Esther Williams, the swimmer for whom MGM created a special genre “aquamusical” died earlier today at the age of 91 at her home in Los Angeles, California.
Ironically Williams said that her successful acting career was only the consolation prize because her dreams of winning gold at the Olympics were dashed due to World War II.
Born in Inglewood, California on August 8, 1921, Esther Jane Williams was the youngest among five children born to Louis Stanton Williams, a sign painter and Bula Myrtle Williams (nee Gilpin), a psychologist.
An athletic child, Williams had set multiple records as a competitive swimmer in school and was gearing up for the Olympics in 1940 when the games were cancelled due to World War II.
Her talents didn’t go unnoticed that year as the teenager joined Billy Rose’s Aquacade in San Francisco, where she swam alongside Olympic gold medallist Johnny Weissmuller, who later starred in the role of “Tarzan.”
Williams also caught the eye of several MGM talent scouts as she swam for the Aquacade in 1940, who signed her right up and gave her small roles in films starring opposite Mickey Rooney, which led to films with her five time co-star Van Johnson.
Aquamusicals, which were created especially for Esther in the leading role, showcased her diving and synchronized swimming talents alongside other swimmers.
Esther’s role as Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman in the 1952 biographical film “Million Dollar Mermaid” would not surprisingly become her nickname at MGM Studios. Though Esther claimed that actor Clark Gable was the first to have called her a mermaid.
Williams would go on to star in films throughout the 1940’s through early 1960’s when she retired from acting, with some 33 acting titles to her credit including hits such as “Bathing Beauty,” “Thrill of a Romance,” “Ziegfeld Follies,” “Pagan Love Song” and “Dangerous When Wet.”
After her last film “Magic Fountain” in 1963, Williams made a comeback in 1991 where she made a television appearance on the “Burt Reynolds’ Conversation With” show.
After her retirement from acting, Williams became a businesswoman, lending her name to a line of swimming pools, retro swimwear (sold via her website) and producing tutorial swimming videos for children. She was also a commentator for Synchronized Swimming at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Esther Williams was married four times, to Leonard Kovner (divorced 1940 – 44), Ben Gage (divorced 1945–59, with whom she had three children, sons Kimball and Benjamin and daughter Susan) Fernando Lamas (his death 1969–82) Edward Bell (her death 1994–2013).
Williams died of natural causes in her sleep at her Los Angeles home.