WASHINGTON: Esther Williams, a swimming champion who went on to become a star of Hollywood’s golden era in the 1940s and 1950s, died Thursday at her home in Beverly Hills, WomanTribe reported while quoting her publicist talk with the media.
Williams passed away peacefully in her sleep, the actress’s representative Harlan Boll said. She was 91.
A teenage swim star whose Olympic aspirations were thwarted by World War II, Williams was famous for making glitzy aquatic-themed movies featuring swimming and escapism for war-weary audiences.
For a decade, she packed movie houses with her trademark mixture of athletic grace, apple-pie sincerity and stunningly glamorous swimwear that satisfied filmgoers coping with World War II rationing and a post-war economic crunch.
Her movies grossed nearly $90 million.
For “Million Dollar Mermaid” (1952), the story of swimming champion and one-piece bathing suit advocate Annette Kellerman, Williams wore no less than 28 bathing suits — the show-stopper being a gold mesh unitard that covered her from her neck to fingers to toes.
She caught the public’s eye with her second film “Bathing Beauty” in 1942, and made 18 swimming movies in the next decade.
While Williams’s few strictly dramatic roles attracted few movie-goers, ticket sales soared for the films — most choreographed by the extravagant Busby Berkeley — that grasped at any excuse to get Williams in the pool.
In “Million Dollar Mermaid,” she swam a marathon and gave swimming and diving exhibitions, and for “Neptune’s Daughter,” she modeled the designs of her own swimsuit business.
The graceful, athletic Williams was also stunning in an evening gown, showing an impressive bicep. But not everybody was a fan. “Wet she’s a star, dry she ain’t,” comic Fanny Brice once allegedly quipped.
In her later years, Williams claimed not to have been scared by the movie moguls, but had a few sharp words about the system.
“We were like an assembly line. You know how you are intimidated in a beauty salons? Imagine sitting next to Ava Gardner, or the powerful personality of Lucille Ball, or Marlene Dietrich when she was being made up in gold paint for ‘Kismet,'” she once said.
Williams was also outspoken about sexual harassment, claiming that the worst offenders were producer Billy Rose and singer Morton Downey Sr, who, she said, would stand next to her when she was 17 and detail the sexual favors he wanted.
“I hated it but I couldn’t complain,” she said in 1991. “We kept our mouths shut then. Otherwise, we couldn’t get another job.”
Born Esther Jane Williams in Inglewood, California on August 8, 1921, she began swimming at eight-years-old.
At age 15, she was discovered by a swim coach. She won a 50-yard short course breast stroke in Los Angeles on May 25, 1939. Her time was 33.1 seconds.
At age 17, she won the 100 meter freestyle in the 1939 national championships with a time of 1:09 and was on two winning relays. She was headed to the 1940 Olympics but these were canceled because of World War II.
Her first appearance in show business was in Billy Rose’s water show “Aquacade” opposite Johnny Weismuller, a US swimming champion who gained fame as Tarzan.
Williams was signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1941 and made her film acting debut in 1942 in “Andy Hardy’s Double Life,” one of the few movies in which she had a non-swimming role.
MGM ended her contract in 1955 and she retired from films in the early 1960s.
Williams married three times. In 1940, she wed college sweetheart Leonard Kovner. The marriage lasted four years.
She and husband Ben Gage, a radio announcer, had three children during their 1945-1958 marriage. Benjamin Gage was born in 1949, Kimbell in 1950 and Susan in 1953.
The third marriage was to actor Fernando Lamas in either 1963 or 1967, sources vary. The Argentine-born Lamas, also a champion swimmer, died in 1982.
After her movie career, Williams plunged into the pool construction and swimwear business but with middling success. She also continued working out, swimming laps every morning.