My love for Esther Williams began when I was about ten years old while watching Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949), the one movie my family owned starring Esther. Although Esther had only one very short and simple swimming sequence, I was enraptured by her. As a girl who loved everything to do with mermaids (and to be honest, still does), I would then pretend I was Esther in our family swimming pool, mimicking her routine as best I could.
Esther was everything my ten year old self wanted to be – talented, beautiful, intelligent, and strong.
As a teenager I had the opportunity to rent more of
scoured the shelves for Esther’s movies from my local library. Dangerous When Wet (1953) particularly stands out in my mind with the unforgettable Tom and Jerry sequence. Others included Neptune’s Daughter (1949), Pagan Love Song (1950), and Bathing Beauty (1944).
A few years ago I purchased a set of Esther’s movies distributed by TCM. Upon viewing these films again I discovered the magic had not faded. I was still captivated by Esther – her grace, style, and the amazing ballets. Wanting to to learn more about the making of these films led me to Esther’s delightful and eye-opening autobiography, Million Dollar Mermaid.
In these pages I discovered that Esther was not only an athletic, glamorous movie star who exemplified an unshakable work ethic, she also had the courage to match it.
5 Reasons Why I Admire Esther Williams
1. Her ability to find a constant in times of trouble
In Esther’s book she recounts a time in her teenage years when she was sexually abused by a trusted, adopted member of the family. Frightened to reveal his identity because of his threats, she kept this to herself for two years. Having been chosen to be part of a prestigious athletic club, she used her practice and training time to escape from reality. In the water, she found her source of comfort. Dominating the water also gave her a sense of control and a semblance of strength.
Here, at least in the pool, knifing through the water, I could be in control, I would be safe – for the moment.”
2. She was the catalyst for the creation of a genre
In the 30’s and 40’s, synchronized swimming gained popularity due to Billy Rose’s Aquacade, a water show that drew in huge crowds and dazzled the public (in which Esther once was the lead female swimmer).
In the movies, a few musicals featured synchronized swimming, such as the Busby Berkeley sequences in The Kid from Spain (1932) and Footlight Parade (1933). But with Esther came the addition of Technicolor and the birth of the aqua musical.
When Esther Williams signed a contract with MGM in 1941, the studio welcomed their new star with her own stage, Stage 30, and a twenty foot deep swimming pool equipped with a hydraulic lift. Little did Esther know that during her career at MGM she would become a top box office attraction in the 40’s and 50’s, earning the title America’s Mermaid.
3. She loved what she did
Although her job was not an easy one and required hours upon hours of being in the water, insane preparations to make her “waterproof,” and dangerous on-screen stunts, you would never know it for Esther always had a huge smile on her face. Despite the difficulties, she wouldn’t have traded it for the world.
I genuinely loved swimming and being underwater. It appeared as if I had invited the audience into the water with me, and it conveyed the sensation that being in there was absolutely delicious.”
4. She became an advocate for her sport
According to Esther, “a year after Bathing Beauty (1944), the first synchronized swimming meet was held in Chicago. Then, in 1955, synchronized swimming became a recognized event, and was named a demonstration sport in 1956.” After that it was a struggle for the sport to be accepted into the Olympics. For years it was looked on as nothing more than a showbiz act.
Finally, in 1984, synchronized swimming made it to the Olympic games, and NBC called upon Esther to be a commentator.
I was touched to realize how these girls had seen those movies and gotten together in their little groups and wanted to swim pretty and not fast. They created a sport and went all over the world to teach it and sell it. I was proud to be there when it came into the Olympics. I was proud to be an inspiration, a godmother to a sport.”
5. She never quit the race
While her onscreen persona was one of scrupulous perfection, her real life was far from it. Despite troubled marriages, several on-set life threatening incidents, and criticism from those who did not appreciate Esther’s hard work and dedication to her art and sport, she never gave up.
During some periods in her life she doubted her own importance and abilities. To be a respected actress was something she craved as she was constantly berated about her acting. Over time she realized her unique talent, embraced it, and looked back fondly on all the life experiences she had been given as a result.
I guess that’s what I was trying to tell those Olympic champions when I told them that when they ran into life’s problems, they should never despair, even after temporary discouragement or defeat. I told them they should call upon their inner spirit to see them through. We can’t all win Olympic gold medals. Even I never won one. But the message applies to all of us because each of us in our own way has races to run or swim. And with sufficient endurance and courage, we all can achieve some kind of victory in our lives.”
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