American competitive swimming superstar and Hollywood actress Esther Williams died at age 91 in Beverly Hills on Thursday, reports The New York Times. The announcement was made by Williams’ longtime publicist, Harlan Boll.
Though her foremost passion was swimming, she signed a contract with MGM in 1941 when former studio head Louis B. Mayer scouted her out. Beginning in 1942 alongside Mickey Rooney in “Andy Hardy’s Double Life,” Williams went on to appear in dozens of MGM productions such as the George Sidney musicals “Bathing Beauty” (1944) and “Jupiter’s Darling” (1955). Per Williams’ request, her contract came with an unlimited guest pass to The Beverly Hills Hotel pool.
Born in 1921 in LA, Esther Williams started setting records while on the Los Angeles Athletic Club swim team in her teens, where she worked for a nickel a day. She used that money to access the pool, where the male lifeguards gave her swimming lessons. That’s when she learned to master the previously men-only butterfly technique, which won her a gold medal in 1939 in the Amateur Athletic Union championship’s 300-meter relay.
After MGM signed her on — at the time the studio was going up against 20th Century Fox’s leading lady Sonja Henie, a Norwegian ice skater — lavish Technicolor swimming sequences became her personal crest. NYT writes that these sequences “were often elaborate fantasies created by Busby Berkeley.” In “Million Dollar Mermaid” (1952), she appeared in 50,000 gold sequins and a crown.
Williams was married four times and had a son, a daughter and three stepsons. Her surviving spouse is TV actor Edward Bell. Read more about her life and career over at NYT here and watch dazzling clips of her onscreen swimming below and an MGM sizzle reel.