Esther Williams is amazing. I didn’t find this out until after I heard about her death last year, and I’ve been kicking myself for it ever since. My beloved Turner Classic Movies aired a whole marathon of her films as a tribute to her and I decided to take the opportunity to record a few and see what Esther was all about. I’m so happy I did. The Esther train kept on rolling. Once I finished watching NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER, THRILL OF A ROMANCE, and EASY TO WED, my sister gave me Esther’s autobiography for my birthday. If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor and snatch it up. Ms. Williams was a fascinating woman, and incredibly strong. I never knew she had such an interesting life story and reading her book gave me another great role model. I had been hoping to write about Esther for a while now, but school kept me busy and then I had the pieces on Astaire and Rogers to write, so unfortunately Esther had to wait until today. Better late than never, right?

One reason why Esther fascinates me so much is that she was such a singular star. Swimming musicals were hers alone, and I sometimes wonder if it’s because of that that she isn’t as well known since those kind of musicals were seen as a fad. Only they weren’t a fad—it’s just that no one else could do what Esther did. This was a concept that at first seemed bothersome to the actress. Time after time, she was given a male co-star who just wasn’t her idea of a leading man. She had proven that her movies were box office gold, so why couldn’t she get a partner that matched her in success? It felt like she was getting the B-team. Esther actually writes that she lamented this to Ingrid Bergman (!) one day:

A bit later I talked to Ingrid Bergman about the different experiences we had in moviemaking. We were staying at the same small pension in Paris, and I saw her walking up and down in the park, talking to herself. I waited for her to return to the hotel. “You’re learning lines, aren’t you?” “Yes, I’m doing Tea and Sympathy in French.” “You know, I really envy you.” “You don’t need to envy me, my dear Esther. I can’t swim a tenth as well as you can.” “I envy you your leading men,” I said. “How did you get them to give you Gary Cooper, Charles Boyer, Cary Grant? Look who they gave me—Johnnie Johnston!” “It’s true that I’ve worked with the classic leading men of Hollywood, but that’s because I needed them. Your pictures are carried by you alone, dear—you and your bathing suit. Nobody has ever tried to ask me to carry a picture all by myself, so take it as a compliment.”

Esther’s swimming was actually more dangerous than one might think. She ruptured her eardrums multiple times, and there were times when she almost drowned. Esther wrote that only she could look out for herself because she knew what the swimming entailed—everybody else knew how to make a picture, but Esther’s “aquamusicals” were a whole other thing for them. Costume designers had no idea how to design a swimsuit for her, which demonstrated itself when a plaid flannel suit she wore for THIS TIME FOR KEEPS proved too heavy and dragged her to the bottom of the pool, causing her to unzip it and swim to the pool’s edge naked. In another incident, she was filming a number in a water tank that inexplicably had a ceiling. There was a trap door, but everything was painted black so it blended in. Esther couldn’t find the door and started to panic under the water. Finally, a crew member noticed her and got help. The worst incident of all, though, was during the filming of MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID. Esther loved the work of Busby Berkeley and asked him to create spectacular water numbers for her. Berkeley’s imagination would go crazy and he wouldn’t think about the possible dangers his ideas could pose for Esther. One such stunt had Esther diving off of a 115 foot tower, which ended up breaking her neck and putting her in a body cast for seven months. Production had to wait until she got better because who could replace her? No one else was a swimming star.

Because she couldn’t be replaced, Esther had to be extremely careful that she was safe and actually did some of her films while pregnant. MGM assumed that she could do anything that had to do with water, which wasn’t the case. (For EASY TO LOVE, she had to learn how to water ski very well because she’d be skiing with real professionals.) Esther basically had to create her own genre because she knew more about swimming than the studio did. Over time, the studio built a special team for her. Her cameramen had scuba experience and liked to shoot underwater, and there was a group of chorus girls who were trained to swim for the production numbers. She even had a $250,000 pool built specially for her films. And being in aquamusicals wasn’t as glamorous as it looked. Esther had to wear hair pins that she described as similar to crow bars and they left welts on her head. Baby oil and Vaseline was used to keep her makeup on in the water, too.

Interestingly enough, Esther never set out to be a star. She loved swimming and competing, and it broke her heart when the 1940 Olympics were cancelled because of WWII. Once she realized her Olympic dreams were over, she wrote that she was all ready to be perfectly content working her way up at the department store I. Magnin and having a family. When MGM came calling, she said no many times before she decided to take the chance. Esther was very self-aware about her star status, saying that she knew she could become unpopular at any moment, therefore she tried to make the most of what she did.

Esther endured many tragedies in her life. Her brother Stanton died at age sixteen, leaving her parents to constantly grieve. From that moment on, Esther believed she had to take Stanton’s place and make her parents proud like they were of Stanton. However, Esther’s parents weren’t the best a person could ask for. Her mother tried to abort her when she was pregnant, and after Esther was born, she decided she had done her fair share of motherhood and gave Esther over to her big sister, Maurine.

Things with her parents only got worse. When she was a teenager, a boy from school named Buddy McClure became a part of her family because he had recently lost his parents and he reminded Esther’s mother and father of Stanton. Buddy was friendly to Esther, but over time, he started to stare at her and make comments that made her uncomfortable until one night, when they were the only two at home, Buddy came into Esther’s room and raped her. At first she didn’t want to say anything, but finally Esther confided in her parents. Their response shocked her:

I expected my father to rise up and beat the hell out of him. I expected my mother to order him out of the house…My parents’ voices weren’t angry or furious. They were sad, almost sympathetic. I didn’t fully understand it then, but they were trying to find a way to be both my parents and his parents. They couldn’t help themselves. They couldn’t bear to lose Buddy, who had taken Stanton’s place in their hearts…Listening to their muffled voices through the wall, I felt abandoned, deserted. My parents—who were supposed to be my defenders, my protectors—were lost to me forever. I was alone, totally alone in the world.

Esther went to the gym where she did her swim training to find some kind of comfort—and came face to face with Buddy. Esther wrote this about their confrontation:

I knew that he was sorry, but not for what he had done to me. I knew he was sorry that he had endangered his place in a comfortable home with doting new parents. Rage shot through me. I knew I had to stand up to him now, this moment, or I would never be safe from him or from any man. If I was alone in the world, then I had only myself to fight my battles. “You’re never gonna touch me again, you son of a bitch,” I snapped, clenching my fists. “I know. I won’t,” he promised. “And you’re not living in that house anymore.” “Your mom said…” “I don’t care what she said. ‘Cause if you do come back, you’ll try to rape me again.” “No. You’ll see.” “Like hell. Only this time I’ll fight. I’ll kick and punch. I’ll claw and scream.” … Our eyes locked and I refused to look away. Suddenly, his face crumbled and he sank to his knees, crying, pleading. “Don’t do this to me…Please don’t keep me out of my home.” “It’s not your home anymore.” With that, I spun around, strode back into the elevator, and left him there, kneeling on the floor. Two days later he joined the Coast Guard, and I never had to see him again.

Esther’s marriages didn’t fare so well, either—mostly. Just before she turned 18, Esther married a man she met in college named Leonard Kovner. Esther’s marriage to Kovner quickly turned into less than ideal. Kovner didn’t want her to be in the movies, so when she told him that she had signed a contract with MGM, he tried attacking her and she was forced to run and hide out at a neighbor’s house for the night. Soon after that, Esther asked for a divorce.

Esther’s second husband was Ben Gage, who turned out to be an alcoholic and a gambler. Gage had absolutely no drive and was perfectly content with being Mr. Williams. In her autobiography, Esther tells a horrific story of when she went into labor with her and Ben’s first child after only five months of pregnancy, and found out that the baby had died a month earlier and had been decomposing. Esther had to undergo a painful procedure to remove the baby and instead of being there with his wife, Gage was out playing golf and drinking with friends. Esther eventually had three children with Ben, but his habits only worsened. He weighed 300 lbs because of drinking and he gambled like crazy. Esther had acquired a restaurant and had Ben manage it, hoping that it would keep him busy. Instead he gambled away her money, mismanaged the business, and left her penniless. Esther wrote that she only stayed with Gage because of their children, but once all this happened, she knew it was over between them.

Esther had met Fernando Lamas while still married to Gage. She was looking for a strong male lead for DANGEROUS WHEN WET, and Fernando’s star was starting to rise. He could sing, he could act, he was very handsome, and best of all, he could swim really well. Fernando initially didn’t want to do the film because he only wanted to be in “important pictures,” but Esther had his part beefed up and was able to convince him. During shooting, the two became close, but when Fernando offered to “take [Esther] away from all this,” she declined. She knew he still had a lot of “fooling around” to do, so they parted ways.
Fast forward to 1960. Esther had left MGM a few years earlier and had done some freelance work when she decided to do a TV special at Cypress Gardens in Florida. She needed a partner, and remembering how well she worked with Fernando, she called him up. With her marriage to Ben over and his marriage to Arlene Dahl in tatters, the two finally came together. Fernando divorced Dahl and after spending nine years traveling and living together, he and Esther were married in 1969.

Their relationship was very complicated. Fernando was domineering and expected Esther to give up her career. She did, but only because her film career was practically over and she was growing a little wary of being in the spotlight. Plus, she loved Fernando and she knew it would make him happy—she was aware that she was letting Fernando shine in the limelight, but at the moment, it didn’t matter. Something that did matter, though, was the fact that Fernando didn’t want Esther’s children around. He told her that he wanted her all to himself, and so her kids weren’t allowed to live with them. Esther still saw them, but not with Fernando around. In 1982, Esther convinced Fernando to come with her to her daughter’s wedding. Although her children and Fernando had a very strained relationship, Esther’s daughter let him walk her down the aisle. Things were starting to look up when suddenly Fernando became ill. Almost immediately after the wedding, Fernando was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. While he was in the hospital, Esther made sure his children and grandchildren saw him before it was too late. He passed away on October 8, 1982. Esther wrote:

He had family with him always; he was never alone. To the very end, I honored the commitment I’d made to him so long ago in Cypress Gardens to set aside Esther Williams and take care of him like the mother he’d lost when he was four. It wasn’t always easy, but I kept my promise until his final breath.

After Fernando died, Esther was finally able to be with her children. The reconciliation wasn’t easy, but she was slowly forgiven. Esther was able to get back to her life. She made a video called Swim, Baby, Swim which taught children how to swim. In 1984, she helped to make synchronized swimming an official sport of the Olympics, a sport that she arguably started in her films. During this time, Esther had met Edward Bell, who was a coordinator for the Olympics. They married in 1994, and according to Esther, it was her happiest marriage. They were still together when she passed away.

I can’t believe that this woman I barely knew until a year ago has suddenly gained so much significance in my life. She was a strong, beautiful, and extremely talented person who deserves so much more credit than what she’s gotten. She wasn’t the actress that Katharine Hepburn was, but she had the same work ethic. She wasn’t a celebrated comedienne like Myrna Loy was, but she had the same twinkle in her eye. She couldn't dance like Rita Hayworth, but she had the same grace. She was Esther Williams, and to me, that’s enough.

With love,


  1. Your adoration for the “million dollar mermaid” is commendable.


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