Esther Williams, the swimming star of MGM's Technicolor musicals in the 1940s and 50s, died Thursday morning at home in Beverly Hills at age 91. A national champion swimmer in freestyle and the breaststroke, she lost out on the 1940 Olympics due to World War II. Then she was discovered and survived a screen test with Clark Gable. "Esther’s movies were sheer escapism and didn’t pretend to be anything more," says Leonard Maltin.
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 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 Montalban.
Some people I’ve spoken to don’t understand how a swimmer could have become a movie star...Esther’s movies were sheer escapism and didn’t pretend to be anything more.