Esther Williams

“It appeared as if I had invited the audience into the water with me, and it conveyed the sensation that being in there was absolutely delicious.” –Esther Williams

Esther Williams was a beloved actress and competitive swimmer, setting regional and national records as a teenager. Born Esther Jane Williams on August 8, 1921, in Inglewood, California, she was the fifth and youngest child of Louis and Bula Williams. Her father worked as a sign painter and her mother was a teacher. Williams was born in the couple’s living room.

Over the years, the Williams family lived in the same home. Williams’ siblings were June, David, Maurine (who worked as a dressmaker from the home), and Stanton. Tragically, Williams’ brother, Stanton, passed away at 16 after his colon burst. After Stanton’s passing the grieving parents invited a 16-year-old boy, Buddy McClure, to live with them. McClure had lost his mother. According to Williams’ autobiography, McClure sexually assaulted her on multiple occasions. Williams revealed the truth to her parents two years later, leading McClure to be banished from the home.

During this period, Williams found swimming to be a therapeutic form of escape. She had always enjoyed swimming, typically venturing to Manhattan Beach or a local public pool. Williams counted towels at the pool to fund her five-cent admission and took swimming lessons taught by the lifeguards. Through these lessons, she was taught strokes that were traditionally only taught to men, such as the butterfly stroke. She proved herself to be an apt swimmer, eventually joining the medley team at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.

Williams and her team set the 300-yard relay record in 1939 and was a national AAU champion for the 100-meter freestyle, completing in a record-shattering one minute and nine seconds. By the time Williams turned 16, she won three U.S. national championships for breaststroke and freestyle swimming.

Williams attended Washington High School, serving as class vice president and, later, president. She never trained in swimming at the school. A low grade in algebra prevented her from attaining a scholarship from the University of Southern California; therefore, she enrolled in the Los Angeles City College. She dreamed of one day teaching physical education. In order to earn tuition money, she worked as a stock girl at I. Magnin department store, modeling clothing in newspaper advertisements and for shoppers.

Williams married Leonard Kovner in 1940, while attending Los Angeles City College, divorcing in 1944.

During her time at I. Magnin, Williams was scouted by the Billy Rose Aquacade. An assistant to Rose asked Williams to audition for a vacant role, leading Willimas to partner with Olympic swimmer and Tarzan (1932) star Johnny Weissmuller. While Williams herself planned to compete in the 1940 Summer Olympics, the outbreak of World War II prevented this from happening.

Williams’ swimming skills and panache for performance soon attracted Hollywood’s attention. Williams’ role at the Aquacade lead to her being pursued by MGM head Louis B. Mayer, who was actively looing for female athletes to compete against Fox’s ice-skating star, Sonja Henie. Williams would become a contract player for MGM in 1941.

Per Williams’ contract, she received a guest pass to the Beverly Hills Hotel, allowing her to swim in the pool daily. Additionally, she was not allowed to appear on camera for nine months, in order to use that time to take acting, singing, dancing, and diction lessons. During this time, Williams also regularly participated in war bond tours, due to her swimsuit pin-up girl status.

After Williams signed with MGM, she took a screen test with Clark Gable for the film Somewhere I’ll Find You (1942). She would also appear in small roles in Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1942), A Guy Named Joe (1943), and Bathing Beauty (1944)–the former being her first Technicolor musical. Williams additionally performed in Thrill of A Romance (1945), The Hoodlum Saint (1945), Easy to Wed (1946)–a remake of Libeled Lady (1936), Fiesta (1947), and This Times for Keeps (1947).

In 1945, Williams married singer and actor Ben Gage, with whom she had three children: Benjamin Stanton, Kimball Austin, and Susan Tenney. Gage struggled with alcoholism and squandered much of her earnings. The couple divorced in 1959.

Williams’ experience wearing a plaid swimsuit for This Time for Keeps led to innovations in women’s swimsuits; the flannel swimsuit sunk Williams to the bottom of the pool. Swimwear company Cole of California wanted Williams to become their spokeswoman, and Williams obliged. She liked that the swimsuits were made of latex and did not require zippers. She also noticed that women in the WAVES received thin, cotton swimsuits as their swim uniforms, leading Williams to model a Cole of California suit for the Secretary of the Navy. Williams argued that the Cole swimsuits better supported women’s figures. As a result of her efforts, the U.S. Navy immediately ordered 50,000 of the Cole suits.

Williams appeared in several musical films, including Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), Neptune’s Daughter (1949)–in which she introduces “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Ricardo Montalban, Duchess of Idaho (1950), and Pagan Love Song (1950). She also appeared in the Annette Kellermann biopic Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), which Williams considered to be her favorite film.

Williams later appeared in Easy to Love (1953) while pregnant, performing her own waterskiing stunts. In Dangerous When Wet (1953), she swam alongside animated characters Tom and Jerry in addition to working with future husband Fernando Lamas.

Throughout her time at MGM, Williams participated in many spectacular swimming numbers. She took on synchronized swimming sequences and also performed dangerous stunts. She broke her neck after performing a 115-foot dive for Million Dollar Mermaid, needing to recover in a body cast for seven months. She ruptured her eardrums on many occasions from spending hours in a studio tank and also nearly drowned when she was unable to find the trapdoor in the ceiling of the tank.

Williams ultimately left her MGM contract and moved to Universal International, where her career slowed. She instead turned to television and performed in aqua specials, eventually retiring from acting in the 1960s.

In 1969, Williams married Fernando Lamas. Though their relationship was tumultuous, they remained together until his passing in 1982.

Williams lent her name to a retro women’s swimwear company, later becoming the namesake of a company that manufactured pools and pool accessories. Additionally, Williams appeared in a line of videos called Swim, Baby, Swim, meant to aid parents in teaching children how to swim.

Williams was also passionate about synchronized swimming and was a commentator for the event at the 1984 Summer Olympics.

Williams co-wrote an autobiography with Digby Diehl called The Million Dollar Mermaid.

Williams married for the fourth and final time to actor Edward Bell in 1994. They remained together until her passing.

Williams died in her sleep on June 6, 2013. Her ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean. She was 91 years old.

To this day, various points of interest in connection to Williams remain. In the 1930s and 1940s, Williams and her family resided at 8722 Orchard Ave., Los Angeles, California, which still remains.

Williams’s alma mater, Washington High School, is now Washington Preparatory School. It stands at 10860 Denker Ave., Los Angeles, California.

Los Angeles City College is located at 855 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, California.

The Los Angeles Athletic Club is located at 431 W 7th St., Los Angeles, California.

The Beverly Hills Hotel remains at 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills, California.

Williams’ handprints and footprints are at the TCL Chinese Theatre forecourt, located at 6925 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, California.

The home that Williams shared with Lamas stands at 617 N. Palm Dr., Beverly Hills, California.

Williams and Lamas also resided at 9377 Readcrest Dr., Beverly Hills, California, which also remains.

In the 1960s, 11011 Anzio Rd., Los Angeles, California, was custom-built for her. The home stands today.

She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, honoring her work in films, at 1560 Vine St., Los Angeles, California.

Today, many of the locations featured in This Time for Keeps remain on Mackinac Island, Michigan. The Grand Hotel continues to house guests from all over the world. Incidentally, its outdoor swimming pool has been renamed the Esther Williams Swimming Pool, in honor of Williams swimming in the pool for the film.

Williams also received a suite at the hotel in her honor, which she used throughout her lifetime. The Esther Williams suite remains at the hotel.

The Woodfill House, visible in the film, can also be spotted on the island today.

In 2021, the Grand Hotel celebrated the Esther Williams centennial in style with various tribute events, the restoration of the pool, synchronized swimmers, and a big birthday cake.

Williams donated her personal film archive to the Academy Film Archive, which has preserved several of her home movies. The Academy Film Archive is housed in the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study at 1313 Vine St., Los Angeles, California.

This post is part of the Classic Movie Blogger Association (CMBA) Spring Blogathon, entitled “Fun in the Sun.”


About Annette Bochenek

Dr. Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is an avid scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for TCM Backlot, she also writes for Classic Movie Hub, Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.
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1 Response to Esther Williams

  1. Great summary of Esther Williams’ life and career Annette. I’ve been a fan of her movies for a long time. I was fortunate to see her at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival before she died, speaking poolside at the Roosevelt Hotel. She was in a wheelchair by then, All those years of diving had taken a toll on her. Your subject was a great selection for the CMBA Blogathon, her movies were almost always about fun in the sun..

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