I first met Esther Williams in 1940 in San Francisco at the Golden Gate International Exposition. She was appearing with Johnny Weissmuller in the Billy Rose “Aquacade” show. I was there to see what kind of interview scoops I could gather for my column in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner called “The Eyes of a Co-ed.” Miss Williams was absolutely charming and seemed pleased to want to talk to me. She had planned to compete in the 1940 Summer Olympics, but because of the outbreak of World War II, the Olympics had been cancelled. She was of course disappointed, but told me she had a lot of fun appearing in the Aquacade; however she spent most of her time trying to keep Johnny’s hands off her. Being young and in awe I somehow didn’t think that belonged in a column written from the eyes of a co-ed.
Talent scouts from MGM spotted her during this time and she was just what Louis B. Mayer was looking for as an ideal female star to compete against Sonja Henie, who was under contract at Twentieth Century Fox. His new star would swim gracefully underwater while Miss Henie would skate on frozen water. There were only two catches to seal the deal with Mayer, being Williams would have a guest pass to the Beverly Hills Hotel’s swimming pool so she could continually train and also she would not begin filming any movie until after the first nine months of her contract so she could be fully trained as an actress, which would include singing and dancing. She later said, “If it took nine months for a baby to be born, I figured my ‘birth’ from Esther Williams the swimmer to Esther Williams the movie actress would not be much different.” So in 1941 Williams became MGM’s new star when they agreed and she signed her contract.
I did have the pleasure of watching her swim at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel one day while visiting Hornando Courtright, the manager of the hotel. I said, “Isn’t that Esther Williams?” He informed me she was practicing. I told him I had interviewed her in San Francisco and later he invited her over and much to my delight she remembered me with a nice smile and hello. Later she began to swim exclusively at the Beverly Hills Hotel where I also watched her practicing there one day.
From 1945 to 1949, Esther Williams starred in at least one of the top 20 box office films of the year, with Neptune’s Daughter turning out the 10th largest grossing film of 1949. That same year she appeared in Take Me Out to the Ball Game, which won an Academy Award for Best Original Song she sang in the film with Ricardo Montalban, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
I saw Esther Williams again when I bumped into her by chance in Sun Valley, Idaho. It was in the elegant grand lobby of Sun Valley Lodge. She was filming a movie called Duchess of Idaho which co-starred Van Johnson, and they were filming entirely on location. We had a nice chat and by the following year, Mr. Hearst had sent me off to Korea to cover the war.
Williams continued to make movie after movie, winning the “Henrietta Award” at the 1952 Golden Globes as Female World Film Favorite for Million Dollar Mermaid. However this film (many consider to be her best) almost proved fatal. The movie culminated into one spectacular scene where she was to dive from a 115 foot platform at the top of a fountain of water spray. She was dressed all in gold and as the fountain rose way up high she would make the spectacular dive. I remember her once as saying she felt so beautiful; loving the cutest, little, tiny, golden crown on the top of her head. No one gave any thought to the crown except for Esther who suddenly thought the second she dove from atop the tower, “What is going to happen when I hit the water?” The result was she broke her neck and was in a body cast for seven months. Fortunately she recovered, but suffered from continual headaches there after.
To me, Esther Williams will always be the “Million Dollar Mermaid” and she really was all of the above.