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Obituary: Esther Williams, million dollar mermaid

Posted on June 7, 2013

Esther Williams, who has died aged 91, swam through some of Hollywood’s most elaborate musical spectacles in the 1940s and 1950s. A champion swimmer turned movie star, she had a magnificent, athletic figure and a smile that kept its natural brightness even as she emerged from Technicolor pools, fountains and firework displays.

 

Born in Los Angeles in 1921, Esther Williams was the fifth child of Lou Williams, a sign painter, and his wife Bula, a psychologist. Her brother Stanton, who became a silent movie star at the age of six, died at 16 of a twisted intestine. That summer, aged eight, Esther learned to swim. She won three gold medals at the US national championships in 1939, and would have swum for the US at the 1940 Olympics, cancelled at the outbreak of World War II.

 

MGM talent scouts spotted Williams when she was performing in Billy Rose’s Aquacade spectacular in San Francisco. Playing Aquabelle, she swam alongside Aquadonis, played by Olympic swimming champion and screen Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller. Audiences responded well to her first screen appearances, so her third film, made in 1944, was reshaped as the starring vehicle Bathing Beauty.

 

The film ended with a stupendous aqua-ballet. Williams emerges as Venus from a silver shell, swims through flower patterns made by a corps de ballet of bathing beauties to a finale where the pool shoots fountains and fire.

 

Bathing Beauty was an immense hit, becoming MGM’s third biggest film to date (after the 1925 Ben Hur and 1939’s Gone With The Wind). It was followed by a line of musicals with slight plots and staggering swimming numbers. Williams became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, in the list of top ten box office earners for 1949 and 1950.

 

In Dangerous When Wet, she swam alongside cartoon characters Tom and Jerry. In Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), Busby Berkeley’s production number features kaleidoscopic patterns, synchronised diving from trapezes and waterproof fireworks. 

 

In Easy To Love (1953), one of Berkeley’s last and most dementedly ambitious sequences puts Williams at the head of a team of waterskiers, slaloming around explosive fountains or jumping from ramps before Williams is lifted by helicopter for a high dive. 

 

In the midst of the surreal imagery, Williams looks cheerfully at ease. Looking back at her films, Williams said: “I look at that girl and I like her. I can see why she became popular with audiences. There was an unassuming quality about her. She was certainly wholesome.”

 

Her audiences wanted Williams in the water. Comedian Fanny Brice famously joked: “Wet, she’s a star. Dry, she ain’t” – though Williams did have one dry-land hit, opposite Gene Kelly in Take Me Out To The Ball Game (1949).

 

When Jupiter’s Darling (1955), an expensive Roman romp with underwater sequences, flopped, MGM sacked Williams. She had earned them more than $80 million dollars. Williams tried dramatic roles elsewhere, including The Unguarded Moment for Universal, where she played a teacher attacked by one of her pupils. Her last film was The Magic Fountain, directed by Fernando Lamas, whom she married in 1969.

 

Her first two marriages, to Leonard Kovner in 1940 and radio singer Ben Gage in 1945, ended in divorce. She and Gage had three children: Williams taught them to swim soon after birth. Lamas died in 1982, and six years later Williams married Edward Bell, a professor of French literature. She hosted swimming events for ABC-TV’s coverage of the 1984 Olympic Games, and launched her own line of swimwear.

 

She is survived by Edward Bell, her son Ben and daughter Susan, three stepsons, three grandchildren and eight stepgrandchildren.

 

Esther Jane Wiliams, born August 8, 1921; died June 6, 2013

 

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Zoë was born in Edinburgh, and saw her first dance performances at the Festival there. She is the dance critic of The Independent, and has also written for The Independent on Sunday, The Scotsman and Dancing Times. In 2002, she received her doctorate from the University of York for a thesis on “Nationhood and epic romance: Ariosto, Sidney, Spenser”. She is the author of The Royal Ballet: 75 Years and The Ballet Lover’s Companion.

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