On this day in 2013, Esther Williams, a champion teenage swimmer who went on to star in a series of hugely popular aquatic-themed movie-musicals in the 1940s and 1950s, dies at age 91 in Beverly Hills, California.
Born on August 8, 1921, in Inglewood, California, Williams learned to swim as a child and worked at her neighborhood pool to earn the money it cost to swim there. As a teen, she won national swimming championships and hoped to compete in the 1940 Summer Olympics; however, the games were cancelled due to World War II. She went on to perform in a swimming revue, Billy Rose’s Aquacade, in San Francisco in 1940 with Olympian and “Tarzan” star Johnny Weissmuller. During this time, Williams was discovered by a talent scout for the movie studio MGM, which was looking for someone to star in a swimming musical. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, intended for this new film genre to match the box-office success of the ice skating movies featuring Olympic gold-winning figure skater Sonja Henie that were produced by rival movie studio 2oth Century Fox, starting in the late 1930s. Mayer reportedly told his staff, “Melt the ice, get a swimmer, make it pretty.” Williams screen-tested with Clark Gable then signed a contract with MGM.
After launching her big-screen career with a non-swimming role in 1942’s “Andy Hardy’s Double Life,” Williams, clad in stylish swimsuits, made a splash in a hit string of aquatic-themed movies, including “Bathing Beauty” (1944), “Million Dollar Mermaid” (1952) and “Easy to Love” (1953). MGM built a 90-foot-square, 20-foot-deep swimming pool, at a cost of a quarter-million dollars, for its athletic star (who Time magazine once referred to as “Doris Day, underwater”) and outfitted it with then-innovative special-effects equipment, including a pedestal with a hydraulic lift that could raise Williams 50 feet out of the water. Her movies were filled with elaborately choreographed water ballets and spectacular stunts. Williams, who estimated she swam more than 1,000 miles over the course of making all her films, once broke her neck while trying to do a 50-foot dive into a pool during a movie shoot and suffered a variety of injuries while attempting other stunts.
The popularity of swimming films eventually faded, and Williams’ last movie for MGM was 1955’s “Jupiter’s Darling.” Afterward, she made several films for other studios then retired from acting in the early 1960s. During her career, Williams appeared in some two dozen movies, working with such actors as Mickey Rooney, Van Johnson, Victor Mature, Ricardo Montalban, Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly (Williams co-starred with the latter two in the 1949 movie-musical “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”). Asked once to name her favorite leading man, Williams said: “The water.”
After leaving Hollywood behind, Williams became a successful businesswoman, with her own lines of swimming pools and swimwear. She also helped get synchronized swimming adopted as an Olympic event, starting in 1984, and served as a TV analyst for its Olympic debut. Williams was wed four times. Her third husband was Argentine-born actor Fernando Lamas, with whom she co-starred in 1953’s “Dangerous When Wet.” The pair were married from 1969 until Lamas’ death in 1982.
Williams died in her sleep at her Beverly Hills home.