Despite her relentlessly cheerful on-screen demeanor, “America’s Mermaid” — one of MGM’s biggest stars of the Forties and Fifties –was no simpering pollyanna.
Judging by Esther Williams‘ outspoken comments about her famous fellow workers, she subscribed to Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s naughty dictum.
Said Teddy’s daughter, “If you have nothing nice to say about anybody, sit next to me.”
Hi everybody, we’re back again with another sampling of cheerful Esther’s acerbic (and honest!) appraisals of her famous costars as excerpted from her excellent tell-all book about herself, “The Million Dollar Mermaid” co-authored with Digby Diehl.
ELIZABETH TAYLOR: Esther was hardly alone in being dumbstruck at Taylor’s physical precocity. “Barely a teenager, (she at 14)) was already more beautiful and voluptuous than Miss America.” Esther admits that Taylor filled out a swim suit better than she did. “With that superstructure of hers, she floated just fine (in a Beverly Hills pool). What she couldn’t do was sink.”
VAN JOHNSON (Esther’s costar in five movies): “Through the years, I swam with Van, married him, fought with him and made to love with him — all on camera.” Esther and Van shared knowledge of their private secrets, which in Johnson’s case there were quite a few. Together they were “a sweetheart couple who had that MGM look that was so ‘American,’ with no ethnic traces whatsoever.”
JOHNNY JOHNSTON (A former night club and radio crooner who was Esther’s costar in 1947’s “This Time For Keeps”): Johnston isn’t widely know today but he had his moments of costardom at MGM. He was carrying on a torrid affair with actress-singer Kathryn Grayson (they married in 1947) while he and Esther were making their movie on location in upper Michigan. To amuse his “dewy-eyed groupies” on location, Johnnie would read aloud Kathryn’s intimate letters “including the all-too-graphic details concerning what she liked about his love-making. I was appalled.” (So, apparently was Grayson; she was one of Johnston’s half dozen wives.)
GENE KELLY (Esther’s costar in 1949’s “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”) Esther disliked Kelly, “one of the most the most winning and likable men on-screen, (who) was nothing less than a tyrant behind the camera — at least with me.” He resented Esther’s height (5-feet-8-1/2 inches). “There was no hiding that I was half a head taller than he was.”
FRANK SINATRA (Esther’s other costar in “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.”) Williams liked Sinatra” “I not only adored the way he sang, but admired his underrated natural approach to acting….He told me that both of us approached acting the same way, speaking like you talk to a friend, as if the camera wasn’t there.” Esther also noted that Sinatra loved to party. “As soon as the day’s filming was done, he went rushing off to one bash or another.” As a result, he sometimes showed up on the set “fighting a hangover.” The picture’s unit manager reported this to studio higher-ups. “When Frank told me that he had heard the rumor that he was getting bounced off the picture, I tried to reassure him.” (As it turned out, Sinatra had nothing to be concerned about. He’s pretty good in ‘Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”)
WILLIAM POWELL (who costarred with a 27-year-old Esther in 1946’s “The Hoodlum Saint.”) In one of the picture’s first scenes, Williams was required to slap Powell, not gently but, as director Norman Taurog ordered, to “really connect with Bill’s face in order to make that distinctive hollow thwack of palm against cheek.” So a young, athletic Esther did as instructed, hauling off and really smacking the 54-year-old Powell in the cheek. “Then I watched in horror as one side of his face collapsed.” As an apologetic Esther approached hysteria, a team of make-up specialist rushed onto the set to reconstruct the elder actor’s face. “When the makeup men were finished, it looked as if somebody had pulled all of his face up towards the top of his head,” recalled Williams. “It was an instant face-lift, which is what they did for older actors instead of plastic surgery back then.”