published 06/06/2013 at 10:54 AM by Adam Bernstein
Esther Williams, a championship swimmer and lustrous beauty who became one of the world’s most popular movie stars in the 1940s and ’50s by appearing in aquatic musicals featuring daredevil plunges from pedestals, trapezes and even a helicopter, died June 6 at her home in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was 91.
Esther Williams, champion swimmer and movie star, dies at 91: Esther Williams, a championship swimmer who
became one of the world’s most popular movie stars in the 1940s and ’50s by appearing in aquatic musicals featuring daredevil plunges from pedestals, trapezes and even a helicopter, died June 6.
The place and cause were not reported. She was 91.
Her longtime publicist, Harlan Boll, confirmed her death but did not cite a specific cause.
A California-born model who held a national record for the 100-meter freestyle, Ms. Williams was 19 when she was hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1941. She was the studio’s response to Sonja Henie, an Olympic gold medalist in figure skating who became a box-office powerhouse at rival 20th Century Fox.
“Melt the ice, get a swimmer, make it pretty,” studio chief Louis B. Mayer commanded. The result was Ms. Williams.
After small roles, she made her star-making debut in “Bathing Beauty,” released a month after the June 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy. MGM promoted her as “the girl you will dream about!” and she became one of the leading pin-ups among American servicemen during World War II — all 5-foot-8 of her lounging poolside in alluring poses.
For his new star, Mayer ordered a $250,000 pool with special-effects equipment for plumes of fire, underwater geysers and a central pedestal that, powered by a hydraulic lift, rose at least six stories above the water. “Never had plumbing been put to a more glamorous use,” Ms. Williams observed decades later in her memoir, “Million Dollar Mermaid.”
In the next 15 years, Ms. Williams’s irrepressible smile, physical allure, athletic grace and sheer stamina made her one of the most bankable stars of the era. She headlined aquatic extravaganzas and light romantic comedies with titles such as “Jupiter’s Darling” and “On an Island With You.”
Her co-stars ranged from Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra (“Take Me Out to the Ball Game”) to the animated cat and mouse Tom and Jerry, who rescue her from a grabby octopus in “Dangerous When Wet.” Ms. Williams and Ricardo Montalban sang the Oscar-winning Frank Loesser duet “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in the 1949 musical “Neptune’s Daughter.”
Ms. Williams defined a wholly new genre of film — Technicolor “aqua ballets” — that has never been imitated. The extraordinary showmanship of Ms. Williams’s movies, featuring dozens of acrobatic and precision-swimming routines, was later credited with popularizing the future Olympic sport of synchronized swimming. She was presented to audiences as a modern-day cross between Aphrodite and Venus: performing a ballet underwater to “Dance of the Reed-Pipes” from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” emerging into view from plumes of colored smoke and leaping into water from a trapeze, or accompanying many of the world’s top water-skiers in geometric formation before being hoisted 80 feet in the air by a helicopter for one final plunge.
At the time of the helicopter dive, from her 1953 film “Easy to Love,” Ms. Williams was pregnant with her third child. She did the water skiing, despite no previous experience with the sport, and agreed to be lifted into the air. She requested only that the studio hire a professional diver for the climactic drop.