The ABCs of Esther Williams

We don't talk about Esther Williams enough. That's basically what I've been shouting from the rooftops ever since I started learning about her in 2013, after her death at the age of 91 encouraged me to take notice of the remarkable life and career of the woman deemed the Million Dollar Mermaid. As a longtime lover of classic Hollywood, I'm used to admiring people and films that are annoyingly, stupidly, and unfairly dismissed by others, but the lack of appreciation for Esther has always stung me the most.

Before I even started my master's degree two years ago, I knew I wanted my thesis to be about her and it was more fun and interesting than I could have imagined. Don't get me wrong, it was also super stressful, but researching Esther was worth it. A sensuous pin-up, an incredible athlete, and an ambitious, business-savvy careerwoman, she is simply one of my favorite people. August 8 would have been her 99th birthday, and so I thought it'd be nice to share the ABCs of Esther, a mixture of stories, facts, and snippets from my thesis.

A is for Aquamusical

With her natural charisma and powerful athleticism, Esther worked with her home studio MGM to craft her own genre, the "aquamusical," which combined elements of musicals, romantic comedies, and water ballets. Esther's movies were uniquely hers, and they served as a showcase for her persona as an independent, resilient, smart, and highly competent career gal.

In an aquamusical, the world is a bright, candy-colored place with impeccable set design and to-die-for clothes, including a myriad of exquisite bathing suits and matching hairpieces. The amount of work and innovation that went into the aquamusical is astounding. The mechanics of filmmaking were challenged with each film, as cameramen had to discover how to film in (and under) water and make-up artists, hairstylists, and costume designers had to figure out how to keep Esther looking glamorous while soaking wet. In the late 1940s, she inspired the creation of waterproof mascara when German company Leichner released a product called Wimperlack that was developed exclusively so that Esther's mascara wouldn't streak when it came into contact with the water. Chorus girls were trained to swim and would form the first swimmer-dancer union in the Screen Actors Guild in 1949. MGM's Soundstage 30 was transformed into a $250,000 pool that was came equipped with fireworks, fountains, and a hydraulic lift.

There is a technical ingenuity to the aquamusical and a striving to go beyond what audiences had seen before, which was influenced and made possible by Esther's athleticism, such as her swimming amongst clouds in Pagan Love Song and her animated sequence with Tom and Jerry in Dangerous When Wet. Her movies are the epitome of escapism, and they made her a box-office sensation for a little over a decade. They are completely fascinating and completely insane and I don't know how you can't love them.

B is for Businesswoman

To counteract how the studio profited off of her popularity without compensating her, Esther struck up a relationship with swimsuit manufacturing company Cole of California to be a spokesperson and made sure she received her earnings, not MGM, thus making her one of the first stars to get an independent income from endorsements. At different points in the '40s and '50s, she owned a service station, a popular restaurant called The Trails, and a metal products plant. Other businesses Esther branched out into were swimming pools and designing her own brand of swimsuits, a brand that is still active to this day.

Esther's dealings were well known in Hollywood and became even more important when her film career was over, which was what caused her to get into business in the first place: "I had enough business sense to realize that I should capitalize on my reputation while I was still strong at the box office. Hollywood is notoriously fickle, and most actors never get to decide which picture is going to be their last."

C is for Children

After a few heartbreaking miscarriages, Esther had three kids with second husband Ben Gage: Benjamin (Benjie), Kimball (Kim), and Susan (Susie). She also gained three stepchildren when she married Fernando Lamas: Christina, Alexandra, and Lorenzo.

Lorenzo, whose mother is actress Arlene Dahl, often called Esther his "soul mom" and stated that although Dahl is a great mother, "in so many ways, [Esther] was the real mom. ... Esther was as happy making us food on the beach as she was in front of 200 people on the stage." When she passed away, he said, "Essie was my rock. She filled in the gaps with love and humor. She was the bridge to my father's heart and the best swim coach on the planet."

Onscreen, Esther never played a mother and only played a wife in Bathing Beauty, whose plot complications keep her separated from her husband until the end, and in Thrill of a Romance, which has her workaholic spouse abandoning her on their honeymoon, leading her to fall for Van Johnson. Esther's characters happily interact with children (she even does a swimming routine with them in Skirts Ahoy! and her 1960 TV special) and it is a foregone conclusion that her romances are going to end in her walking down the aisle (this is classic Hollywood, after all), but her characters weren't exactly associated with domesticity, which was in contrast with the other actresses of her time. Instead, she consistently portrayed single careerwomen who didn't seek romance but rather stumbled into it, many times reluctantly.

Esther and her children with co-star George Nader on the set of The Unguarded Moment

With a young Lorenzo Lamas

Esther with Lorenzo and Fernando

D is for Dangerous When Wet

My favorite Esther film and, in my opinion, one of her best. Superbly directed by Charles Walters, it's funny and romantic, with great songs by Johnny Mercer and Arthur Schwartz, out-of-this-world chemistry between Esther and future husband Fernando Lamas, wonderful supporting players like Jack Carson and William Demarest, and lots of heart. Plus, it looks gorgeous and it features one of Esther's most famous routines, her swim with Tom and Jerry.

E is for Easy to Love

My second favorite Esther film. This movie has so much to adore: the songs are delightful; the aesthetics are stunning, with various shades of red, pink, and orange washing over the screen; the Busby Berkeley setpieces are exciting; and Charles Walters's direction is as witty as ever. It was also the final pairing of Esther and Van Johnson, which immediately makes me love it.

You can read my full review here.

F is for Friends

From what I've gathered through her book and fan magazines, Esther's group of friends included June Allyson, Ricardo Montalban, Van Johnson (who we'll get to later), Betty Garrett, Debbie Reynolds, Cyd Charisse, and Donna Reed, all of whom shared her sunny attitude and innate friendliness.

Clockwise: Betty Garrett, Ricardo Montalban and wife Georgiana Young, Bill Tracy, Ben Gage, Esther, Larry Parks, and an unidentified woman

Ben, Esther, Frank Sinatra, and Charisse

With Donna Reed at Romanoff's on the night Reed won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity

Reed, Allyson, and Esther with their children

Back: Kathryn Grayson, Ann Miller, Esther, Ann Rutherford. Front: Margaret O'Brien and Debbie Reynolds

With Debbie and Ann Rutherford

Esther and Betty Garrett

Garrett and Esther at the 2010 TCM Film Festival for a poolside screening of Neptune's Daughter

One of Esther's best friends was Janet Blair. They were so close that Screenland did a feature where they wrote about each other and their friendship. In her piece, Blair recalled how they met through their husbands, Ben and Louis Busch, who were longtime friends themselves and thought that the women would hit it off. "I don't believe that even Esther Williams's most ardent fans realize quite how wonderful she is," Blair gushed. "Good as she is on the screen, the camera has not yet captured all the facets of The Greatest's abilities." For her part, Esther wrote, "Our friendship is not based upon propinquity, but upon some secret alchemy of personality. She is very important to me, and I believe that I am important to her."

Esther talking to Cobina Wright Jr. and Blair

G is for Gage, Ben

Because the beginning and ending of Esther's Hollywood career roughly coincided with her marriage to and divorce from second husband Ben Gage, it seems that every magazine story, interview, news snippet, or gossip column had to mention him, their children, and/or their home. A radio singer whose celebrity came more from being Esther's husband than anything else, Ben became a fixture in her publicity and her public persona.

Their marriage captivated fans and reporters, especially since it was a Hollywood relationship where it was the woman who had more financial power and fame than the man. Early stories about their marriage swooned over their life together, but as Esther's popularity grew, so did the gossip about the imbalance in their relationship. Modern Screen once interviewed a source who claimed that Esther's "ambition and industry" were "dangerous" because it enabled her to be "more successful than her husband." Photoplay suggested that she was "domineering" and that their troubles stemmed from Ben being "dependent upon her decisions."

Some articles tried to paint Ben as the head of Esther's businesses. In her autobiography, Esther admitted that they were often just "keeping up appearances" and that many of their businesses were secretly struggling precisely because she put Ben in charge of them. The presentation of the Gages as a power couple was so valuable that along with their public appearances and assurances to the press that they had a happy marriage, they collaborated on a 45rpm record titled For Sentimental Reasons. Released by MGM Records in 1954, it features four songs in total: two solos for Ben; Esther singing "Never Let Me Go," whose lyrics the record credits to Ben and Esther; and a duet between them on "I Don’t Know Why (I Just Do)."

Despite their image as one of Hollywood's happiest couples, Esther became increasingly frustrated by Ben's alcoholism, gambling, and lack of ambition. In her book, she confesses that she stayed with him because of their children, but after she realized that Ben lost millions of her hard-earned money through bad investments and evading taxes, they finally divorced in 1959.

H is for Husbands

Just before she turned 18, Esther married a man she met in college named Leonard Kovner. Their marriage 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 gave Kovner all the money she had in exchange for a divorce.

She was then married to Ben for 14 years. After Ben came Fernando Lamas. During shooting of Dangerous When Wet, the two were attracted to each other, but Esther knew -- and he confirmed -- that he was a womanizer and couldn't settle down, so they parted ways. When they reconnected for Esther's TV special in 1960, sparks flew again and this time, Lamas was finally ready for a monogamous relationship. They married in 1969 and were together until Lamas's death from cancer in 1982.

Life with Lamas was not perfect. He wanted her to quit her career and wouldn't allow her children to live with them (his own children didn't live with them, either). Esther knew it was crazy, but she had to admit she was exhausted being Esther Williams the Movie Star and she still tried to see her kids every day. Although it seems strange that such a strong woman would capitulate to such demands, Esther explained that after her tumultuous years with Ben, Lamas made her feel taken care of and safe. "A really terrific guy comes along and says, 'I wish you'd stay home and be my wife,' and that's the most logical thing in the world for a Latin," she told an interviewer in 1984. "And I loved being a Latin wife -- you get treated very well. There's a lot of attention in return for that sacrifice." Lorenzo Lamas recalls asking his father if he ever cheated on Esther like he did in his previous relationships. Fernando said no, adding, "She treats me so well I could never live with myself if I did anything to hurt her."

After Lamas's death, Esther admits in her book that she felt like she was free again. Over a year later, she found the man she would spend the rest of her life with: actor Edward Bell. Bell met Esther in 1983 when he was working for the Olympics and they asked if he had any Hollywood connections who could swim and who might comment on aquatic events. After a wonderful first meeting at her home, Bell and Esther arranged for lunch at Scandia, a then-popular Hollywood eatery. An hour late, she finally appeared. "She comes through the door. I get up, I knock the whole table over. Chaos at Scandia. She loved it. ... She thought it was the funniest thing in the world," Bell remembered. In the end, Esther's marriage to Bell was her happiest and her longest.

I is for Injuries

Because aquamusicals were new territory for MGM, they entrusted Esther to sometimes come up with her own choreography and assumed that she could do anything that was related to the water. This was demonstrated on Easy to Love when the studio and Busby Berkeley, who created and directed the finale, told Esther she had to water-ski in the film, ignoring the fact that she didn't know how and that swimming necessitated a whole different skill set than water-skiing.

As the only swimming star in Hollywood, Esther couldn't be replaced, which gave her a power in the studio system that few had. The downside was that she allowed herself to be put in dangerous situations because it was clear that the film's existence depended upon her. Since no one else was doing what she was doing, her directors and costume designers were also ignorant of any possible complications that their choices triggered. This led to numerous near-death experiences such as getting trapped underwater by a faulty set design, almost drowning from wearing a heavy flannel bathing suit, escaping getting speared on water jet needles, and breaking her neck during a dive thanks to a metal crown attached to her costume. In addition to all of that, Esther ruptured her eardrums five times, broke a toe from clenching a swing fifty feet in the air, and completed four aquamusicals while pregnant.

J is for Jane

Born in 1921 in California, Esther's full name was Esther Jane Williams, which means she was one of the few classic Hollywood actors who was able to keep her real name.

K is for Kellerman, Annette

Without Annette Kellerman, would there have been Esther Williams? An Australian champion swimmer who parlayed her wins into a successful show-business career, Kellerman laid the groundwork for Esther in so many ways. For one thing, although Esther is often credited with creating synchronized swimming, it was in fact Kellerman and a physical education teacher named Katharine Curtis who brought the sport into being. Kellerman also became Hollywood's first swimming star and later designed swimsuits and advocated for women's health, much like Esther would do after her own film career stalled.

When MGM decided to make a biopic of Kellerman, there was only one woman who could play her -- much to the disappointment of Kellerman, who thought Esther was too pretty, too well-known, and too American. Despite that, the two got along with one another and the resulting film, Million Dollar Mermaid, was an incredible success and one of Esther's most popular films.

Speaking of Kellerman in 2004, Esther said, "She was a pioneer of women's rights. She knew there was more to being a woman than being kept in corsets. She wasn't content to float. She was determined to swim. ... She was a woman who had a different opinion of what women could achieve. Women have told me they learned to swim because they saw Million Dollar Mermaid. I loved that, and I know Annette would have loved it too. What she did was to persuade women to get in the water. I'm a continuum of that."

L is for Lateness

Remember how Edward Bell said Esther was late to their first meeting? Yeah, that was nothing new for the woman. "It seems as though I go through life apologizing for being late," she once said. Actress Susan Peters even wrote about Esther, "To Williams, six o'clock means quarter to seven and, more often than not, eight o'clock or even ten or even tomorrow." As someone who can't help but always be late, I get it!

M is for MGM

For just over a decade, Esther was one of MGM's brightest stars and it was the perfect studio for her. They specialized in the glossy, Technicolor-saturated musicals that were the basis for the aquamusical, which meant they had the budget, space, and talent necessary to help Esther thrive. After Louis B. Mayer was ousted from the studio, he asked Esther if she would follow him if he built a new studio. Although she had a good relationship with Mayer, Esther knew he wouldn't be able to duplicate what she had at MGM; she was proven right when his new studio failed to materialize.

It quickly became clear, though, that Esther couldn't stay at MGM either with Dore Schary in charge. Schary didn't value her or the glamour and spectacle of her movies, and so she left in 1955. Unable to replicate the aquamusical anywhere else and facing the box-office decline of the film musical, Esther's Hollywood career depended on her acting in other genres at other studios, which she did until 1963.

Esther with MGM stablemates Jimmy Durante, Gloria DeHaven and husband John Payne, Robert Walker, and Van Johnson

Elizabeth Taylor, Van, Esther, and Walker

Walker, Phyllis Thaxter, Peter Lawford, and Esther

Esther with fellow MGM stars Lassie and George Murphy

The stars of MGM for its 25th anniversary. If you go up three rows behind L.B. Mayer (center front), you'll find Esther. You can see a bigger image here.

N is for Nearsighted

Fun fact: without her glasses, Esther was very nearsighted. That includes when she did all of her dangerous stunts!

There aren't many images of Esther actually wearing glasses (one exception: the behind-the-scenes snapshot from her first TV special below), but she did don a pair for a few scenes in Neptune's Daughter, probably to make her businesswoman character look more studious. When I was writing my thesis, I actually got permission from Esther's estate to view some of the home movies she left to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (I still giddily scream when I think about this, by the way) and I lost my mind when I saw Esther teaching one of her kids how to swim while wearing peach-colored glasses, glasses which were practically the same as the pair I was wearing when I saw the footage. Just when I thought my obsession with her couldn't reach new heights...

O is for Olympics

A record-breaking champion who was guaranteed a spot on the 1940 Olympic team, Esther's biggest disappointment in life was that she was never able to compete after the games were cancelled because of WWII. Despite that, she did still make Olympic history in her own way when synchronized swimming became one of its sports in 1984. Her films had helped to glamourize and popularize synchronized swimming; she even sent informational packets to fans when they would ask how to create their own team. For years she fought for synchronized swimming to be recognized in the Olympics, but was met with a lot of skepticism and sexism.

"[S]ynchronized swimmers are superb athletes," she argued in her book. "They have to learn ballet and first do their routines on dry land as exercises. They have to hold their breath for long periods of strenuous activity. ... I was proud to be an inspiration, a godmother to a sport." Recalling the 1984 games, where she was asked to be an official commentator, Esther wrote, "It was a very emotional moment for me. Tears came to my eyes on camera, and I thought, 'I love every one of those girls in the water.'"

P is for Pool

Swimming pools and Esther Williams were practically synonyms during her heyday. MGM and Cypress Gardens, the Florida tourist attraction that was the setting for Easy to Love and her 1960 TV special, both built expensive, lavish pools for her to use, which is indicative of her power in Hollywood. The pool at the Grand Hotel in Mackinaw Island, Michigan has been named after her as well since she filmed This Time for Keeps there in 1947.

Esther also became a spokesperson in 1951 for the International Swimming Pool Company of White Plains, New York and later owned her own pool manufacturing business.

In addition to selling pools, Esther publicly advocated for swimming as an activity for exercise and leisure. She published articles like "How to Conquer Your Fear of Water"  in fan magazines; gave swim lessons to visually handicapped children in her spare time; and released an instructional video in the 1980s called Swim, Baby, Swim to help parents teach their own kids. Furthermore, Esther wrote and posed for an entry in a line of how-to books called Get in the Swim, as well as an informational booklet that was provided with your purchase of a Cole of California swimsuit. Both materials are filled with Esther’s advice on matters like breathing techniques, different kicks, and how to do various strokes.

For Esther, selling pools and promoting the benefits of swimming were akin to a public service. The International Swimming Hall of Fame summed up Esther's impact best when she was inducted in 1966: "Her movie career played a major role in the promotion of swimming, making it attractive to the public, contributing to the growth of the sport as a public recreation for health, exercise, water safety -- and just plain fun."

Esther's Florida-shaped pool at Cypress Gardens

At the saucer tank she formerly used while filming her segment for That's Entertainment! Part III

Q is for Unique (yes, I'm stretching)

We will never see the likes of Esther again because she was so wholly unique. There was no other star quite like her, and no one else has ever replicated the aquamusical.

As a physically strong woman who was the focus of her own genre, Esther's characters communicated a specific kind of femininity where a man wanted to marry you because you could dazzle him with your athleticism and self-sufficiency and where success came to you because you pursued it with unrelenting intelligence and skill.

An Esther Williams character was never clumsy, ditzy, or bad at what they do. She projected such a solid image of confidence and practicality that it wouldn't have been believable if she had tried to play someone who was easily flustered or adorably naïve. Esther's women voice their desires, freely move about any space they are in, and frequently stay career-driven, all while achieving professional and personal -- specifically romantic -- success. As Diane Sawyer said upon Esther's passing in 2013, she was "a pioneer for a lot of little girls who knew strength and daring when they saw it."

R is for Rose, Billy

After the cancellation of the 1940 Olympics, Esther went to work as a sales clerk and model at the department store I. Magnin. While there, showman Billy Rose wanted her to audition for his Aquacade, a swimming extravaganza that traveled around. Esther was hesitant to lose her amateur standing by going into show business, but she gave in and her life was forever changed. It was Rose who asked her to learn how to swim "pretty" instead of going fast like competitions required of her.

Although he liked the look of swimming pretty, Esther said that he was ignorant of the muscles and stamina required to do such movement: "Unlike fast swimming, it was a series of isometric maneuvers high on the surface in order to maintain stability in the water. It was not a natural swimming position." Having developed a strong kick that kept her head and torso elevated, Esther ultimately found herself making a career out of this unnatural method of swimming. She depicted swimming pretty as something effortless and graceful rather than difficult and physically demanding.

MGM approached Esther after seeing her in the Aquacade, giving her that age-old promise of fame and fortune. Esther wasn't interested, though -- she already saw what that lifestyle would be like during her time with Rose and she wasn't impressed. She continued to refuse them for a year, but the more she said "no," the more they wanted her until finally she signed a contract in 1941.

Swimming with her Aquacade partner, Johnny Weissmuller

Esther at the 50th anniversary of the Aquacade

S is for Survivor

Esther endured her share of tragedies through the years. Her adored brother died suddenly at age 16. When her grieving parents took in a teenaged boy, he raped her for two years until she finally found the strength to confront him and kick him out of their house. Three of her marriages were... complicated, to put it mildly. She suffered one particularly horrific miscarriage while married to Ben and pushed through countless injuries. When she left MGM, she had to reinvent herself as an actress, and when Fernando died, she had to pick up all of the pieces of the life she had before becoming Mrs. Lamas. Then, in 2007, she revealed she had recently had a stroke that almost killed her.

Through it all, Esther kept her resolve and always found a way to survive.

T is for Television

Once Esther was no longer at MGM, the aquamusical had a temporary home on the small screen. In 1956, she co-produced and devised the concept for The Esther Williams Aqua Spectacle, whose success eventually led to Esther Williams in Cypress Gardens, which gave her the most control out of all of her projects. She selected the location, produced it, conceived the show's story, and had a hand in its editing. She also claimed that she became the uncredited director after the man who NBC assigned to her, Alan Handley, proved incompetent and she fired him. The special was viewed on more than half of all American TV sets.

It is a little tricky to ascertain how Esther fared in her TV work because not all of the programs she did are available, such as a 1961 episode of The Bob Hope Show, a 1960 episode of Zane Grey Theater that had her portraying a pioneer woman who aids a group of cholera victims, and a 1955 appearance on the educational program Omnibus where she did a segment on swimming with the Yale swim team. Most devastating of all, though, is the unavailability of her first TV special, of which we only have images.

Another unattainable TV credit is a 1957 episode of Lux Video Theatre called "The Armed Venus" wherein Esther played a red-lipped femme fatale embroiled in a murder mystery. In an interview with TV Guide, she explained that she saw the role as a test to "find out exactly how much…editing and cutting and retakes and all the other mechanics of movie-making had to do with my success as a star."

In 1960, Esther had a guest role in the second season of the family sitcom The Donna Reed Show as Molly Duncan, an old friend of Donna Stone’s who became a famous fashion designer and is now visiting the Stones to determine whether or not she is prepared to marry a small-town doctor like Donna's husband Alex. A desirable and successful careerwoman, Molly is exactly the type of character that Esther specialized in, and the episode depicts the struggle between her sophisticated singledom and Donna's domestic bliss. You can currently see the episode, entitled "The Career Woman," on Amazon Prime.

U is for Underrated

Not only are Esther's films underrated, but her talent is, too. Throughout her career, she was often seen as just a gorgeous woman who knew how to swim, but Esther worked hard to be a better performer. Was she at the level of Stanwyck, Hepburn, or Davis? No. But she was an absolute natural in front of the camera, and she did good work in her dramatic films, like The Unguarded Moment, The Hoodlum Saint, and Raw Wind in Eden.

V is for Van Johnson

Esther's leading men were hit-and-miss. Because the aquamusical was all about highlighting her and her capabilities, her male co-stars were mainly there to sing a few songs and look pretty. And only one of them (Fernando Lamas) could actually keep up in the water without being discreetly held up by her or using hidden ramps to stay afloat. One of Esther’s best partners, though, was Van Johnson.

They first appeared together in A Guy Named Joe. Esther was set to be Mickey Rooney's latest crush in Andy Hardy's Double Life, but she wanted a little experience before her first real film, and so she played a very small role in Joe as a USO hostess. Although the film was Van's big break, he taught Esther how to be in front of the camera and where to stand. "He had other things to worry about besides worrying about me," Esther told Screenland. "But that's Van for you -- he worried about me! ... Van was a beginner, too, but he threw everything my way. As we danced, he'd swing me into the close-ups. He was thoroughly unselfish, and remember, this was his big chance."

For four more films, Van and Esther thrilled audiences with their sweet chemistry and undeniable charm. Their collaborations are some of the films I cherish most in this world.

W is for Walters, Charles

Esther and Charles "Chuck" Walters made three films together and he was easily her best director, as well as a close friend. Walters called her "a dear dame… the only actress I know who became [a star], really, in spite of herself. But she made a big effort to learn, and she made progress from film to film." Esther returned the compliment: "He's the first director who has ever helped me with my acting. It’s a whole new world. … Working with him is like going to drama school. It's wonderful."

I'm always championing Walters's work. Like Esther, he is incredibly underrated, despite contributing to some of classic Hollywood's finest films as a choreographer, dance director, performer, and director. You can read more about his and Esther's relationship here.

X is for Sex

Whether she was being photographed as a pin-up or swimming in one of her films, Esther was often seen as an erotic figure. You would think her half-naked body and the wet swimsuit it clung to would have gotten her into constant trouble with the Production Code. However, her water routines always got by the censors, in spite of the blatant sensuality they portrayed. The most obvious example is the dream sequence in Texas Carnival where Esther swims through the air of Howard Keel's hotel room in a diaphanous negligee. Another moment comes from Skirts Ahoy! With the camera placed near her feet, she strips down to her bra and underwear to take a dip. Once she is in the pool, though, we can clearly see her pink undergarments and exposed torso.

Esther believed that such scenes were deemed harmless because the water somehow "protected her virtue." In her entire career, the only moment that was ever flagged by the Production Code was a fantasy number in Jupiter's Darling that had Esther flirting underwater with male statues that come to life. Esther assured the Breen Office that "it was just another Esther Williams all-American movie" and they dropped the matter.

Y is for Autobiography

Esther's 1999 autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid, changed my life. When my sister gave me a copy for my 18th birthday, I had only an inkling of who Esther was. Coupled with her recent death and a TCM marathon of her films, her autobiography illustrated what a funny, smart, dedicated woman she was and what an unbelievable life she led. I can still remember how I would sit in whatever class lecture I had to attend and devour her words instead of paying attention to the professor, all while texting my sister about the juiciest tidbits.

Is it a gossipy book? Oh, yes. Did she later admit that she embellished in places? Yes. Is it still my favorite celebrity autobiography? Yep! It has so many great stories and it is a truly fascinating window into classic Hollywood. With so little written about Esther, it was invaluable for my thesis, but it has also been like a security blanket for me over the years. When I studied abroad a few year ago, I was absolutely terrified, so I took Esther's book (and Katharine Hepburn's!) with me to give me comfort. I still turn to it often to cheer me up or to reread a particular passage.

Z is for Busby "Buzz" Berkeley

One of Esther’s favorite collaborators was Busby Berkeley. Before she even got in the movies, Esther was enamored with Berkeley's surreal, spellbinding work; after she became a star, she was excited to see that work up close. "I knew I needed someone with a real sense of showmanship if my movies were to continue to be successful," she wrote in her autobiography, calling Berkeley "one of the most creative individuals in Hollywood, maybe the only true genius I would ever work with. I could see that at once. More than that, he loved what I did in the water."

The twosome collaborated on three films: Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Million Dollar Mermaid, and Easy to Love. Berkeley crafted some of the most iconic, intense moments in Esther's career. She personally requested him when a lot of people looked at him as just a washed-up drunk, and in return, he helped ensure her legacy as Hollywood's mermaid.

You can read more about their relationship here.


This is my first entry to my Esther Williams Blogathon, a birthday tribute to Hollywood's mermaid. You can read the other entries here.


  1. Esther Williams was/is without a doubt a class act. Her musicals always made me feel good. Her costumes whether bathing suits or street clothes suited her perfectly and didn't she wear them well? I too have her autobiography and still treasure it all these years later. She is underrated similar to Sonja Henie, but they were champions in their fields and were destined to go to the Olympics. Sonja did go three times but because of WW2 Esther couldn't go. I do have to wander how she would have went had the Olympics been able to go ahead. I'm sure she would have given it her best. (I remember seeing her on TV hosting the synchronized swimming at the 1984 Olympics in LA she was really having a good time). Like her movie and business career she would have been a success. I love her movies and still see them when they are on TV a few years ago I was lucky to buy a collection of her MGM DVD's. I think she is magnificent. I don't mind admitting this but I cried when she passed in 2013. I have loved all the posts you have done on Esther's films and this post as well Congratulations! Sorry if this is too long but I love the subject material. Again take care and stay safe. Ros Down Under.

  2. Sorry I forgot, happy heavenly birthday tomorrow Hollywood's Mermaid!

    1. No need to apologize, Ros! I loved your comment and completely agreed with everything you said.

      I'll always regret that I didn't discover Esther until after her death. I so wish I could have sent her a letter, telling her how much she has meant to me.

  3. I learned so much in your article and, as always, you renewed my appreciated for Esther's talent. Thanks for hosting the blogathon. I'm sure to learn even more from all of the contributions.

    PS: I love the Diane Sawyer quote you included.

    1. Thank you! She was truly something special, and that Diane Sawyer quote is perfect. She actually did an interview with Esther in 2007 and it makes me cry every time I watch it. The video quality isn't great, but you can tell how much Sawyer was in awe of Esther:

    2. Thank you so much for the link to the interview.

  4. I can't believe that there is so much that I didn't know about her! She was such a strong woman to have gone through so much. A new inspiration for me! This whole article is awesome, thanks for the information!

    1. Thank YOU for your comment! I'm constantly in awe of Esther's strength, so it's wonderful to read that she inspires you now, too.

  5. Such a great post! I learned so much! I really need to add her autobiography to my reading list!

    1. Thank you! Her book is so good. It's not 100% truthful in some spots, but what celebrity autobiography is? I value it less for the gossip and more for her perspective and her opinions, especially since so little has been written about her.

  6. You had me at "X is for Sex" I can remember seeing that scene with Howard Keel when I was about 8 years old and thinking to myself "I'm not sure what sex is all about, but I'll bet it has something to do with this!"

    1. Ha! Every time I watch that sequence, I wonder how it got by the censors. I'm sure it helped that they make it clear it's all a dream, which happened often in Esther's films, but still.

  7. Oh my word, this was engrossing. What a fun topic for a thesis! And I totally hear ya about her autobiography--I've read it many times over the years myself. Esther rocks. :-)

    1. Thanks, Rebecca! Choosing her for my thesis topic was the best decision I could've made because even when I was miserable, it was still fun to find out more about her and discover new materials I never knew existed, like the record she made with Ben.

  8. This is one of the best blog posts I've ever read! I could tell you put your heart and soul into this piece. Did the 50th anniversary of the Aquacade take place on Treasure Island? I know the original show was presented in San Francisco, as I mentioned in my entry for your blogathon. By the way, I nominated you for the Sunshine Blogger Award! Here's the link:

    1. Aw, thank you for the kind words and for the nomination! I'll try to respond soon.

      I'm not sure if it was on Treasure Island or not. Good question! It'd make sense if it was, though. I actually found that photo for the first time as I was putting this post together, so I didn't even realize there had been a 50th anniversary with Esther in attendance.


Post a Comment

You might've missed these popular posts...

Loving and Fighting Furiously: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

Top Ten: Fred Astaire's Partners

Announcing the 100 Years of Esther Williams Blogathon!

Announcing the Sixth Annual Doris Day Blogathon!

Fred Astaire tells Rita Hayworth... You Were Never Lovelier (1942)

Esther Williams enthralls in... Dangerous When Wet (1953)

Bob, Bing, and Dottie take the... Road to Rio (1947)

The Fifth Annual Doris Day Blogathon is here!

Fred and Ginger's Cinematic Farewell: The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)

Bette and Errol