Esther Williams, the synchronized-swimming dream girl from Technicolor movie musicals of the forties and fifties, died this morning in her sleep at the age of 91.
Raised in California, Williams was a champion swimmer when the outbreak of World War II derailed her ability to compete in the 1940 Summer Olympics. Her specialties were “male only” strokes like the butterfly. She held three national titles at the age of 16.
She signed a contract with MGM in 1941. Her debut as a leading lady came in 1944’s Bathing Beauty, as seen above. In her memoir, Million Dollar Mermaid, Williams described the critical response to Bathing Beauty as “glowing.”
In reality, the reviews were mixed. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther found the production “gaudy,” but Williams so lived up to the title that he ultimately dubbed Bathing Beauty a success:
Miss Williams’ talents as a swimmer—not to mention her other attributes—make any title the studio wants to put on it okay by us. When she eels through the crystal blue water in a rosy-red bathing suit or splashes in limpid magnificence in the gaudy water carnival which John Murray Anderson has brought to pass, she’s a bathing beauty for our money, even though dragged in by the heels.
Williams quickly became one of Hollywood’s most bankable actresses, starring in dozens of films. The Associated Press’s obituary recounts how Williams “laughed as much as anyone” at Funny Girl Fanny Brice’s dig, “Esther Williams? Wet, she’s a star. Dry, she ain’t.”
Williams married four times. At age 19, she married a “smart, handsome, dependable, and dull” man she met in college. At age 24, she married actor Ben Gage and had three children with him. At age 43, she married her Dangerous While Wet co-star and The Magic Fountain director Fernando Lamas, who forced her to give up her career.
After Lamas’s death, Williams reemerged into the public eye. She co-hosted the synchronized swimming competition at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, launched a swimwear line, and produced video swimming lessons for children. At age 73, she married actor Edward Bell, with whom she lived out the rest of her life.