A Celebration of Esther Williams, Hollywood’s Mermaid

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Esther Williams, the synchronized-swimming dream girl from Technicolor movie musicals of the forties and fifties, died this morning in her sleep at the age of 91.

Raised in California, Williams was a champion swimmer when the outbreak of World War II derailed her ability to compete in the 1940 Summer Olympics. Her specialties were "male only" strokes like the butterfly. She held three national titles at the age of 16.

circa 1945:  Portrait of aquatic American actor and swimmer Esther Williams diving through the air in a one-piece swimsuit.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Photo: Hulton Archive

She signed a contract with MGM in 1941. Her debut as a leading lady came in 1944's Bathing Beauty, as seen above. In her memoir, Million Dollar Mermaid, Williams described the critical response to Bathing Beauty as "glowing."

Esther Williams, US actress and former Olympic swimmer, swimming alongside cat-and-mouse duo, Tom and Jerry, in the animated sequence which featured in the film, 'Dangerous When Wet', USA, circa 1953. The musical, directed by Charles Walters (1911-1982), starred Williams as 'Katie Higgins'. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Swimming with Tom and Jerry in 1953's Dangerous While Wet. Photo: Silver Screen Collection/2011 Silver Screen Collection

In reality, the reviews were mixed. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther found the production "gaudy," but Williams so lived up to the title that he ultimately dubbed Bathing Beauty a success:

Miss Williams' talents as a swimmer—not to mention her other attributes—make any title the studio wants to put on it okay by us. When she eels through the crystal blue water in a rosy-red bathing suit or splashes in limpid magnificence in the gaudy water carnival which John Murray Anderson has brought to pass, she's a bathing beauty for our money, even though dragged in by the heels.

WINTERHAVEN, FL - 1953:  A group of acrobatic water skiers including aquatic film star Esther Williams (far left) perform during the filming of 'Easy To Love' at Cypress Gardens theme park in 1953 near Winterhaven, Florida. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Filming Easy to Love in Florida's Cypress Gardens in 1953. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives

Williams quickly became one of Hollywood's most bankable actresses, starring in dozens of films. The Associated Press's obituary recounts how Williams "laughed as much as anyone" at Funny Girl Fanny Brice's dig, "Esther Williams? Wet, she's a star. Dry, she ain't."

circa 1955:  American swimmer and actor who starred in aquatic musicals, Esther Williams, playing with her three children, Susan, Kimball and Ben, in a pool.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
With her three children Susan, Kimball, and Ben in 1955. Photo: Hulton Archive

Williams married four times. At age 19, she married a "smart, handsome, dependable, and dull" man she met in college. At age 24, she married actor Ben Gage and had three children with him. At age 43, she married her Dangerous While Wet co-star and The Magic Fountain director Fernando Lamas, who forced her to give up her career.

Esther Williams during 58th Annual Academy Awards Governor's Ball at Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
Attended the 58th Annual Academy Awards Governor's Ball in 1986. Photo: Ron Galella

After Lamas's death, Williams reemerged into the public eye. She co-hosted the synchronized swimming competition at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, launched a swimwear line, and produced video swimming lessons for children. At age 73, she married actor Edward Bell, with whom she lived out the rest of her life.