“America’s Mermaid” Esther Williams, who passed away last Thursday (June 6) at the age of 91, built a glittering movie career in the Forties and Fifties by looking relentlessly cheerful on-screen and just plain gorgeous in a bathing suit.
The great news is that off-camera, Esther turned out to be a lusty, outspoken woman who seemed to have a weakness for generously endowed men.
Hi, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your Classic Movie guys, here with the second half of our Esther Williams tribute. Yesterday, we covered career highlights. Today, some of the personal “good stuff.”
Esther’s down-to-earth intelligence is prominently on display in The Million Dollar Mermaid, her excellent 1999 autobiography coauthored by Digby Diehl. It’s a great read, highly recommended.
In it, Esther cheerfully broke the stereotype of most movie star memoirs — never saying anything bad about anyone. So, strap it up and here we go:
JOHNNY WEISSMULLER (Esther’s swimming partner in a 1940 San Francisco Acquacade): Esther notes that Mr. Tarzan had remarkable genitalia that he loved to exhibit. After their swimming act at the Acquacade was completed, he’d whip off his trunks and go after young Esther. I would swim for (the exit) as though I was swimming for my life.
VICTOR MATURE (Williams’ lover in 1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid): Here is Esther at her lustiest. Despite her marriage at the time to second husband, the hard-drinking Ben Gage, she confessed to a powerful attraction to Victor Mature. I knew that he wanted me, and I wanted him…One night, after doing a steamy love scene that was more than adequate foreplay, we went to my dressing room ….That first night, we made love over and over into exhaustion.
JEFF CHANDLER (Esther’s costar in 1958’s Raw Wind in Eden and later her lover, in an off-camera “romantic” rendezvous): This is an especially memorable moment described in Esther’s book. I froze at the bedroom door and started screaming. I couldn’t stop myself…I just stood there in the center of the doorway and screamed. What was all the fuss about? Well, Esther had just stumbled not only into Chandler’s boudoir but also into the realization that her lover was a cross dresser. “He was standing in the middle of the bedroom in a red wig, a flowered chiffon dress, expensive high-heeled shoes and lots of makeup.” (Since Chandler stood 6-feet-4 inches, it must have been quite a sight.) ‘Take that off! Take that off now!’ I yelled.” (Chandler’s death from in a botched back operation in June of 1961, sent Esther into mourning “for that good lovable man who almost had been my husband.”)
BEN GAGE ( “Fun-loving” former big band singer and Esther’s second husband): “An idiot, a moron, an asshole,” was MGM boss Louis B. Mayer’s assessment of Gage, who drank heavily and overspent Esther’s money. In front of young women guests at their Los Angeles home, the extraordinarily hung Ben would doff his bathing suit in the pool to show off his erection and wave it about like a banner. Esther would fend off guest complaints with, Get over it. It’s nothing. Gage left Esther deeply in hock when their marriage of nearly 14 years ended in 1959. Her high-flying MGM days behind her, she struggled for a while to pay things off, often by appearing on various tv series (“Zane Grey Theater,” ” The Donna Reed Show”) in the 1960’s to get back on her feet.
FERNANDO LAMAS (the Argentine-born actor-athlete who was Esther’s third husband, to whom she was married for nearly 13 years until his death in 1982 of cancer): Fernando was a bit self-centered and macho, so Esther had occasional misgivings. In his self-centered way, he loved me very much….His sexy reputation was well deserved and I was the sole beneficiary. Esther was fascinated by the way Fernando thrust his hips forward to make it very obvious what was in those pants, which was very substantial.
VAN JOHNSON (Esther’s costar in five movies; one, Easy to Wed, co-starred Lucille Ball who is pictured above tugging at Van’s ear): 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 (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 (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 co-stardom 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 stayed in the picture.)
A really wonderful collection of Williams’ films is available. Click here and check them out.