became final in 1958.
Jeff Chandler
Companion
Actor. Worked together on "Raw Wind in Eden" (1958).
Fernando Lamas
Husband
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.
Edward Bell
Husband
Businessman. Married on October 24, 1994; met during 1984 Summer Olympics.

Bibliography

"The Million Dollar Mermaid"
Esther Williams with Digby Diehl, Simon & Schuster (1999)

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.