Esther Williams was the undisputed queen bee of one of the most baffling Hollywood sub-genres: the Aqua Musicals of the 40s and 50s. No one rose out of the pool depths—with a smile, no less—quite like Williams. But who was she really? Competitive athlete? Pretty pin-up? Feisty feminist? Kept woman? Williams somehow managed to be, at different times in her life, all of these things and more. Let’s dive a little deeper into these facts about Esther Williams, Hollywood’s mermaid.
1. She Was Born In The Right Place
Before Esther Williams’ birth, her family had relocated to Los Angeles because of her big brother’s burgeoning film career. Esther was born soon after the move, and dad hadn’t had a chance to build any bedrooms in their new home. So, in 1921, the living room became the delivery room for baby Esther. But even that inauspicious beginning almost never happened.
2. She Almost Didn’t Make It
When she got older, Esther Williams made a disturbing discovery. She learned that she was an unwanted child. She was the fifth of five and her mother was done raising children. When she was carrying Esther, Bula Williams tried to end the pregnancy. Her unsuccessful attempts included going horseback riding and jumping from furniture.
Bula didn’t lose Esther—but she did get her wish in a horrifically twisted way.
3. She Suffered A Family Tragedy
Esther Williams wasn’t the only star in the family—her older brother Stanton actually had a show biz break of his own. Academy Award-nominated actress Marjorie Rambeau noticed him and thought he had a chance in movies. Stanton made two films—but then, the unthinkable happened. Stanton’s colon suddenly burst, and he didn’t survive. Sadly, there was more tragedy awaiting the Williams family.
4. She Was Found Alone
About five years after Stanton passed, William’s mother—maybe in an effort to replace her lost son—invited 16-year-old Buddy McClure to join the family. McClure had recently lost his mother, and so the fit seemed perfect. But McClure was hiding a terrifying dark side. Late one night McClure caught young Esther alone, and raped her.
Esther kept what had happened to herself, living in fear of her parents’ houseguest, for two long years—but the ordeal didn’t end there.
5. She Held Onto The Trauma
Williams finally confessed what had happened to her mother, who confronted McClure. While he did admit to her what happened, she took mercy on him—at first. Eventually, she kicked him out, and the family never saw him again. Esther Williams needed an outlet to move on from this horrible period, and she eventually found one that would change her life altogether.
6. Her Hobby Helped Her Move On
Williams found solace in the water, and became interested in competitive swimming. While the ocean was fine, she preferred pools, and took a job counting towels to ensure her admission at the local one. She also found a quick leg up by learning strokes that other female swimmers didn’t practice, including the butterfly. It seems strange that something as small as a swimming stroke could be such a game-changer, but indeed, it was…
7. She Got Discovered
After Esther Williams won three US national championships in swimming, impresario Billy Rose noticed her skill and beauty. Rose was running a show called Aquacade, which was an over-the-top music, dance, and swimming extravaganza. Rose offered Williams a part in the show to replace a departing performer. A stunned Williams jumped at the job—but she soon ran into trouble.
8. She Fought Off A Star
While working in Aquacade, Williams co-starred with Olympic swimmer and actor Johnny Weissmuller. Later, in her memoir, Williams spilled the tea about her heartthrob co-star. Williams wrote that Weissmuller was constantly trying to seduce her, but the Tarzan portrayer’s ape-like attempts at courtship didn’t impress Williams.
She ended up turning him down—repeatedly. Besides, Williams had her eye on someone much more dependable than a Hollywood actor.
9. She Played It Safe
When attending Los Angeles City College, Esther Williams had met doctor-in-training Leonard Kovner and fell hard. The two tied the knot on June 27, 1940, near San Francisco—but their whirlwind romance wasn’t the fairy tale that Williams expected. She said of her husband: “he was smart, handsome, dependable…and dull.” Ouch.
Williams tried, but their union couldn’t stand the test of time, and they divorced after four years. Unfortunately, there was more disappointment in Williams’ future.
10. Her Hopes Were Dashed
By 1940, Esther Williams had set her sights on the Olympics Games. That year, Japan was the host city—but then, tragedy struck. Tensions that were leading to WWII caused the IOC to cancel the Olympics. Williams’ dreams of winning gold were completely shattered. So, she did what any resourceful athlete would do: she switched to acting.
11. She Received An Offer
Twentieth Century Fox and MGM were studio competitors. It turned out that Twentieth Century Fox had an athlete in its acting corral—figure skater Sonja Henie—and so Louis B. Mayer wanted one for MGM. Mayer reached out to Williams and offered her a contract. But Williams was no pushover: She had the guts to make Mayer agree to two demands.
12. She Wanted Fame Her Way
Williams took one look at Mayer’s contract and made him promise two things. First, she’d get nine months to learn how to sing, dance, and most importantly, act. Williams wanted to really take Hollywood by storm. But it was Williams’ second demand that showed her true passion: she wanted a pass to The Beverly Hills Hotel swimming pool. I guess the love of chlorine was still in her blood.
13. She Got Used
Williams was soon ready for her big-screen break—but sadly, it would take another star’s downfall to make it happen. Screen legend Lana Turner had just eloped with musician and all-around womanizer Artie Shaw, and MGM didn’t like it. Turner was up for a leading role opposite Clark Gable but MGM suddenly retracted it and offered the part to Williams.
There was just one problem. Turner really wanted to be in the movie—and she’d do almost anything to do it.
14. They Left Her High And Dry
But this wasn’t just a simple feud between starlets—and MGM was using their position to manipulate both women. See, they’d only offered the part in Somewhere I’ll Find You to Williams in order to get Lana Turner to do what they wanted. But Turner was committed and eventually found her way back into the film—leaving Williams high and dry. She needed something to jumpstart her career. Luckily, it was just around the corner.
15. She Borrowed Some Jokes
The same conflict that had taken her Olympic dreams away now provided Williams with a break. Because of WWII, US servicemen needed entertainment. Williams wasn’t an A-list actor, so she received the less-than-glamorous role of entertaining in hospitals. To find material, Williams and her publicity assistant tuned into the radio shows of comedians Bob Hope and Jack Benny and literally copied their jokes.
Anything for the US army! But Williams also came up with a few hilarious bits of her own.
16. They Said No
Part of her hospital routine involved dragging servicemen on stage to do fake screen tests. The scenes for the tests were very romantic in nature, but the lines the servicemen had to say were always rejecting Williams’ amorous advances. This, of course, would cause the injured audience to erupt in laughter. But then, Williams would do something that made it impossible for the GI to refuse her.
17. Her Wardrobe Functioned
Just as the serviceman had denied Williams’ flirtatious advances many times, Williams pulled her tear-away clothes—both sweater and skirt—and revealed her outfit underneath: a gold lame swimsuit. At this point, no man could say no, and the scene would end with a playful kiss. Williams’ popularity with men in service was rising—but no one expected what came next.
18. She Became A Trophy
In 1943, a signed photo of Williams became part of an international and very unofficial competition. The servicemen in the navies of various countries fought over the photograph in a series of competitions—but they went way too far. One of the competitions left four men hospitalized. All this fuss over a single photograph of a woman in a swimsuit!
And the signature on it? Well, there was something strange about that as well.
19. She Went Down In History
Esther Williams never actually signed the photograph that there’d been such a fuss over. There were two friends in the Royal Australian Navy and one of them, as a joke, signed a photograph of Williams to his friend. He wrote, “To my own Georgie, with all my love and a passionate kiss.” The competition for this forged photograph became so famous the story was retold in a documentary in 2007.
Still, it got her name and face out there—and people found it hard to forget.
20. She Stole The Show
In 1944, Esther Williams finally got her chance to shine on screen. She appeared with comedic actor Red Skelton in a film that was supposed to have the title Mr. Coed. The story was about a man who, in order to get back with his swimmer fiancée, enrolled in a women’s college. The studio was so impressed with Williams’ work on the film, that they changed the title to Bathing Beauty to take the focus away from Skelton and on to Williams. And boy, did it ever work.
21. She Made A Big Splash
To promote Bathing Beauty, MGM flooded the media with photos of Esther Williams in her bathing suit—even though there weren’t that many swimming scenes in the actual movie. For the premiere at the Astor theater, MGM ordered up a billboard an enormous six stories high. On it was Williams, diving straight into Times Square.
The ad’s cheeky slogan read: “Come on in! The story’s fine.” Williams had found her niche—and MGM was going to exploit it.
22. They Invested In Her
Bathing Beauty went on to become a huge commercial success and MGM saw a future in swimming-themed films. They invested some serious money into Williams as a box office draw. On the MGM lot, they constructed a pool—but it wasn’t just any ordinary pool. It was an enormous square: 90 feet by 90 feet and 25 feet deep.
The pool cost a cool $250,000 and also had a special camera that followed Williams’ every stroke. There was, however, a more dangerous entity lurking in the pool’s depths.
23. She Got A Lift
At the center of MGM’s pool was a hydraulic lift, which they used to raise Williams out of the water—50 feet above the surface of the pool. Williams described it like she was “Venus on the half-shell.” Venus or no Venus—the contraption was an accident waiting to happen. As we’ll see, it eventually made a victim out of Williams.
24. She Was Gold
MGM was becoming aware that swimming movies were box office gold. So they took any old script they had lying around and changed it into a swimming movie. Williams later said that all MGM did was “change my leading man and the water in the pool.” Williams knew she was making money for MGM, and it seemed to be going to her head.
25. She Stood Up To A Tyrant
MGM head honcho Louis B. Mayer was a scary man. When he scolded his stars, they usually just took it—but not Esther Williams. She once told a stunned Mr. Mayer to stop yelling at her, and that he couldn’t scream at her until he could reach the end of the pool faster than her. And Mayer wasn’t the only recipient of her rage…
26. She Knew Her Value
Williams understood that she wouldn’t be receiving any nods from the Academy for her acting. But she was also acutely aware of how much money her films were making for MGM. She once told Deborah Kerr, who appeared in more serious films for MGM, that all she had to do was make one of her low-brow water movies, and it would pay for two of Kerr’s more highbrow ones. Bam!
Williams knew her worth—well, at least she did at work. Elsewhere? That was a different story.
27. She Gave Love A Second Chance
Williams’ first marriage ended because her husband was dull—so for marriage number two, Williams did a complete U-turn. Ben Gage was a singer and actor who Williams had three children with—but their supposed happily ever after had a chilling dark side. Gage was also an alcoholic and a parasite who wasted $10 million of her money. So, I guess that’s the going rate for taking a walk on the wild side.
28. She Had Problems Down South
In 1947, Esther Williams was busy in Mexico working on Fiesta with Fantasy Island star Ricardo Montalban. That’s when her wild husband Gage decided to show up on location, presumably to make Williams’ life miserable. Gage got into a fight with a staff member of the hotel, and then got taken away by the local authorities. The next move? The Mexican government asked Gage to leave the country and never return again. But this wasn’t the worst problem on the set of Fiesta.
29. Fiesta Was No Party
While filming Fiesta in Mexico, Williams witnessed series of disturbing catastrophes. More than a few of the stuntmen were actually gored by the bulls—which they miraculously survived. But more dangerous than the bulls was the cuisine. The director of photography and another crew member decided to try the local street food: Both of them contracted cholera and subsequently died. But there was more danger in store for Williams in her next film.
30. She Hit Rock Bottom
Films which included swimming were new to Hollywood, so the costume designers were often at a loss as to how to create outfits that could tolerate getting soaked. One such outfit was a plaid flannel piece for 1947’s This Time For Keeps. The thing got so heavy when it got wet that it dragged a horrified Williams to the bottom of the pool.
31. She Chose Her Birthday Suit
Williams was stuck at the bottom of a pool, weighted down with her flannel swimsuit. The young star was running out of air, and realized she only had two choices: drown or de-suit. What a horrible decision to make. Of course, Williams chose the latter, but had to shamefully resurface wearing nothing but a smile. All this swimsuit frustration led Williams to a new career.
32. She Dressed The Navy
In 1952, Esther Williams noticed that the women in the US Navy had rather shapeless swimming suits as part of their uniforms. At the time, Williams was a spokesperson for Cole swimwear, and she put forward a Cole design as a potential replacement. After Williams modeled the suit for the Secretary of the Navy, they immediately bought 50,000 of the Cole swimsuits.
Let’s hope she was on commission! Sadly, this did not fix her problems in the film industry.
33. She Wore A Dangerous Crown
The film was 1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid—a biopic about Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman. The first problem was the costume. The designer used 50,000 gold sequins, which was a lot of weight, especially if you’re swimming in it. To make matters worse, she also had to wear a crown made of aluminum—it wasn’t heavy but it was rigid. Then, there was the dive.
34. She Took A Precarious Plunge
While wearing this elaborate outfit, director Mervyn LeRoy expected Williams to perform an outrageous stunt. He wanted her to dive from a height of 60 feet—remember that lift I warned you about? Williams agreed and the hydraulic lift carried her up. Williams was already worried about the aluminum crown, but she bravely continued with the stunt. Once she reached 60 feet LeRoy shouted, “jump!”
She did—but it was a huge mistake.
35. She Cried For Help
Director LeRoy watched William’s dive with appreciation, called “Cut,” and then said it was time for lunch break. As the crew was heading for the food wagon, someone who was working in the wardrobe department heard a quiet cry for help. It was Williams. She was at the side of the pool, in obvious pain and in need of an ambulance.
36. She Snapped
Esther Williams later said that when the crown on her head hit the water, she heard a snapping sound from her neck and knew something was terribly wrong. Once everyone on set realized what had happened, Williams got the attention she needed. The result was 100 times worse than she could have imagined. Williams had three cracked vertebrae and needed to spend six months in a body cast. Something good, however, came from this film.
37. She Had A Favorite
Esther Williams often stated that Million Dollar Mermaid was her favorite film. There must be some truth to it, as she named her autobiography after it. But there was something a little more scandalous that made the film special. Williams’ co-star in the film was the ruggedly handsome Victor Mature, who played a manly caveman in One Million B.C.
Williams later admitted that the two had a passionate affair during the filming of Millions Dollar Mermaid. Sadly, the body cast put an end to those racy hijinks. With Williams, however, there was always someone waiting in the wings.
38. She Met A Heartthrob
Williams met Argentine heartthrob Fernando Lamas while filming Dangerous When Wet—but the meeting almost never took place. Lamas was only interested in making important pictures and, in his mind anyway, this was not one. Producers really wanted him, so they rewrote the film to his liking. Williams was still married to Gage at the time, but she kept her crush on Lamas long after filming concluded.
39. She Flopped
Esther Williams had made over $80 million for MGM, but that didn’t stop them from treating her badly after one of her films flopped. The movie was 1955’s Jupiter’s Darling, which had Williams playing a Roman woman named Amytis who helped the military commander Hannibal cross the Tiber River. So, a historical musical romance. Sounds cheesy? Well, audiences thought so too.
The film tanked and MGM fired Williams without fanfare or even a simple thank you. Don’t worry though, she wasn’t one to let something like that go.
40. She Took Her Revenge
Two decades later, Williams finally went head-to-head with the studio who’d treated her so poorly and put her life in danger. It seemed that MGM used scenes from her films in their compilation movie That’s Entertainment! Williams became outraged when she realized the studio had neither consulted nor given her any profits from the film. MGM settled with her out of court. Let’s just hope she got an Olympic pool-sized settlement.
41. She Cozied Up To The Competition
After MGM dumped her, Williams’ marriage to Gage was definitely on the rocks. She’d already had her affair with Victor Mature, next was Jeff Chandler. Chandler was on contract with competing studio Universal Pictures and was one of their most bankable stars. Williams and Chandler were on the verge of tying the knot—until Chandler gave her the surprise of her life.
42. She Had A Shock
Williams tells the story of walking into her bedroom, and seeing Chandler in a way she’d never seen him before: dressed in a gown, wig, and high heels. Chandler had a reputation for being very manly: all six foot five inches of him. Williams ended the relationship immediately and told no one—well, until her autobiography came out.
43. She Experimented
Shortly after the shocking end to her relationship with Chandler, Williams was looking for help. She’d heard that fellow Hollywood star Cary Grant had found an unusual way to deal with his mental problems. Williams immediately contacted Grant and found out his secret. It was LSD, which Williams later called: “instant psychoanalysis.”
44. She Called It Quits
By 1959, Esther Williams had finally had it with her husband’s mishandling of her hard-earned cash. With Gage watching the books, they were in debt to the IRS for the sum of $750,000. Williams wanted a divorce, so she stated her case to the judge. What she said was unforgettable. She told him, “I’m really tired of being what my husband does for a living.”
What could the judge say? He granted the divorce.
45. She Became a Companion
Remember how Williams had put a pin in Argentine actor Fernando Lamas? Well, now that she was single, she was ready to remove that pin and enjoy herself—especially after her miserable existence with her crooked ex-husband Gage. So, in 1961, Williams and Lamas became official companions. Unfortunately, Lamas was not without his quirks.
46. She Went Back In Time
To say Lamas had an old-fashioned idea about relationships is a huge understatement. He wanted a wife that would do all the cleaning and cooking and fetch him drinks when he ordered them. He even burned all of Williams’ pictures of her ex-husband—because he didn’t want to have any memories of another man touching her.
Even knowing all this, Williams still chose to move forward with the relationship.
47. She Made A Difficult Choice
Before Lamas would agree to marry Williams, he asked her to do something extreme. He wanted her to give up her career. Of course, it was inconceivable. Or was it? Here’s what Williams had to say about agreeing to the arrangement: “I loved being a Latin wife—you get treated very well.” Really Esther? If this wasn’t enough, control freak Lamas had an even darker demand.
48. She Was Under His Spell
Lamas was uncomfortable with Williams’ children from her previous marriage to Gage. He said that they reminded him that his wife wasn’t a virgin when they met—excuse me? Williams was 40 years old at this time. Lamas made an ultimatum: cut ties with the children or lose him forever. Surely, the choice was obvious—but don’t underestimate the hold Lamas had on Williams.
49. She Gave It All Away
Shockingly, Williams chose Lamas over her children. So there she was: no career, no children, just her husband. Yes, she was secretly making and delivering meals to the kids, but Lamas forbade them from having a real relationship. You’d think this marriage didn’t have a chance, but Williams’ description of it was jaw-dropping.
She said her marriage to Lamas was “the apple in the sky.” Well, this apple might have been a little rotten. Still, Williams stayed with Lamas until he died from cancer in 1982.
50. She Rose From The Ashes
Once Lamas was out of her life, Williams got back into hers. First, she got back with her kids, which must have been a long-overdue reunion. The next stop was her career. She no longer wanted to act, but she took the opportunity to launch her own line of swimwear, which is still on sales racks today. But what about her career as a swimmer?
51. She Got Her Olympic Moment
Even though Williams never got to compete in the Olympic Games, the public recognized her during a momentous occasion. It was 1984, and Los Angeles was the host for the summer games. Williams felt excitement that the games were in her hometown, and even more excitement that this was the first year that the games would include her sport: synchronized swimming.
That year, Williams received the unofficial title of the “godmother of synchronized swimming.”
52. She Ended Up At Sea
In 1994, Esther Williams walked down the aisle for a final time. Her husband was actor/writer Edward Bell, who was 14 years her junior. The two remained married until Williams’ death from natural causes on June 6, 2013. In a fitting tribute to Williams’ love of spending time in water, she arranged to have her ashes tossed in the Pacific Ocean.