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Remembering Esther Williams

Remembering Esther Williams

Long after she retired from public life, Esther Williams had
a needlepoint pillow on her sofa that bore the legend, “Yes, I still swim.” That
says a lot about the woman who smiled and swam her way through so many glossy
MGM musicals: she had a sense of humor about herself. It was only after the
death of her husband (and former costar) Fernando Lamas that she returned to
the limelight, giving Barbara Walters a long and candid prime-time interview.
After that, Esther became a familiar sight at Hollywood gatherings, and I got
to know her a bit. She was fun to be with, always candid and colorful.

What struck me most was that she retained the mindset of a
champion athlete. She started swimming seriously when she was 8. “We didn’t have
any money to go to swimming pools,” she told me, “and the Pacific Ocean was my
pool. That’s where my sister taught me how to ride waves and how to swim. I had
such fun with that the rest of my life. I’d go swimming way far out in the
ocean, and boys would follow me when I was a teenager in high school. I said,
‘You’d better not follow me, ‘cause I can get back and you may not be able to.’
Even at 12 and 13 and 14 I knew what boys were all about.”

She wasn’t intimidated by Louis B. Mayer or anyone else she
encountered in her accidental climb to movie stardom. She told me that in her
eyes, “L.B. Mayer was only a man, a little immigrant that came across the big
Atlantic Ocean, and he wanted so to be American. I could empathize with him,
even though I was only 18, and it worked.” Early in her tenure at the studio he
shouted at her and she said, “Mr. Mayer, please don’t ever yell at me.” He
said, “Why not? I yell at everybody.” And she replied, “Because you can’t get
to the end of the pool first.” Looking back at that moment decades later, she
admitted, “I don’t know where it came from, but I stopped him from yelling and
he said, ‘I can’t do what?’ ” I said, “You can make movies, but you can’t get
to the end of the pool first, so you can’t yell at me till you can.’ And my
relationship from then on was one where on the lot, he would see me walking
and call to me, ‘I can’t get to the what?’ and I’d say, “Let me know when you can
make it.’ ”

She credited producer Joe Pasternak with making her a star
in the frothy musical Thrill of a Romance,
of which she later wisecracked, “Just the title could give you diabetes. But it
was Van Johnson and he was the fifth most popular actor in the [top] ten, and we
were just cute as a button together—two rosy-faced, wholesome people. That made
me the Girl Next Door and it gave me 26 movies instead of just one.” She even
introduced a song standard, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” in the 1949 movie Neptune’s Daughter, with Ricardo

Some people I’ve spoken to don’t understand how a swimmer
could have become a movie star (leaving aside for the moment, Buster Crabbe and
Johnny Weismuller), but there was a precedent: in the silent film era,
Australian-born swimming champ Annette Kellerman was a vaudeville and movie
headliner. Esther later portrayed her in the 1952 movie Million Dollar Mermaid. Then, in the 1930s, Olympic skating
champion Sonja Henie—who could neither sing nor dance—became a box-office star
at 20th Century Fox. All MGM had to do, according to Esther, was
“melt the ice and toss a girl in.” There was much more to it, of course,
including constructing an underwater tank with portholes, developing special
cameras and waterproof makeup, and devising precision water ballets—in
Technicolor, no less. Audiences responded with great enthusiasm.

Esther’s movies were sheer escapism and didn’t pretend to be
anything more. She never disparaged her years at MGM, but I think she was
prouder of her achievements as a swimmer. She regretted missing out on the 1940
Olympic Games—which were canceled because of the war in Europe—but she never
lacked for confidence. As she explained, “the champion spirit isn’t anything
that goes away.” It held her in good stead to the very end of her life.

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