After attending the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, Esther Williams set her cap on becoming a world-renowned swimming champion. By the time she was 15, she was well on her way to achieving that goal; within a few years, she had won such events as the Women's Outdoor Nationals and the Pacific Coast Championships, and had set records for the 100- and 220-meter swims. Sorely disappointed when the advent of World War II forced the cancellation of the 1940 Olympics in Finland, Williams cut her losses by going to work for Billy Rose's San Francisco Aquacade. It was here that she was spotted by an MGM talent scout, who cast Williams in a supporting role in Andy Hardy's Double Life (1942). Hoping that their new discovery would surpass the popularity of 20th Century-Fox's skating queen Sonja Henie, MGM began grooming Williams for stardom, completely refashioning her third film, the modest 1944 Red Skelton comedy Mister Bride, into the Technicolor superspectacular Bathing Beauty. Williams immediately clicked with the public, and for the next decade she starred in one musical comedy after another, warbling the Oscar-winning tune "Baby It's Cold Outside" in Neptune's Daughter (1949) and trading steps with Gene Kelly in Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949). As her popularity soared--she was among the top ten box office stars in 1949 and 1950--MGM went out of its way to make her swimming sequences more complex and elaborate with each new picture, freshening up the act with trapezes, hang-gliders and fiery hoops. Her string of successes came to a halt with her last MGM release, the unsuccessful Jupiter's Darling (1955). Now a free-lancer, Williams tried to gain acceptance as a dramatic actress, turning in worthwhile performances in such films as The Unguarded Moment (1956) and Raw Wind in Eden (1958), but the public wasn't buying. She returned to what she did best, starring in annual TV aquacades and acting as spokeswoman for her own swimming-pool company. She closed out her film career in 1961, shunning the spotlight for the next 15 years and devoting her time to her third husband Fernando Lamas, her children (including stepson Lorenzo Lamas) and her many business activities. She made headlines in 1974 when she sued MGM for unauthorized use of her films in the 1974 anthology That's Entertainment (evidently she came to terms with her old studio; in 1994, she was one of the narrators for That's Entertainment Part III). After Fernando Lamas' death in 1982, Williams returned to the limelight, promoting such money-spinning enterprises as a line of "modest" swimwear. Still a strikingly beautiful woman, Esther Williams remains a top attraction on the interview and talk-show circuit, offering candid, self-effacing and unpretentious observations on Hollywood's so-called Golden Age. Williams passed away in 2013 at the age of 91.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Took on her first job at age 8 as a towel girl at a local swimming pool.
- Was a champion swimmer, and qualified for the 1940 U.S. Olympic team, though the games were canceled when WWII broke out.
- Broke into show business opposite Johnny Weismuller in the San Francisco Aquacade, an aquatic-themed stage musical review.
- Has had successful licensing agreements for a number of products, lending her own brand name to swimming pools and swimsuits.
- Retired from film in the early '60s at the insistence of her then-husband Fernando Lamas.
- Wrote her autobiography, Million Dollar Mermaid, in 1999 with co-author Digby Diehl.