Passages: Esther Williams, 91

LOS ANGELES, California, June 6. RENOWNED swimmer and Hollywood star Esther Williams died this morning at her home at age 91.

Williams will forever be known to the general public as one of the great Hollywood film stars of the 1940s and 1950, but her star first began to shine in 1939 at the national championships, where she set the American record in the 100-meter freestyle in 1:09.1. Williams was primed to win multiple medals at the 1940 Olympic Games at 19 years old, but the outbreak of World War II canceled the event.

Williams was at a crossroads. Should she continue to train with the hope that the 1944 Olympics would be held, or start a normal life? Luckily, Williams gave up her short-lived elite amateur status in 1940 and was approached by film impresario Billy Rose to appear in his soon-to-be famous Aquacade exhibition shows alongside fellow swimming star Johnny Weismuller. And the rest is history.

Williams made nearly 30 films, including the “That's Entertainment” series and “Dangerous When Wet.” It was on the “Dangerous When Wet” set that she met actor Fernando Lamas, who would wed Williams in 1962. The wedding signaled the end of Williams' professional acting career.

“A really terrific guy comes along and says, 'I wish you'd stay home and be my wife,' and that's the most logical thing in the world for a Latin,” Williams said in a 1984 interview. “And I loved being a Latin wife — you get treated very well. There's a lot of attention in return for that sacrifice.”

Though Williams never enjoyed a career as a competitive swimmer, she was still a factor in making the sport accessible to young girls, who dreamed of being a movie-star mermaid, just like Esther Williams. When synchronized swimming became a part of the 1984 Olympics, Williams was front and center as a promotional icon.

Williams was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1966. This year, her name was featured in a special award given by ISHOF, called the Esther Awards. The purpose of the award was to honor outstanding achievements in the film industry that put the sport of swimming in a positive light. Two Chinese films, “Enter the Chinese Water Dragon” and “The Diving Girls,” were the first recipients of the award last month during the annual induction ceremonies.

Below, a portion of an obituary for Williams as written by The Associated Press:

Esther Jane Williams grew up destined for a career in athletics. She was born Aug. 8, 1921, in Inglewood, a suburb southwest of Los Angeles, one of five children.

(Some references give a birth year of 1922 or 1923, but she told The Associated Press in 2004 that the correct date was 1921. “I think we ought to just count our blessings,” she said at the time. “You get old. It happens, but oh, what life we had when we were young.”)

A public pool was not far from the modest home where Williams was raised, and it was there that an older sister taught her to swim. They saved the 10-cent admission price by counting 100 towels.

When she was in her teens, the Los Angeles Athletic Club offered to train her four hours a day, aiming for the 1940 Olympic Games at Helsinki. In 1939, she won the Women's Outdoor Nationals title in the 100-meter freestyle, set a record in the 100-meter breaststroke and was a part of several winning relay teams. But the outbreak of war in Europe that year canceled the 1940 Olympics, and Esther dropped out of competition to earn a living.

She was selling clothes in a Wilshire Boulevard department store when showman Billy Rose tapped her for a bathing beauty job at the World's Fair in San Francisco.
While there, she was spotted by an MGM producer and an agent. She laughed at the suggestion she do films that would popularize swimming, as Henie had done with ice skating.

“Frankly I didn't get it,” she recalled. “If they had asked me to do some swimming scenes for a star, that would have made sense to me. But to ask me to act was sheer insanity.”

She finally agreed to visit MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, and recalled that she took the job after her mother told her: “No one can avoid a challenge in life without breeding regret, and regret is the arsenic of life.”

Lamas was Williams' third husband. Before her fame she was married briefly to a medical student. In 1945 she wed Ben Gage, a radio announcer, and they had three children, Benjamin, Kimball and Susan. They divorced in 1958.

After Lamas' death in 1982, Williams regained the spotlight. Having popularized synchronized swimming with her movies, she was co-host of the event on television at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. She issued a video teaching children how to swim and sponsored her own line of swimsuits.

“I've been a lucky lady,” she said in a 1984 interview with The Associated Press. “I've had three exciting careers. Before films I had the experience of competitive swimming, with the incredible fun of winning. … I had a movie career with all the glamor that goes with it. That was ego-fulfilling, but it was like the meringue on the pie. My marriage with Fernando — that was the filling, that was the apple in the pie.”

Full text of Associated Press obituary

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