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STARRLIGHT: Esther Williams
by STEVE STARR
2005-02-02

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Pictured Esther Williams

Esther Williams is one of a hundred performers featured in an exhibition of glamorous stars who contributed to movie musicals. They appear in Steve Starr's collection of beautiful, original Art Deco frames at the Harold Washington Library Center, on the 8th floor, just below the Winter Garden, through June 1, 2005. Admission is free. The exhibit, like his column, is named STARRLIGHT.

The glamorous, sophisticated bathing beauty was cooking supper in her handsome boyfriend's home. Then she went upstairs to find her tall, gorgeous, rugged hunk she was planning to marry, standing in the center of his large bedroom wearing high heels, a flowered chiffon dress, tons of makeup and a red wig. Completely taken by surprise, the star screamed and screamed and screamed. She resolved not to marry Jeff Chandler. Later she gave him a fashion tip to remember; 'Jeff, you're too big for Polka dots'.

The future star known as 'America's Mermaid' was born Aug. 8, 1921, in Inglewood, Calif. By the time she was 15, Esther had won every swimming competition in the United States. At 16, she had survived being repeatedly raped for three years by a boy her family had taken in. Poised and ready to represent her country at the Olympics held in Finland, the games were cancelled due to the outbreak of World War II. Williams decided to attend the University of Southern California for a time where, in 1940, she met and married her first husband, Leonard Lovner, before she joined Billy Rose's Aquacade in San Francisco. There, she co-starred with swimming champion and Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller, who constantly tried to grope and seduce her in the pool, while removing his bathing suit. Spotted by MGM talent scouts, she refused their offers for a year, and returned to her job as a clerk at I. Magnin, the exclusive Beverly Hills clothing store. One day at the enclave, Marlene Dietrich forced Esther to model clothes while Marlene lounged in the nude.

Williams finally accepted a film contract, and attended 'MGM University' where she was taught how to act, walk, talk, and dress. Her first screen test was with movie idol Clark Gable, who gave her the nickname 'The Mermaid'. Williams was intent on a real career. She didn't want to fail, and insisted on completing nine months of training, a clause which was in her contract, before she would make her first film.

Esther made her movie debut with Mickey Rooney in Andy Hardy's Double Life ( 1942 ) , which included a few swimming sequences. The Hardy films were often used as a forum to showcase new talent, and if someone didn't succeed there, they were often never seen again. However, Esther created quite a sensation with her graceful underwater movements, and also with an unscripted open-mouth kiss to Mickey. Audiences were thrilled and astonished to see how long she could stay underwater. This movie was followed by three small acting roles; Thrill of Romance ( 1945 ) , Till The Clouds Roll By ( 1946 ) , and The Hoodlum Saint ( 1946 ) . She divorced Leonard in 1944.

MGM created special, elaborate water ballets just for her, and built a $250,000 swimming pool set for a sequence in Ziegfeld Follies ( 1946 ) . Then she won her first starring role playing the sister of the handsome Ricardo Montalban in Fiesta ( 1947 ) . The next year, MGM pulled out all the stops, and began to film Esther in the most spectacular, glamorous and outrageous Technicolor water productions ever seen. These include On An Island With You ( 1948 ) , Neptune's Daughter ( 1948 ) , Duchess of Idaho ( 1950 ) , Million Dollar Mermaid ( 1952 ) , Dangerous When Wet ( 1953 ) , Easy To Love ( 1953 ) , and Jupiter's Darling ( 1955 ) . Throughout those years, there were numerous close calls that nearly killed her during the filming of difficult swimming sequences, but Esther was one of the world's top ten box office attractions. Her line of Esther Williams Swimsuits was very successful, and she was dubbed by Life Magazine as the 'Mermaid Tycoon'.

Esther married her second husband in 1945, attractive band singer Ben Gage, with whom she had three children. He also drank and gambled away $10,000,000 of her money. After a painful divorce in 1959, her friend Cary Grant advised her to try LSD, which she obtained under the care of a psychiatrist. She found the hallucinogenic drug an enlightening experience.

In 1960, Esther married her third husband, dashing actor Fernando Lamas, whose previous marriage to actress Arlene Dahl produced Lorenzo. Esther and Fernando had first met in 1953 during the filming of Dangerous When Wet. Lamas was controlling and abusive. He disliked her children, and forbade them to visit their home, which he built with only one bedroom suite. Esther remained with Fernando in their tumultuous marriage until his death from cancer in 1982.

In 1974, she filed a lawsuit against MGM for using some of her footage from her films in That's Entertainment, but 20 years later, in 1994, she appeared as a guest star in That's Entertainment Part III, discussing her films. The Esther Williams brand of in-ground swimming pools is still very popular today. Her book, Million Dollar Mermaid, was published in 1999, and is filled with stories about her lovers, friends, and Hollywood experiences. Esther is now married to Edward Bell, and she still makes appearances and grants interviews.

Because of her films, Williams is highly credited with the promotion and popularizing of competitive and synchronized swimming. But Esther Williams reflected that her 12-hour swim rehearsals at the studio were torturous. She was once quoted, 'All they ever did for me at MGM was change my leading man and the water in my pool'.

Sources: Million Dollar Mermaid by Esther Williams, Esther Williams Web sites.

Steve Starr is the author of 'Picture Perfect'- Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications, 1991. A designer and an artist, he is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in Art Deco artifacts and photo frames, and celebrating its 38th anniversary in 2005. His personal collection of more than 950 frames is filled with photos of Hollywood's most elegant stars. You may visit at STEVESTARRSTUDIOS.COM, or email SSSChicago@ameritech.net . His column STARRLIGHT appears the first week of each month in Windy City Times. Photo of Steve Starr, December 2004, by Graysong


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