She may looks like America’s aquatic sweetheart above, but make no mistake. Esther Williams was one spicy dish.
So-dubbed “America’s Mermaid,” she 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 good news is that off-camera, Esther turned out to be a lusty, outspoken woman who seemed to have a weakness for generously endowed men.
It’s rare even in Hollywood for durable box office stars to be totally dead from the neck up. Stardom back then and now requires many things including smarts. In Esther’s case, her down-to-earth intelligence is prominently on display in her excellent autobiography, “The Million Dollar Mermaid (1999).
This is an exceptionally candid memoir. Williams not only assesses her four husbands but also breaks the stereotype of most movie star memoirs — stifled by prohibitions against saying anything bad about anyone.
Esther does more or less the opposite, sounding off about her costars and people she knew back then.
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’ love interest in 1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid): Here is Esther at her lustiest. Despite her marriage at the time to 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 what was supposed to be an off-camera romantic rendezvous): This is probably the most memorable moment captured 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 crossdresser. “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 grieving about “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 supremo 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.”
In 1981 when she was 62, Esther met her fourth husband, Edward Bell, a former college professor coordinating special events for the Atlantic Richfield Company in connection with the 1984 Olympics. The two hit it off immediately, and soon became business and then in 1995, marital partners. He was 10 years her junior.
We posthumously thank Esther, who died five years ago, for her refreshing honesty.