LOS ANGELES – As a teenager, Esther Williams dreamed of Olympic glory on the U.S. swim team.
She had to settle instead for becoming a movie star.
The self-described “Million Dollar Mermaid,” whose wholesome beauty, shapely figure and aquatic skills launched an entire genre of movies – the Technicolor “aqua musicals” – died Thursday at 91. She was remembered for her Hollywood fame but also her influence on fashion and on synchronized swimming, the Olympic sport inspired by her cinematic water ballet.
Williams followed in the footsteps of Sonja Henie – who went from skating champion to movie star – and became one of Hollywood’s biggest moneymakers after she lost the chance to compete in the Olympics when they were canceled due to the onset of World War II. She appeared in glittering swimsuit numbers that featured towering fountains, waterfalls, pools, lakes, slides and anything else that involved water.
“No one had ever done a swimming movie before,” Williams said later. “So we just made it up as we went along. I ad-libbed all my own underwater movements.”
Such films as “Easy to Wed,” “Neptune’s Daughter” and “Dangerous When Wet” all followed the same formula: romance, music, a bit of comedy and a flimsy plot that provided excuses to get Williams in the water.
Her co-stars included Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton, Ricardo Montalban and Howard Keel.
She also was a favorite swimsuit pinup for GIs in World War II, and a refreshing presence among MGM’s stellar gallery – warm, breezy, with a frankness and self-deprecating humor that delighted interviewers.
When hard times signaled the end of big studios and costly musicals in the mid-’50s, Williams tried non-swimming roles – with little success. After her 1962 marriage to Fernando Lamas, her co-star in “Dangerous When Wet,” she retired from public life.
Esther Jane Williams grew up destined for a career in athletics. She was born Aug. 8, 1921, in Inglewood, a suburb of Los Angeles, one of five children.
A public pool was not far from the modest home where Williams was raised, and it was there that an older sister taught her to swim.
When she was in her teens, the Los Angeles Athletic Club offered to train her four hours a day, aiming for the 1940 Olympic Games at Helsinki. In 1939, she won the Women’s Outdoor Nationals title in the 100-meter freestyle, set a record in the 100-meter breaststroke and was a part of several winning relay teams. But the outbreak of war in Europe led to cancellation of the 1940 Olympics, and Williams dropped out of competition to earn a living.
She was selling clothes in a Wilshire Boulevard department store when showman Billy Rose tapped her for a bathing beauty job at the World’s Fair in San Francisco.
While there, she was spotted by an MGM producer and an agent. She laughed at the suggestion that she do films that would popularize swimming, as Henie had done with ice skating.
Lamas was Williams’ third husband. Before her fame she was married briefly to a medical student. In 1945 she wed Ben Gage, a radio announcer, and they had three children, Benjamin, Kimball and Susan. They divorced in 1958.