Esther Williams: Star on film, in swimming pool dies at 91

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Esther Jane Williams grew up destined for a career in athletics. She was born on Aug. 8, 1921, in Inglewood, Calilf., a suburb southwest of Los Angeles, one of five children.

(Some references give a birth year of 1922 or 1923, but she told The Associated Press in 2004 that the correct date was 1921. “I think we ought to just count our blessings,” she said at the time. “You get old. It happens, but oh, what life we had when we were young.”)

A public pool was not far from the modest home in which Miss Williams was raised, and it was there that an older sister taught her to swim. They saved the 10-cent admission price by counting 100 towels.

When she was in her teens, the Los Angeles Athletic Club offered to train her four hours a day, aiming for the 1940 Olympic Games at Helsinki. In 1939 she won the Women’s Outdoor Nationals title in the 100-meter freestyle, set a record in the 100-meter breaststroke and was a part of several winning relay teams. But the outbreak of war in Europe that year canceled the 1940 Olympics, and Miss Williams dropped out of competition to earn a living.

She was selling clothes in a Wilshire Boulevard department store when showman Billy Rose tapped her for a bathing beauty job at the world’s fair in San Francisco.

While there, she was spotted by an MGM producer and an agent. She laughed at the suggestion she do films that would popularize swimming, as Henie had done with ice-skating.

“Frankly I didn’t get it,” she recalled. “If they had asked me to do some swimming scenes for a star, that would have made sense to me. But to ask me to act was sheer insanity.”

She finally agreed to visit MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, and she recalled that she took the job after her mother told her, “No one can avoid a challenge in life without breeding regret, and regret is the arsenic of life.”

Lamas was Miss Williams‘ third husband. Before her fame she was married briefly to a medical student. In 1945 she wed Ben Gage, a radio announcer, and they had three children — Benjamin, Kimball and Susan. They divorced in 1958.

After Lamas‘ death in 1982, Miss Williams regained the spotlight. Having popularized synchronized swimming with her movies, she was co-host of the event on television at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. She issued a video teaching children how to swim and sponsored her own line of swimsuits.

“I’ve been a lucky lady,” she said in a 1984 interview with The Associated Press. “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.”

• Lisa Tolin in New York contributed to this article.

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

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