The Last Lap: Esther Williams (1921-2013)

Casey St. Charnez - June 7, 2013

Movie star, bathing suit designer and namesake for a line of backyard pools still sold today

Ladies and gentlemen and dolphins of all persuasions, please be advised, sadly, that swimming medalist and Hollywood icon Esther Williams has left the pool.

Her Aquatic Majesty was born Esther Jane Williams in California, suitably. As a kid, she got a job counting towels at a public pool near her home in Inglewood…and the rest was history.

One piece of history that didn’t get made, though, was at the 1940 Olympics…which were canceled due to war in Europe. She’d been training assiduously for her upcoming appearance at Helsinki, winning the Women’s Outdoor Nationals title in 100-meter freestyle, setting a world record in 100-meter breaststroke and doing swell in relay. Her bags were packed, then suddenly there were no Games.

So, there she was, working as a part-time stock clerk and model in the dress department at I.Magnin on Wilshire Boulevard, when one day in walked none other than entertainment entrepreneur Billy Rose, who took one gander at her busty, attractively athletic frame, and offered her a job at his San Francisco Aquacade.

Billy Rose’s Aquacade, a hit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, starred Olympic medalist Johnny Weissmuller, he of “Tarzan” fame, and she dove straight into his circle. Spotted there by a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer talent scout, she quickly went under contract to Hollywood’s queen of the studios, which hoped to duplicate 20th Century-Fox’s formulaic success with prize-winning figure skater Sonja Henie, but with water instead of ice.  

After a couple of inexplicably dry-docked pictures—“Andy Hardy’s Double Life” and “A Guy Named Joe”—MGM finally pushed her into the pool in “Bathing Beauty,” co-starring Red Skelton (miffed, incidentally, as the picture, originally called “Mr. Co-ed,” had been structured around him. Now it was all about her).

It remained so through another 16 Technicolor musicals, alongside major Metro stars like Ricardo Montalban (“Fiesta”), Gene Kelly (“Take Me Out to the Ball Game”), Van Johnson (“Easy to Wed”), Howard Keel (“Pagan Love Song”), Peter Lawford (“On an Island With You”), and Fernando Lamas (“Dangerous When Wet,” an Argentinian who eventually became her third of four husbands, for whom she retired from the screen).

Her best work was undoubtedly “Million Dollar Mermaid,” extravagantly staged by Busby Berkeley, a biopic about professional mermaid Annette Kellerman, herself a renowned swimmer and silent movie star (whose films are now lost). The title also served as the name of her 1999 autobiography, in which she notoriously asserted that onetime co-star Jeff Chandler (“Raw Wind in Eden”) was a cross-dresser. She later recanted, explaining she’d made it up just to sell the book—but it made everything else she wrote seem dubious.

Of course, I’ve got all her movies on DVD, at least the ones with those spectacular splashy numbers. I’m particularly fond of a fantasy pole dance she performs in breathtaking slow-motion in “Texas Carnival,” and a jaw-dropping, gravity-defying literal water ballet on the bottom of a pool in “Jupiter’s Darling.”

In her day, admittedly, she was something of a joke. Her pictures had terrible scripts. Critics and audiences made fun of her Vaselined hair and waterproof mascara. She knew she couldn’t act. And she was well aware that Fanny Brice, a Billy Rose ex, had once famously quipped of her, “Wet, she’s a star. Dry, she ain’t.”

Nevertheless, Esther Jane Williams does leave a legacy. She insisted on brighter lighting and clearer water in her scenes, advancing the state of the art of underwater cinematography. She popularized competitive and synchronized swimming, and was a consultant to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. She personally designed innovative bathing suits for Cole of California, fitted and buttressed one-piecers women could wear without embarrassment. She lent her name and her esthetic sense to a line of backyard pools, still sold today. Certainly, she inspired countless moviegoers to learn how to dog paddle, if nothing else.

I wish I’d written something about her when she was alive, so she’d know once more how much her fanciful, fluidic canon still is enjoyed and appreciated.

It makes me realize that I’d better think about doing an essay adulating Shirley Temple, age 85, while I still can.