Review of Millon Dollar Mermaid by Esther Williams with Digby Diehl

Simon and Schuster 1999 416 pp. 26.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford

 

Esther Williams' absolutely delightful autobiography opens with her first acid trip. She got the drug through Cary Grant. From there on, the story only gets better.

By anyone's standards, Miss Williams has led a remarkable life. You may have some cultural memory of a trapeze slowly emerging from a Technicolor blue swimming pool, bearing a preternaturally cheerful woman seemingly oblivious to the sparklers, explosions, other moistened chorines, and music that would give Touched By an Angel diabetes. You may even remember that she once starred in a film improbably entitled Skirts Ahoy! But if you harbor an image of Williams as the dripping Queen of Technicolor kitsch, this book will clear the chlorine from your eyes.

Born in 1922, the daughter of a Los Angeles sign painter, Williams was raised by her oldest sister, Maurine, 14 years her senior. The family worshipped not Esther, but her older brother Stanton, who died suddenly at age sixteen. The devastated family took in an orphan boy, four years Williams' senior, who proceeded to rape her regularly for two years, beginning when Williams was thirteen years old.

A three-time national swimming champion, she was denied entry into the Pan Am games in South America by a jealous trainer who hid the invitation. The outbreak of the war ended forever her hopes of competing in the Olympics.

Throughout her personal tribulations, Williams has maintained the cast-iron cheerfulness of a survivor. Employing her hard-won creed, "No guys were going to save me. I had to do it myself," Williams has not only persevered; she has prevailed.

Though agreeing that Ava Gardner and Lana Turner had the worst taste in men in Hollywood, her first three marriages suggest her own name could be easily added to that dubious list. In 1957, for example, she learned that Ben Gage, her second husband, had gambled away and otherwise lost every cent she had earned since 1941.

Her Hollywood career matched her private life in personal challenges. Working as a shop girl, at eighteen Williams was chosen to star, alongside Johnny Weismuller, in Billy Rose's Aquacade, a form of unfrozen Ice Capades. From there she became a contract player for Louis B. Mayer's MGM. Beginning in an Andy Hardy movie, she was schooled in the "eyeball-rolling, nostril-flaring, snap-your-head-back style" that she felt was inappropriate for someone of her statuesque size and all-American demeanor.

When her second film, Bathing Beauty, "earned more money internationally than any other picture except Gone With the Wind," Williams found herself locked in a golden prison of swimming-themed films featuring "the Esther Williams formula: the mis-matched lovers plot."

Working with Busby Berkeley, she found him "one of the most creative individuals in Hollywood, maybe the only true genius I've ever worked with," yet one who almost killed her with his indifference to her safety.

She also worked with "the notorious perfectionist Gene Kelly, who fervently believed that with enough rehearsal he could make me shorter."

Not until 1955 did Williams learn that "the real reason I'd been brought to [MGM] was to sleep with [studio executive Sam] Katz. [Katz believed that] even though I was eighteen and five feet eight and he was fifty-three and five feet three, he was not that old and not that short, especially if we were both horizontal."

It may be hard to envision Williams' spectacular popularity, given the frivolousness of her films, but in the mid-Forties, Betty Grable "was the only other woman in the top ten box office." At one point, Williams appeared on the covers of twenty-seven fan magazines simultaneously. "In January of 1953 the Hollywood Foreign Press Association voted me the number one female movie star in fifty countries."

Williams' story is salted with anecdotes that are, by turns, ribald and outrageous, all dependably hilarious. From George Burns' physical endowments to Jeff Chandler's taste in clothes well, I won't spoil the fun. While the "and then I turned and told him" format of some of these scenes appears a little too practiced, they are nonetheless tremendously entertaining.

Of her affairs with Victor Mature and others, she notes, "romances with beautiful leading men don't last forever, but don't knock it until you've had one."

Despite a life in the water, her feet remained firmly on the ground: "I don't care about having real jewelry; I'd rather have a lot on Sunset." Owing to her choice in men, her economic ride has been rocky as her personal life, but when they drained the pool on her career, businesses from swimwear to swimming pools have kept her afloat.

Million Dollar Mermaid is far more tartly witty than anyone could expect it to be, telling a remarkable story of the tough cookie that resided underneath that spangled one-piece. Add this one to your list of show-biz bios that will last.