Esther Williams, Swim-Champion Star of MGM Musicals, Dies at 91

Esther Williams, the swimming champion turned movie actress whose water-ballet musicals in the 1940s and 1950s rivaled Broadway shows with their elaborate scenes, has died. She was 91.

She died today in her sleep, the Associated Press reported, citing her publicist Harlan Boll. No cause was given.

Tall and lithe, a champion swimmer as a teenager, Williams was known as “America’s Mermaid” because she seemed to stay underwater indefinitely. She said in her 1999 autobiography that some of her movie stunts almost killed her. Her films for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer included “Bathing Beauty” (1944), “Neptune’s Daughter” (1949) and “Dangerous When Wet” (1953).

“Like ice skater Sonja Henie before her, Williams was one of the few female athletes to successfully cross over to widespread entertainment success,” Harald Johnson wrote in a 1994 article in Competitor for Women magazine.

Her intricate routines, which included swimming, diving and even waterskiing, led to the development of synchronized swimming, which became an Olympic sport in 1984.

Williams appeared in about two dozen movies, including 16 aquatic musicals, from the early 1940s until the late 1950s. She estimated she swam more than 1,000 miles while filming.

She co-starred with Red Skelton and Ricardo Montalban in “Neptune’s Daughter.” In “Million Dollar Mermaid” (1952), she played Australian swimming star Annette Kellerman. In “Dangerous When Wet,” she swam with the cartoon cat-and-mouse duo of Tom and Jerry.

“All they ever did for me at MGM was change my leading man and the water in my pool,” Williams once said.

Bathing Suits

After her movie career, Williams marketed swimming pools under her famous name and introduced a line of bathing suits modeled after the full-cut ones she wore in her films. The swimsuits were sold on a website run by her son.

In January 2008 she donated two scrapbooks from her time at MGM to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Williams was born in Los Angeles on Aug. 8, 1921 -- an “all-American girl” whose grandparents had “traveled west in Conestoga wagons,” she wrote in her autobiography, “The Million Dollar Mermaid.”

Her mother, Bula, had been a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Dodge City, Kansas. There, she met Louis Williams, the son of a local farming family.

The couple eloped in 1908 and headed further west, settling in Salt Lake City. They moved to Los Angeles when their first child, Stanton, a young stage actor, was discovered and tapped for Hollywood stardom. (He would appear in two movies before dying, at 16, of a burst colon.)

First Medal

Esther, the youngest of five children, was raised primarily by an older sister, Maureen, who introduced her to the water.

She grew up swimming in neighborhood pools and surfing. She won her first medal at 8 for, as she wrote in her book, an “awkward, 30-yard swim” that opened a new community pool where she worked.

After winning three national championships in freestyle and breaststroke by age 16, Williams was selected as a member of the U.S. team for the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo. World War II forced cancellation of the games.

Williams quit attending classes at Los Angeles City College and worked at the I. Magnin department store as a model and stock clerk. Showman Billy Rose plucked her to star in the San Francisco Aquacade, a Broadway-style musical with special effects and hundreds of swimmers and divers. Williams starred with “Tarzan” actor Johnny Weissmuller, an Olympic swimming champion, in choreographed aqua duets.

Film Career

MGM executives offered Williams a screen test opposite Clark Gable, which led to her screen debut as Mickey Rooney’s love interest in “Andy Hardy’s Double Life” (1942). Williams said MGM used these films as “tests for its promising stars,” such as Judy Garland and Lana Turner.

In 1944, Williams starred in “Bathing Beauty,” her first swimming movie, in which a songwriter enrolls in an all-girls’ college to woo a gym teacher. MGM built a 90-foot square pool, complete with hydraulic lifts and camera cranes for overhead shots for the first-ever Hollywood swimming musical.

Choreographer Busby Berkeley staged the intricate water scenes in the film, complete with fountains, flames and pretty girls.

“No one had ever done a swimming movie before, so we just made it up as we went along,” Williams later said about the film. “I ad-libbed all my own underwater movements.”

Dramatic Roles

Berkeley coordinated many of her aqua ballets, which included waterskiing in “Easy to Love” (1953), filmed at Cypress Gardens in Florida.

The MGM swimming-musical genre was in decline by the mid-1950s, and Williams tried to move into more dramatic roles. She played a music teacher who receives threatening notes in “The Unguarded Moment” (1956) and a member of a family fighting over the ownership of a circus in “The Big Show” (1961).

She married four times. Her last husband was Edward Bell, a former college professor, whom she married in 1994. She had two sons and a daughter from her earlier marriages, plus two step-children from her third marriage, to actor Fernando Lamas. One of those stepchildren, Lorenzo Lamas, starred in the primetime soap opera “Falcon Crest.”

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