Esther Williams, a teen swimming champion who turned into a beloved star of MGM's aquatic movies in the 1940s and 50s, has passed away. Her publicist Harlan Boll reveals that the actress died peacefully in her sleep early Thursday, June 6 in Beverly Hills. She was 91.
Williams initially dreamed of competing for the Olympic Games in U.S. swim team. She won at least three gold medals in the national championship and was set to represent the country in the 1940 Summer Olympics in Finland, but her dream was crushed when the Games was canceled because of World War II.
She was later spotted by MGM's producer while doing a bathing beauty job at a World's Fair and offered a chance to try her hands at acting as the company was looking to follow their rival 20th Century Fox which tapped Olympian gold medalist Sonja Henie to star in a series of commercially-success ice-skating movies.
"Frankly I didn't get it," she at first laughed at the idea of becoming a movie star. "If they had asked me to do some swimming scenes for a star, that would have made sense to me. But to ask me to act was sheer insanity." But she agreed to at least give it a try because, like her mother said, "No one can avoid a challenge in life without breeding regret, and regret is the arsenic of life."
Williams was first introduced in an Andy Hardy movie, starring as Mickey Rooney's love interest, and her debut got positive response. "They did a sequence where I swam with Mickey, underwater kiss, which was my idea," she once said. "They didn't think you could kiss anybody underwater without drowning."
Seeing her potentials, MGM promoted her as a leading star in "Bathing Suit" which turned into a smash hit. The company then built a $250,000 swimming pool for her. It was stocked with special effect equipment to create extravagant scenes like fireworks and colored fountains, and a hydraulic lift that could raise her 50 feet out of the water.
Williams starred in a dozen of movies including "Jupiter's Darling" and "Million Dollar Mermaid". A mixture of romance, comedy and underwater spectacle, they were relatively well-received, but she felt the need to break out of her comfort zone. She begged MGM for a more serious role in non-swimming film, which they rejected but later reluctantly, gave to her.
Her most successful non-aquatic movie was "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" where she played an owner of a baseball team which players included Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. "MGM made money off me, but they never understood the art form," she once said. "Not until the fifth picture did I even get a choreographer."
Her love life, unfortunately, was not as bright as her acting career. At 17, she married pre-med student Leonard Kovner whom she supported by working at a department store. The marriage ended in divorce which cost her $1,500, all the money she had saved at the time.
Her second husband was Ben Gage, with whom she had three children. She lost even more money as he spent $10 million of her saving on alcohol, gambling and failed business ventures and neglected taxes. By the time they split in 1959, he left her a massive debt, $750,000, to the Internal Revenue Service.
She tied the knot for a third time with actor/director Fernando Lamas. According to New York Times, he helped her to swim the English Channel in "Dangerous When Wet" (1953). He was the first man who gave her money rather than taking it from her, but it came with a heavy price. Her children were reportedly not allowed to live with them or even to come to their wedding.
After Lamas died, she married Edward Bell, a professor of French literature 10 years her junior. After making her final movie in 1961, she started a swimwear line and taught kids to swim. "I've been a lucky lady," she said. "I've had three exciting careers."
Aside from being a box-office draw for MGM, Williams was also appreciated for her swimming skill and influence on synchronized swimming. She was a 1966 honoree of the Florida-based International Swimming Hall of Fame.
In the wake of her passing, three-time Olympic gold medal swimmer Rowdy Gaines tweeted, "Esther Williams...our first female Michael Phelps...RIP." Her stepson, actor Lorenzo Lamas, wrote on his own page, "The best swim teacher and soul mom RIP #EstherWilliams."