OFFBEAT: Swimming movie star Esther Williams dead at age 91

Phil Potempa's daily entertainment news column
2013-06-10T00:00:00Z 2013-08-06T16:16:05Z OFFBEAT: Swimming movie star Esther Williams dead at age 91By Philip Potempa, (219) 852-4327

The self-described "Million Dollar Mermaid" of the silver screen, Esther Williams died in her sleep last Thursday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 91.

MGM Studios plucked Williams from obscurity while she was still a teen and promised she'd follow in the career steps of ice skater Sonja Henie, only with her embraced fame to be found surrounded in water, rather than on ice.

When I interviewed the always candid and refreshingly down-to-earth Williams in June 1996, she was in Chicago at Marshall Field's promoting her swimwear line, which was in its eighth year.

And she had some advice for aging actresses and actors.

"Know when to get out of show business while you're still ahead in the industry," she said.

"People ask me why they don't see me in movies or on television shows anymore," said the then-74-year-old Williams.

"When you've been treated like I was at MGM, who wants to do five-minute cameos on television sitcoms? That's why you never saw me on a 'Love Boat' episode. Those shows are for an army of has-beens and would-be stars."

Her swimwear line, designed by Williams, was based on the swimsuit styles she made famous during her 1940s and 1950s movie career.

"When I first came to MGM, my swimsuits were the first ones the studio wardrobe department ever had to design," she said.

"Before me, the only other suit they did was that skimpy loincloth they made for Olympian swimming star Johnny Weismuller to wear in those Tarzan movies. And believe me, his suit wasn't even waterproof."

Williams said the early 1940s wasn't an easy time for swimsuits or Olympic stars.

"I was slated to compete in the 1940 Olympic Games in Finland. But Adolf Hitler and war pressures canceled our Olympics," she said.

Because of fabric shortages during the war, she said some of the first swimsuits were made from parachutes.

"That fabric may have been okay for jumping out of airplanes, but it sure didn't do much for a woman's figure," she said.

"I like my girls to be covered. I don't undress them. I dress them. I tell them the worst thing is for them to be hanging out. That's why my suits are built with plenty of support. God takes care of ladies from age 15 to 21. Then after that, they're mine."

Williams also said she liked to use practical fabrics for her swimwear.

"I was visiting my friend Jane Russell at her home in Santa Barbara," she said.

"And I said, 'Jane you always look so wonderful. Do you have someone make all of your clothes?' And she said, 'Esther, the only thing I'm picky about my clothes is: If they can't go in a washing machine, I won't wear it.' And she's right. Clothes shouldn't need a lot of special care."

During her movie career, Williams co-starred with several of the top box office actors MGM had to offer including Mickey Rooney, Peter Lawford, Red Skelton, Jimmy Durante, Van Johnson, Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.

She said her original screen test was with Clark Gable as a replacement for Lana Turner after she ran off to New York to marry bandleader Artie Shaw.

By 1950, Williams was the biggest money-making female star second only to Betty Grable.

Williams said over the years she'd learn to handle any criticism that comes her way.

While starring in the "Ziegfeld Follies" in 1944, her comedienne costar Fanny Brice commented about Williams: "Wet she's a star, dry she ain't."

Williams was quick to admit that not every one of her movies was a "work of art."

"While I was at MGM, all they ever did was change my leading men and the water in the pool," she said.

But one of her leading men, Latin lover Fernando Lamas, whom she starred with in the 1953 film "Dangerous When Wet," did leave a lasting impression on her.

After failed marriages to Dr. Leonard Kovner and singer Ben Gage, Williams married Lamas in 1969 after his divorce from actress Arlene Dahl. Lamas, who died in 1982, and Dahl, who is 87, are the parents of television actor Lorenzo Lamas of "Falcon Crest" fame.

Lorenzo Lamas, said Thursday: "My stepmom Esther Williams passed peacefully this morning. The best swim teacher and soul mom. RIP."

In addition to her stepson from her marriage to Lamas, Williams had three children from her marriage to Gage, Benjamin Stanton, Kimball Austin and Susan Tenney.

After Lamas' death in 1982, Williams regained the Olympic spotlight to some degree. Having popularized synchronized swimming with her movies, she was co-host of the event on television at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Williams spent much of her later years commuting from her home in Brentwood, Calif., to New York to oversee designs for her new line of sportswear and swimwear. Earlier in her career, she also lent her name and endorsement to a line of swimming pools.

At the time of her death, she was married to her fourth husband Edward Bell, whom she married on Oct. 24, 1994.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at or (219) 852-4327.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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