Competitive swimmer, actress, swimsuit designer. Esther Williams born in Los Angeles, California, on August 8, 1921. Sometimes called “America’s Mermaid,” Esther Williams helped popularize synchronized swimming through a string of hugely popular films in the 1940s and 1950s. The youngest of five children, she suffered a great personal at an early age when her older brother, Stanton, a promising actor, died at the age of sixteen. Soon after his death, Williams found a respite from her sadness by learning to swim. She even got a job at a local swimming pool near her house to earn free swimming time.
As a teenager, Esther Williams was a member of the Los Angeles Athletic Club swim team. She won several national swimming competition events in 1939 and hoped to compete at the 1940 Olympic Games. But the Olympics were canceled because of World War II. Disappointed, she took a job at an upscale department store. But she did not stay on land for long. Producer Billy Rose asked to audition for his swimming and diving show called Aquacade in San Francisco. She landed the lead role opposite Johnny Weissmuller, best known as Tarzan in the popular Tarzan film series.
After the show ended, Esther Williams returned to Los Angeles and eventually landed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios. Around this time, her brief first marriage to Leonard Kovner ended. She made her film debut in Andy Hardy’s Double Life with Mickey Rooney in 1942. Williams made a bigger splash, however, with her first swimming movie, 1944’s Bathing Beauty with Red Skelton. To film the elaborate synchronized swimming scenes, a special pool was built with all sorts of cranes and lifts to capture the action on film. It became one of the most popular films of that year. The next year she married singer and actor Ben Gage.
Although not an especially good actress, Esther Williams was a sight to see in the water. She starred in a number of aquatic musicals, including Thrill of a Romance, Neptune’s Daughter, and Million Dollar Mermaid. People around the world flocked to movie theaters to see the graceful Williams work her magic on screen, making her an international superstar. Unfortunately, her life – both professionally and personally – hit a rocky period in the late 1950s. Her marriage to Gage ended in divorce, and she had some misses at the box office.
In the 1960s, Esther Williams had almost completely stepped out of the limelight. At request of her third husband, actor Fernando Lamas, she stopped acting. The couple stayed together until his death in 1982. Instead of performing, Williams focused business interests. After endorsing swimsuits in 1940s and 1950s, she designed her own swimsuit line, the Esther Williams Swimsuit Collection. She also put her name on a line of backyard swimming pools. Both businesses are still thriving today.
Now in her eighties, Esther Williams remains active despite a recent health setback. In 2007, she told Good Morning America’s Diane Sawyer during a television interview that she had suffered a stroke, but that did not slow her down for long. In time, she recovered and returned to swimming.
Esther Williams lives in Beverly Hills, California, with fourth husband Edward Bell. She has three children from her second marriage to Ben Gage.