The name of Esther Williams may not elicit a response from the younger generation but ask your granddad about her and you would know the charisma and aura of this Hollywood movie star of the 40’s. Esther died peacefully in her sleep in her home in Los Angeles on Thursday. Not many people know that Esther was also a swimming champion. She was a national champion in freestyle and breast stroke but gave up on her ambitions in swimming when World War II led to a cancellation of Olympics in 1940.
Esther used the platform of swimming to join Hollywood and soon became a glamorous movie star, acting in MGM films with lots of scenes of swimming pools and bathing beauties. In fact, she was a true star of the watery musicals made during the 40’s by MGM. Leonard Maltin, a noted film historian recalls Esther as a major movie star with a huge fan following. According to him, Esther’s name was a guarantee of box office hit during the 40’s. Pauline Kael, film critic at New York Times says that Esther’s greatest contribution to cinema was her athletic body that MGM made best use of in the watery musicals in that era.
Esther had to give an audition after which she was given a role opposite Johnny Weissmuller in a musical called San Francisco Aquacade Review. The success of this movie made MGM take note of Esther and she was signed opposite Mickey Rooney in a movie called Andy Hardy’s Double Life. Esther was loved by the audience in the movie and she went on to do many more movies with MGM during the decade such as Bathing Beauty, Million Dollar Mermaid, Neptune’s Daughter, etc. Interestingly, Esther was always shown as a swimmer in MGM movies. This was done to showcase her beauty in swimming pools rather than anything else. In all her movies, she could be seen coming out of the pool in tight bathing suits in an attempt to lure the audiences.
Esther is given the credit of popularizing the sport of swimming because of her success in movies. She always talked about her career in Hollywood as a consolation prize for her, mentioning the fact in her autobiography that was aptly named Million Dollar Mermaid. She says that she had won three gold medals at the national championships in 1939 with dreams of conquering the world in 1940 Olympics. But Hitler invaded Poland and the World war started, shattering her dreams as Olympics got cancelled.
So fond was MGM of this swimming sensation that it built a swimming pool for Esther that cost $250000 at a time when movies could be made under $2 million. This pool was fitted with hydraulic lifts and colored fountains. This pool was 25 feet deep and swimmers called it Pneumonia Alley. Esther ruptured her ear drums many times swimming in this pool.
Esther married four times in her life and is survived by a son, a daughter, and several grandchildren.