Talented Almost-Mermaid Esther Williams Has Died


The woman who made water cool before Michael Phelps ever came around, Esther Williams, died Thursday at the age of 91, reports the New York Times.

Though Williams was a huge movie star in her time, she actually wanted to be in the Olympics originally, and was good enough to earn a place on the 1940 Olympic team. Unfortunately she never made it there because that year the games were cancelled due to a small thing called World War II. Years later, Williams would decide she’d rather do movies where she wasn’t always underwater, but would find herself blocked by risk-adverse studio executives from taking roles where she didn’t swim. She did, however, get to star in movies star in movies with men like Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, and hang out with Tom and Jerry:

In Williams’ autobiography, she describes growing up and learning to swim the butterfly from male lifeguards at the local pool (at the time, it was a stroke only men did). By 16, she had won three national championships for breaststroke and freestyle, and in 1940 she got her big break as “Aquabelle #1” at the San Francisco World’s Fair in the Aquacade. Her first movie made entirely for her was 1944’s Bathing Beauty, described as Hollywood’s “first swimming movie.”

Williams didn’t hold back from talking honestly, especially in her later years. She’s written about struggling with being raped by a young family friend who had came to live with her family when she was a teen, especially because her parents didn’t believe her when she told them at first:

“Rape is such a horrible word and the stigma hangs over a victim until she dies. ‘She acted provactively. She asked for it.’ In the 1930s, these were the prevailing sentiments.”

Williams’ book was controversial because she spilled lots of salacious gossip about her co-stars but just the stories about her own life are enough, considering she was married four times, mostly to not entirely nice men. A few took a lot of her money, and one controlled her life so much he wouldn’t let her children, but her final marriage was to Edward Bell who was 10 years younger than her and with whom she started her bathing suit line.

Williams also put her name on swimming pools, but it’s this popular line of retro swimsuits that at least one woman on our staff swears by. In 1999 Williams told the New York Times that she made these suits for women who were “fighting a thing called gravity”:

”It just seems so crazy to have a bra made out of a piece of cotton that could double as a napkin on the table. And the thongs! God, we’ve spent our lives trying to keep our underwear out of that spot, and all of a sudden they want to put a fish line there? I have very definite ideas about what a swimsuit should be: it should be swimmable.”

Esther Williams rehearsing for Ziegfeld Follies in 1944. (Image via AP)

If you’re a swimmer and you love old movies, there’s really no one better to be obsessed with than Esther Williams; just ask Sally from Judy Blume’s Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself. In that book, the main character Sally (a character based off of Judy as a young girl) wants to be just like her, but got so frustrated by how perfect she was:

“Esther Williams was her favorite movie actress. Some day she was going to swim just like her, with her hair in a coronet and a flower behind her ear. Swimming along underwater, always smiling, with beautiful straight white teeth and shiny red lipstick. Esther Williams never got water up her nose or had to spit while she swam, like Sally, who didn’t like to get her face wet in the first place. And Esther Williams never splashed either. Not even when she dove off the high board. You’d never know you had to kick to stay afloat from watching Esther Williams. And when she swam in the movies there was always beautiful music in the background and handsome men standing around, waiting. It would be great fun to be Esther Williams!”

It would probably have comforted Sally to know that behind the scenes, Esther also had to deal with plenty of popped ear drums and body casts.

With Tippi Hedren, Esther Williams and Carol Channing in 2003. (Image via Getty)

Let’s remember Williams for being a total individual and for being completely honest about what was really important to her: the water. She once said that it was her favorite leading man, a feeling corroborated by her entire Vanity Fair Proust questionnaire from 2012, the majority of which is about her love for her husband, her children and the water. Her motto?:

“Everyone in the pool!”

Image via Getty

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