BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Esther Williams, a teenage swimming champion who became an enormous Hollywood star in a decade of watery MGM extravaganzas, died Thursday in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was 91.
From “Bathing Beauty” in 1944 to “Jupiter’s Darling” in 1955, Williams swam in Technicolor pools, lakes, lagoons and oceans, cresting onto the list of Top 10 box-office stars in 1949 and 1950.
“Esther Williams had one contribution to make to movies – her magnificent athletic body,” the film critic Pauline Kael wrote. “And for over 10 years MGM made the most of it, keeping her in clinging, wet bathing suits and hoping the audience would shiver.”
In her autobiography, “The Million Dollar Mermaid” (1999), Williams spoke of movie stardom as her “consolation prize,” won instead of the Olympic gold medal for which she had yearned. At the national championships in 1939, Williams, who was 17, won three gold medals and earned a place on the 1940 U.S. Olympic team. But Hitler invaded Poland, and the 1940 Olympics were canceled with the onset of WWII.
At a time when most movies cost less than $2 million, MGM built Williams a $250,000 swimming pool on Stage 30. Performing in that 25-foot-deep pool, which the swimmers nicknamed Pneumonia Alley, Williams ruptured her eardrums seven times.
By 1952, the swimming sequences in Williams’ movies, which were often elaborate fantasies created by Busby Berkeley, had grown more and more extravagant.
At 17, Williams married Leonard Kovner, a pre-med student whom she supported by working as a stock girl at a fancy department store. It was the first of her four marriages, and he would demand $1,500 - all the money she had saved from the Aquacade - before he would agree to a divorce.
Her 13-year second marriage, to the singer Ben Gage, would bring her three children and cost her considerably more money. According to Williams, Gage frittered away $10 million of her money on alcohol, gambling and failed business ventures.
A decade later she married Fernando Lamas, the Argentine-born actor and director, who had helped her to swim the English Channel in “Dangerous When Wet” (1953).
That marriage lasted until Lamas’ death in 1982. Six years later she married Edward Bell, a professor of French literature 10 years her junior, with whom she introduced a collection of swimwear. She also put her name on a line of successful above-ground swimming pools.
She is survived by Bell; a son, Benjamin Gage; a daughter, Susan Beardslee; three stepchildren, three grandchildren and eight step-grandchildren.