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Remembering Esther Williams

by Leonard Maltin
June 6, 2013 8:32 PM
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Get in the Swim-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.”

Photoplay-Esther Williams

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.

Modern Screen-Esther Williams

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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  • Norm | June 7, 2013 4:59 PMReply

    Esther Williams apparently a woman who well focused, knew what she wanted, and how to achieve goals. Out swimming Mayer across the Atlantic could probably have been another accomplishment, especially against a man who had little respect for people or time itself.
    From what I could see of Esther Williams was that she is a Champion , in and out of the water, easy on the eyes and yet commanded respect,what more could anyone be ? A famous talented person who was larger than life, yet the ego didn't enter the room first...God Bless...

  • Patrick Picking | June 7, 2013 4:08 PMReply

    In 1999 after my friend Ann Rutherford fell and broke her leg at TCM studios her doctor recommended she get exercise by swimming. Ann called Esther Williams for advice and Esther sent her pool man over to get Ann's pool back in shape!

  • Jessica Pickens | June 7, 2013 3:22 PMReply

    This was a beautiful column, Mr. Maltin. I'm only 24, but Esther Williams is one of my favorite film stars of the classic era. From interviews and her autobiography, you can tell she had no airs about her, felt her whole film career was an accident and that she simply loved to swim.
    Thank you for sharing your memories and writing so beautifully. As a young reporter, I hope one day I can be as well respected as you.

  • Annette | June 7, 2013 10:24 AMReply

    Typo: "And my relationship from then one was one where on the lot"
    Loved Esther! She was an amazing talent!

  • Lokke Heiss | June 6, 2013 10:01 PMReply

    I met Esther Williams, in of all places, a lapidary shop. At least that's what it was mostly, also being a store of jee-jaws, knickknacks and various outdoor equivalents of pink flamingos. As team Esther cruised through the place, she looked right, looked left and she barked orders: 'I want one of those...two of these three of that!' But we weren't talking about little paperweights here; we were talking picnic benches, large outdoor fountains and huge potted palms. In ten minutes, she'd cleaned out a sizable portion of the store, and her helpers were scurrying like beavers trying to load all of purchases into a van. I thought about telling her how much I liked her movies, but she had the air of someone who didn't want to be bothered, and more to the point, I didn't have anything to really ask her. There were no unsolved mysteries with her name somehow attached, no aquatic version of a sled named Rosebud. I think one of her attractions was that for her, being an actress...being a star, was very simple: What you see is what you get...and I say that as a compliment.

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