Esther Williams, the box-office queen of MGM in the late ’40s, turned 90 recently. As hoofer Donald O’Connor said in “That’s Entertainment”: “Eat your heart out, Mark Spitz!” Indeed, Spitz may have won the most number of Olympic gold medals at one time, but Esther was Queen of Hollywood in her prime.
World War II prevented her from swimming in international competitions. Interestingly, after being noticed for her swimming prowess, Williams turned to modeling, instead. The young Esther swam with the legendary Johnny Weissmuller in Billy Rose’s “Aquacades.”
The actress reveals in her candid autobiography that Hollywood’s best-known Tarzan would drop his trunks as soon as the duo made their exit from the public.
When MGM cast her in an Andy Hardy movie opposite Mickey Rooney, the powerful Hollywood studio built her a special pool—and the rest, as they say, is history. Unfortunately, she married a loser, had an affair with Jeff Chandler, and then married her erstwhile leading man, Fernando Lamas, another former swimming champ who was “the only leading man who could keep up with me.”
Curiously, Lamas wanted her fat, allegedly to minimize “competition,” because despite her chaste appeal, Williams was sexy and shapely enough to give beauty icons, Lana Turner and Arlene Dahl, stiff competition. Because of her androgynous appeal, she was cast alongside screen machos like Howard Keel and Ricardo Montalban.
Since the actress was also no slouch at comedy, she starred opposite Red Skelton and Jimmy Durante. When the box-office appeal of expensive musicals waned, she turned to dramas, which didn’t click with audiences. Thereafter, she retired from the movies and went into the swimming-pool and bathing-suit business.
Today, the actress is credited as the primary mover for the inclusion of swimming in the Olympics, and she will always be remembered as the “bathing beauty” in a one-piece swimming suit.
Tinseltown may have lost Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly—but, thank goodness we still have the unsinkable Esther Williams in our midst!