It is often said that the secret to success is to be in the right place at the right time. The life and career of swimming sensation Esther Williams proves that it has to be the right person in the right place at the right time.
Ms. Williams was born in Inglewood, CA, on Aug 8, 1921, the youngest of five children. Her parents grew up on neighboring Kansas farms, courted for nine years, eloped, and ran off to California. However, they ran out of money in Salt Lake, where they settled until their oldest son was discovered by actress Marjorie Rambeau, allowing them to complete their journey to the Golden State.
An older sister taught Esther to swim at Manhattan Beach and the Los Angeles Athletic Club. The two got a job counting towels to pay their entrance fee of five cents apiece. While working at the pool, the life guards taught Esther the “male only” swimming strokes, including the butterfly. By the time she was 16, she was winning national championships, and was in training for the 1940 Olympic Games in Helsinki. When the Games were canceled due to the War, Williams dropped out of competition to earn a living.
She found a job selling shoes and modeling for the I. Magnin department store on Wilshire Blvd when she was discovered by showman Billy William, who put her in his Aquacade show at the San Francisco World’s Fair. Here, she caught the eye of MGM talent scouts. Louis B. Mayer was convinced that MGM needed and “athletic leading lady” in its stable to promote as Fox had with Sonja Henie. Williams’ contract included a clause that she be allowed nine months before appearing on camera so she could take acting, singing, dancing and diction lessons. The contract also provided her with a guest pass to the Beverly Hills Hotel so she could use the pool on a daily basis.
She worked in a number of short subjects before being cast opposite Mickey Rooney in Andy Hardy’s Double Life, followed by Hollywood’s first “swimming movie”, Bathing Beauty. In Bathing Beauty, Red Skelton enrolls in an all girl college to win the heart of the swimming coach played by Ms. Williams. Skelton was demoted to supporting lead, and Bathing Beauty‘s success was second only to Gone With The Wind when it was released.
When MGM send its top stars on War Bond tours, Esther was asked to tour military hospitals. She was a natural pin-up girl, not only beautiful, she actually belonged in a swimming suit. For the hospital visits, she would listen to the Bob Hope and Jack Benny radio programs on the radio and repeat the best gags for the G.I.s. Her visit usually included dancing with the soldiers, and mock screen tests where the script called for her “co-star” to refuse her advances until the end of the skit.
Esther Williams made several appearances on Lux Radio Theater, usually in support of her movies, but also as part of an “Esther Williams pin” premium. She was a popular guest and hostess on Command Performance, as well as appearing in several public service announcements on popular programs.
Esther Williams passed away in her sleep at her Los Angeles home on June 6, 2013.
A Star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame at 1560 Vine Street honors Esther Williams’ contribution to the Motion Picture industry.
Good night, Esther Williams.