Bathing Beauty: The Wet and Wild Life of Esther Williams

On the day of her TCM tribute, we recall Hollywood's gleaming, improbable star and her Technicolor water ballets

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / AP

Esther Williams on location for the film "Pagan Love Song, in May 1950.

Esther Williams, 22, hazel-eyed, streamlined Hollywood aquabelle, became an unwitting accessory to crime last week when one Allen Artenchuck confessed the theft of six reels of Esther’s film, Bathing Beauty, from a Brooklyn theater on the grounds that “Esther Williams is the most gorgeous creature I have ever seen. When I could not have her, I made up my mind to get the film.”

TIME, Dec. 11, 1944

Such was the effect of a pretty girl in a bathing suit, not just on a besotted Brooklynite but also on the mass of moviegoers at the American midcentury. In a popular series of MGM musicals from Bathing Beauty to the 1955 Jupiter’s Darling, Esther Williams would doff her robe, revealing a sleek one-piece swimming costume, dive into a pool and, as film critic James Agee wrote, go “lolloping in a friendly way before underwater cameras.” And, like Mickey Rooney — who, in Williams’ feature-film debut Andy Hardy’s Double Life, is so stirred by the girl’s charms that he falls twice into a swimming pool — movie fans got all wet over Esther.

Williams, who died Jun. 6 at 91 in Los Angeles, had set a national record for the 100-meeter freestyle as a teenager, but in movies her appeal wasn’t speed, or overt sexuality, but rather an easy, self-assured radiance, in or out of the water. Where a Rita Hayworth would stoke men’s lust with the allure of exotic danger, and Jane Russell was a sullen face over two bazookas, Esther suggested the pretty girl next door, if you were lucky enough to live in an Orange County or John Cheever suburb where everyone had a backyard pool. Sleek as a seal and imperiously tall (5’8½”), with gorgeously toned arms, a beachcomber’s tan and a lustrous smile, Williams exemplified the athletic young dazzler to a country weary of war. In the 1953 Easy to Love, Van Johnson rapturously defines Esther as “all that’s beautiful, clean, decent, desirable, wholesome and commercial” — the postwar dream of the all-American girl. She was Doris Day, underwater.

(READ: an Obit of 91-year-old Esther Williams by the AP’s 91-year-old Bob Thomas)

Tonight, you can apply 2013 eyes to this ’40s-’50s phenomenon, as Turner Classic Movies lavishes 24 hours, from 8 pm Thu. to 8 pm Fri., on 13 Esther Williams movies, 12 of them swimming musicals. (Unfortunately missing: the synoptic, modestly revealing interview that Williams sat for in 1996 with TCM host Robert Osborne.) None of her movies will displace The Godfather or Citizen Kane (or, sigh, Vertigo) from your list of perennials; they fit TIME’s definitions of an Esther Williams musical as “a pretty body of water surrounded by clichés” (1950) and “so much water over the dame” (1955). But they should amply demonstrate old Hollywood’s ingenuity in concocting vivacious variation on just about any subject, including what narrator Keenan Wynn in the 1949 Neptune’s Daughter calls “a story about a guy, a girl and a bathing suit.” The movies should also validate MGM production chief Louis B. Mayer’s investment in a 22-year-old who had never acted professionally before she came to the studio, and in a building that housed the 20-foot-deep, 90-foot-by-90-foot glass-walled pool she cavorted in. It was Stage 3 — the Esther Williams Stage.

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PETER STACKPOLE / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

The Million Dollar Mermaid — a name given to the early-20th century swimmer Annette Kellerman but applied to Williams when she starred in the Kellerman biopic of that title—  knew her limitations. As she told a journalist early in her career: “I know I can’t act. I know I can’t dance. I can’t sing, but I’m going to keep trying until I get it right.” (She got it right in Neptune’s Daughter: her duet with Ricardo Montalban of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” spurred that Frank Loesser hit to an Oscar as the year’s best song.) All she did was to create a genre that didn’t exist before, and has been neither duplicated nor even imitated since, and to inspire the Olympic sport of synchronized swimming. First demonstrated at the 1952 Olympics, the year of Williams’ Million Dollar Mermaid, the sport finally became a recognized Olympic event in 1984. Esther served as the TV commentator. The woman who made the cover of Life as the “Mermaid Tycoon” was a smart businesswoman, franchising her own lines of swimming pools and bathing wear.

(READ: Esther Williams and Her Liquid Assets)

We hear you asking: MGM musicals about swimming? Why? Hollywood had turned Olympic gold-medal swimmers into movie icons — Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe played Tarzan, and Eleanor Holm was Weissmuller’s love interest in the 1938 Tarzan’s Revenge — but none of them starred in films built around their specialty sport. That was the innovation of 20th Century-Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck, who in 1936 launched the Norwegian skater Sonja Henie, a three-time Olympic champion in the Ladies’ Singles event, in a series of nine crowd-pleasing movies in which she would skate and others would sing and act. (A decade earlier, German director Arnold Fanck created a half-dozen dramas that showcased mountain climbing and starred the young Leni Riefenstahl, who later would direct Olympia, a film record of the 1936 Berlin Games.) Noting the box-office appeal of the Henie films, MGM’s Mayer told his minions, “Melt the ice, get a swimmer, make it pretty.” The swimmer was Williams.

SWIMMING UPSTREAM

The youngest of the five children born to Louis, a sign painter, and his wife Bula, a psychologist, Esther Jane Williams was not supposed to have been the movie star in the family. Her brother Stanton, nine years older, had been chosen to join the company of Broadway actress Marjorie Rambeau when she was touring in Salt Lake City, where the Williamses, Kansas natives who fled west, then lived. To follow Stanton’s Hollywood star, the family moved to nearby Inglewood, where Esther was born on Aug. 8, 1921. Stanton appeared in only two 1920 films, and died of a ruptured colon at 16, in 1929. Thirty years later, as Williams relates in  her 1999 autobiography, Million Dollar Mermaid, she followed Cary Grant’s advice and took some LSD. She says she found the drug therapeutic, for under its spell she had a vision that she was half-boy — half-Stanton — suggesting that she went into films to fulfill the promise of her dead brother.

(READ: What Cary Grant got from LSD)

Perhaps as a way of replacing Stanton, mother Bula invited another boy, Buddy McClure, who had recently lost his own mother, to move in with the family; Esther was 14. In her autobiography, Williams relates that Buddy raped her repeatedly for two years and that, when he finally admitted his crime, Esther’s parents were sympathetic to him. She says it was she who threw him out of the house.

After Stanton and before Buddy, Esther was always in the water, at nearby Manhattan Beach or at a public pool where her first job was counting the towels. The lifeguards there taught her men’s as well as women’s strokes, and she realized she had both the power and the ambition to excel. Deprived of an opportunity to swim in the Pan-American Games — by a spiteful woman coach, she says — Williams entered the Women’s Outdoor Nationals in 1939, winning the 100-meter freestyle and setting a record in the 100-meter breaststroke. She was close to realizing her ambition as an Olympic medalist in Helsinki. But World War II intervened, and Esther’s heart broke: the 1940 games were canceled.

(READ: TIME’s coverage of the cancellation of the 1940 Olympic Games)

The same year, Williams performed with Weissmuller in the 1940 San Francisco production of Billy Rose’s Aquacade. (Weissmuller had starred with Holm in the original edition at the 1939 New York World’s Fair; Crabbe replaced him.) Soon promoted to costar, Williams saw her salary jacked from $78 per month to $150 a week. For Esther, though, the Aquacade was just a lark, a vacation from her job as a buyer in the I. Magnin department store; she was planning a career in retail.

And though she developed stage performance technique to complement her swimming skills, Williams wasn’t crazy about her water duets with Weissmuller. “There’s something about the water that’s very sensuous,” she told TCM’s Osborne. “I had to put my feet around [Weissmuller's] waist. I’m swimming backstroke and he’s swimming crawl. And he’s coming at me.” He was also coming at her backstage, dropping his suit and pleading for another backstroke. “This is very tacky,” she recalled to Osborne. “I was right to think about the retail business.”

(READ: TIME’s 1939 cover story on Billy Rose’s Aquacade

Spotted by an MGM scout at the Aquacade, Esther was summoned to Mr. Mayer’s office and told the world’s most powerful film boss that she wasn’t interested in movies. “But the one that said no,” she told Osborne, “is the one they had to have.” Williams was grateful to Mayer for molding her movie career, but also derisive of him, as a tall woman may be of a short man. “I always thought he had the best view in town of all those leading ladies, because he was right there at the cleavage.” Of Mayer and his staff of diminutive executives, she said, “I felt like Snow White with the dwarfs.”

A never-before-published image of competitive swimmer and MGM movie star Esther Williams.
EDWARD CLARK / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

The poised 19-year-old who didn’t want to be a star was tickled, not threatened, by the mogul’s eruptions of temper. “The tantrums were really spectacular,” she said on TCM. “I always wondered what he’d put in his mouth so he could foam at the mouth, like an Alka Seltzer or something. He would throw himself on the floor. How are you going to be frightened of a fella that throws himself on the floor and kicks his feet in the air? You know, you can’t send him to his room, like a kid.” Finally Williams insisted that “You must not yell at me… because you can’t get to the end of the pool first.” Like many men she describes in her autobiography, Mayer could chase Williams but not catch her.

(READ: Budd Schulberg’s remembrance of Louis B. Mayer)

The Million Dollar Mermaid book, which she coauthored with Digby Diehl, is chattily R-rated, full of stories about smart, sensible Esther asserting a wily independence that might be called protofeminism. When she is not speaking the blunt truth to small men in power, like Mayer and Billy Rose — who, she says, “was not only an unattractive lecher, he was also a cheap sonofabitch” — she is athletically evading the advances of famous men with large penises. After Weissmuller backstage at the Aquacade, Howard Hughes made a play for her, she avers, as did Morton Downey Sr. and Desi Arnaz. Victor Mature, her costar in the Kellerman bio-pic, is portrayed as a fully satisfying stud: “the one man I never had to teach anything to, not even how to swim.” Jeff Chandler, with whom she had an affair after appearing with him in a post-swimming movie, the 1958 Raw Wind in Eden, was a manly man, too, except when he swanned around the house in women’s dresses, high heels and makeup. “Jeff,” she supposedly told him, “you’re too big for polka dots.”

This book of Esther reads like the breeziest, raciest fiction, and some of it may be just that. For a start, she shaved a year off her birth date; other sources claim she later acknowledged that the stories about her LSD adventure and Chandler’s cross-dressing were invented simply to spur sales. Factual or not, Million Dollar Mermaid is an almost perfect Hollywood autobiography. It’s less confessional — we never really learn why this independent woman wed the Argentine actor Fernando Lamas and let him cloister her for the 13 years of their marriage — and more observational: the saucy adventures of a good Republican lady who reacted with amusement, not shock, to the jolly predations of Hollywood Babylon in its Golden Age.

(SEE: Esther Williams’ Career in Pictures)

Williams appears to recall everything she saw there, and has a photographic memory for the endowments of her pursuers. On one page, she uses the phrases “remarkable genitalia,” “extraordinary male attributes” and “beautifully equipped” to describe Weissmuller. (The book seems written for a gay fan base I didn’t know Williams had.) She says that Lamas used to drive Williams to parties wearing nothing from waist to feet, because he didn’t want to crease his trousers. “He never stopped looking for attention,” Williams told TIME’s Joel Stein when the book became a best-seller. “When my mother first met [Lamas], she said, ‘He has no underwear on.’ I said, ‘What are you doing looking there?’ And she said, ‘You never outgrow looking, but you usually see some underwear.’” Like Bula, like Esther.

A BRIEF SOCIAL HISTORY OF WHAT MEN THOUGHT ABOUT WOMEN, 1944-55

Never nominated for an Oscar, Williams received two Golden Globes: for World Film Favorite, Female, in 1952 and, four years later,  a Hollywood Citizenship Award, suggesting she picked up stray pieces of paper on Sunset Boulevard. The Artists’ League of America, apparently a group of goateed gents who spent their idle hours thinking about women’s bodies, selected Williams’ thighs (“an anomalous combination of firmness and softness“) for their list of “The Most Perfect Features” in 1949; the following year, citing her “flawlessly formed jaws and thighs,” the League named her one of the country’s 10 most beautiful women. It submitted no complementary roster of the most beautiful men and their body parts.

Esther Williams Posing in Ballerina Costume
Bettmann / Corbis

Williams in ‘Million Dollar Mermaid,’ the movie based on Annette Kellerman’s life.

Most male movie reviewers of the time shared the artists’ chivalry, aka sexism. Agee, critic for TIME as well as The Nation in the ’40s, did manage to appraise the star’s personality in Bathing Beauty: “Miss Williams, a pretty young woman in the punk of condition, should have a pleasant and pleasing career on the screen. Dry and dressed, she suggests Ginger Rogers. Wet and peeled, as she slithers her subaqueous charms before underwater cameras, she suggests a porpoise amused by its own sex appeal.” A year later, covering Thrill of a Romance, Agee wrote that Williams “has the kind of body — displayed in a protean series of bathing suits — which you may dream of but aren’t inclined to talk about at the breakfast table, and a nice, easy, assured personality to match.”

(READ: Melvin Maddocks’s review of James Agee: A Life)

In any TIME review of a Williams film, a va-va-voom description of her bathing attire was mandatory; jokes about her limited acting ability were optional. For Fiesta, 1947: “Blonde, blooming Esther Williams is about as Mexican as Harry Truman, but a lot more fun to look at.” On an Island With You, 1948: “Swimmer Williams should not have been asked to impersonate a film actress, but in her aqua-ballets and posturings in a bathing suit, she is a fine sight to see.” Neptune’s Daughter: “[H]er special gifts are apparent when she is photographed in a swim suit or in a pool. Pagan Love Song, 1951: “In the full flush of health, she glows in almost every tint of the Technicolor spectrum.” Easy to Love: “Mermaid Williams again wears a lockerful of sensational new bathing suits, and any moviegoer who observes their contents with reasonable care will see everything of importance in the film.” TIME’s review of Williams’ pool-musical finale, Jupiter’s Darling, found the writer crankily summoning Samuel Johnson’s comment about women preachers: “She even tries to act — a spectacle almost as alarming as that of the Burmese fish that climbs trees.”

OK, three things. First, women could be as skeptical of Williams’s acting as men. Fanny Brice famously said, “Wet, she’s a star. Dry, she ain’t.” (Brice might have spoken from spite: Billy Rose had divorced her a few months before he cast Esther in the Aquacade.) Second, in Williams’ pool movies, there’s not that much to ogle. She has a slim swimmer’s body, framed by the perfect horizontal line of her shoulders, but her one-piece swimsuits (popularized by Kellerman a full 30 years earlier) were visible on every beach in the country. In her films she showed no cleavage and walked like a stately, friendly model on a fashion, not a burlesque, runway. Indeed, the unusual thing about Williams was not her abbreviated dress but her cheerfulness — almost an anachronism in postwar movies, especially in the burgeoning film noir, that featured sexually avaricious women with murderous agendas.

In 1999, when Stein, a much younger TIME writer with a different take on pool couture, asked Williams, “How come all those old bathing suits are so dorky-looking?”, she replied with near-audible exasperation, “How old are you?” Told he was 28, she snapped, “God, all you’re looking at is T. and A.” All right, maybe the male view at TIME hadn’t evolved that much in a half-century.

(READ: Joel Stein’s Esther Williams Q&A on T. and A.)

Third, Williams did learn how to act in the light-comedy mode. For a few scenes in Easy to Love she summons the sultry weariness of a Hedy Lamarr or Lauren Bacall. And that little compliment is still missing the point. “Acting” is just one job she needed to perform; another was to look gorgeous while wet. She and her handlers achieved with warm baby oil, Vaseline and a very thick cream makeup that maintained her fresh appearance all day in the pool. “The hairpins,” she told Osborne, “were like crowbars.”

Esther Williams appears in Million Dollar Mermaid in 1960.
Bettmann / CORBIS

Million Dollar Mermaid

The final element in the Esther equation was Technicolor, which, back when most movies were shot in monochrome, lent every Williams location, from pool to cocktail lounge, the patina of some ethereal country club. “Technicolor,” she says in her book, “brought to life the water, the spectacles and even my own movie persona in a way that simply didn’t work in black-and-white.” And that helped her realize her primary responsibility as a film star: to impersonate an ideal version of herself. Maybe she never played a Tennessee Williams heroine. But no one was better at playing Esther Williams in MGM’s swimming musicals.

ALL SWIMMING, ALL DANCING

From the beginning of the sound era in the late 1920s, Hollywood bragged that its musicals were “All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!” The footwork was as important as the vocals, and not just for stars known as dancers. James Cagney, a hoofer on Broadway before going west, strutted his spectacular stuff as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope would break into a soft-shoe routine at least once in each Road movie. Frank Sinatra, not a dancer, endured months of instruction from Gene Kelly for their 1945 Anchors Aweigh. Fred Astaire, in his musicals without Ginger Rogers, changed partners and danced with some actresses trained in the art (Rita Hayworth, Lucille Bremer, Virginia Dale) and some not (Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Joan Leslie). Another Astaire partner, MGM star Eleanor Powell, was known only for her dance; she rarely sang and didn’t really act. In that sense, she was the precursor of Williams. Since Esther’s musicals usually climaxed with a big water ballet, she might qualify as the wet Eleanor Powell. “We invented a movie form of dancing in the water,” Williams claimed. Was she right?

Movie dancing doesn’t need tap shoes or ballet slippers. Sonja Henie used skates, and in 1937 TIME dubbed her “Astaire on Ice.” But audiences saw the grace and strength with which she moved those skates. The Williams water ballets might meet the barest definition of dance — movement to music — but movement, surely, is more restricted in water than in air; and only part of the bodies of Esther and her fellow chorines (or should we say chlorines?) were visible to the viewer. The few swimming duets she performed, as with Montalban in Neptune’s Daughter, comprised little more than synchronized backstrokes and ardent glances. The emotional eloquence of an Astaire-Rogers number like “Never Gonna Dance” from Swing Time, which sums up the characters and their longing, could not be nearly approximated in the water. Perhaps Williams achieved no more than what TIME, in its review of The Duchess of Idaho, dismissively described as “fancy splashing.”

(READ: Corliss’s tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers)

Give Williams points for degree of difficulty: keeping moviegoers entranced while she made her arduous laps and flaps look easy. It was said of Ginger Rogers that she did everything Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. Maybe Williams did everything Gene Kelly did, but in the pool.

I asked my friend Davie Lerner, the noted dance essayist who studied at the School of American Ballet on the G.I. Bill after World War II and danced briefly with George Balanchine’s Ballet Society, which in 1948 became The New York City Ballet. What Williams does in a pool, Davie said, “is definitely dance. Her backstroke is allied to ballet; the position is called en efface, but doesn’t involve as much rotation. Arabesques and bourées, common steps in ballet, are also used to enhance water dancing, particularly by Esther and her corps d’eau. In The Goldwyn Follies [1938], Balanchine choreographed Vera Zorina’s entrance coming up from underwater, dressed in a skintight gold leotard, à la Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, which then evolves into a surreal version of Swan Lake. Frederick Ashton did a ballet called Ondine, which recognizes the affinity.” As for my comparison of Esther with Kelly, Davie called that “a bit of a stretch. You can turn on a water tap, but you can’t tap on water.”

(READ: TIME’s 1954 cover story on George Balanchine)

It happens that Kelly, as star and demanding dance master, got Esther on her feet and in the water in Take Me Out to the Ball Game. And Williams’ movies attracted some distinguished choreographers. Astaire’s closest dance collaborator, Hermes Pan, designed the routines in Texas Carnival and Jupiter’s Darling. Eugene Loring, another Astaire choreographer (Funny Face, Silk Stockings), worked with Esther on Fiesta. Billy Daniels, who had put Hope, Crosby and Goddard through their paces over at Paramount, joined MGM to choreograph Williams’ Dangerous When Wet. And Jack Donohue, a dance director for Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland on Girl Crazy, was in charge of Bathing Beauty, Easy to Wed, On an Island With You and Duchess of Idaho. It’s possible that some of these choreographers concentrated on the dry-land dancing of Williams’ costars, but at least a few of them worked on water.

Esther Williams drinking a soda.
PETER STACKPOLE / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

In considering Williams’ water ballets, the fairest comparison would be not to Fred and Ginger or Eleanor Powell, but to the ensemble dances devised by Busby Berkeley for such Warner Bros. Depression-era musicals as 42nd St. and the Gold Diggers series. These numbers massed dozens of women, sometimes dancing but often simply posing, in formations that escalated from the geometric to the hallucinogenic. Yet Berkeley, who supervised the ballets in Million Dollar Mermaid and Easy to Love, has to get in line behind John Murray Anderson. That legendary Broadway producer-director had choreographed Billy Rose’s Aquacade, and when Mayer needed a climactic ballet for Bathing Beauty, he summoned Anderson. Williams says that she and her 30 supporting water nymphs — rehearsed the big number for 10 weeks. Serving as the template for most other Williams superproductions, it deserves a closer look. Here’s one, in words.

(FIND: Million Dollar Mermaid among the all-TIME Top 25 Best Sports Movies)

The number begins with 30 girls in red-and-blue suits diving into the pool, Slinky-style, the way the Rockettes collapse in sequence in the “Wooden Soldiers” number from the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Show. They swim a few slow laps, occasionally with one arm waving (not drowning). Cue a fanfare, and Esther is seen at poolside, rising like Aphrodite on a tortoise-shell platform. She doffs her Greek tunic to reveal a sparkling silver one-piece and dives in, alternating freestyle and backstroke, while smiling at the camera, like a mermaid semaphoring, “Hello, sailor.” After a brief ensemble swim with her handmaidens, Esther goes underwater, twirling  and swimming directly toward the camera; she could be the shark in Jaws, but friendly, or a Circe with no side effects.

Esther presents a water lily to the camera. Cut to an overhead shot of a large water lily in the center of the pool. To Strauss’ Overture from Die Fledermaus, the camera pulls back to reveal the water ringed with two huge circular leis — eight girls in jackknife positions in each circle and 16 more swimming on the outer rim, kicking to propel this aquatic Ferris wheel slowly clockwise. Esther dives underwater through circles of three linked swimmers facing outward— one girl’s legs locked on the next girl’s neck. (That can’t have been easy.) Back on the surface, Esther swims past four fountains that spurt spumes at her nearness, then burst into flame as she swims by again. At the end, she rises to the surface on a platform, surrounded by the girls and the flaming fountains. The camera pulls back a last time, and a fine mist shoots up from a circular track at the edges of the pool, in a watery curtain that closes on the swimmers, as if they were onstage in Ziegfeld’s most lavish. production number. It’s probably dancing; it’s certainly showbiz magic.

(READ: John Murray Anderson’s new 1923 production, in the fourth issue of TIME)

Making it look so easy was hard, sometimes dangerous work. Berkeley insisted that Williams, five months pregnant, perform precarious water-ski stunts at Cypress Gardens for Easy to Love. And for Million Dollar Mermaid he had her execute a 50-ft. dive into a pool; she broke her neck, and production was halted for a half-year. Working underwater occasionally gave her what scuba divers call “rapture” — a drowsiness that can prove fatal. On Million Dollar Mermaid, the director, Mervyn LeRoy, saved her life by shouting, “Esther, get off the bottom of the pool!”

Though Bathing Beauty, Neptune’s Daughter and Million Dollar Mermaid could fill an agreeable triple-feature, the woman TIME dubbed its “cinemermaid” and “aquactress” made no movie masterpieces Speaking with Osborne in 1996, Williams said she didn’t have a favorite among her films: “They’re like a colorful collage. It’s as if somebody had made a beautiful quilt, and each one [movie] is like a patch on that quilt.” That definition would also fit the Hollywood glory of Esther Williams: colorful, beautiful — and washable.

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