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 Montalban.
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.