US champion swimmer and Hollywood Golden Girl Esther Williams died in Los Angeles yesterday, aged 91.
Her spokesman reported that she died peacefully in her sleep. Though no official cause of death has been released, the actress had been in declining health over the past few months due to old age.
Known as Hollywood’s Mermaid, Williams was a US national swimming champ by the age of 16. Her success and fame in that field led to her switching careers and starring in a number of Hollywood “aqua-musicals” that were written specifically for her throughout the 1940s; culminating her leading lady status and box office gold in the 1940s and 1950s. Some of her biggest hits during this time were Dangerous When Wet, Easy to Wed, Thrill of a Romance and Duchess of Idaho. Her list of leading men included some of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time such as Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Ricardo Montalban and Howard Keel.
Fantastic spectacles that contained elaborate song-and-dance routines, her films were extremely formulaic (romance, music and comedy) and took every opportunity of showcasing her in a spectacular swimsuit diving into a pool or lagoon. She attempted to move away from these roles in the 1950s, but was met with little success leading to her eventual retirement from movies in 1962. This followed her third marriage to Hollywood playboy Fernando Lamas.
Speaking at the release of her autobiography in 1999, she realised that audiences didn’t want to see Esther Williams without her swimming costume and there was no escaping those aqua-musical roles: “I guess what MGM found was that my audience wanted that bathing suit. And you know, when cinemascope came in and you’ve got that water all wrapped around you and they’d do big close-ups of me… I think it had too much pleasure connected with it for them to change it.”
However, she felt no antagonism to her past and on watching her films in recent years she told Reuters, “I look at that girl and I like her. I can see why she became popular with audiences. There was an unassuming quality about her. She was certainly wholesome”.
Following Lamas death in 1982, she returned to the public eye - hosting swimming events and fashion designing. She covered the 1984 Olympic Games for ABC-TV, released a learn-to-swim video and launched her own line of swimwear. In a 1984 interview with The Associated Press she described her life and her achievements: “I’ve been a lucky lady. 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 glamour 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.”
She later married actor Edward Bell in 1994.