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Hollywood Mermaid

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You know the old saying, “they don’t make them like they used to” – which is perhaps why I’ve always been a fan of classic movies. I’m more prone to get excited about one of them on the television than brand-new ones at the movie theater.

Esther Williams. 1945. Prints and Photographs Division.

The passing of a beloved actress, who I grew up watching, reminded me of this. Screen siren Esther Williams passed away last Thursday in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was 91.

I can see her scenes now: synchronized swimmers, fountains of water spraying everywhere, and her — center — coming up and out of the water, replete in gilded swimming suits, flowers in her hair. I was always fascinated by the fact that there were movies built around such swimming extravaganzas. And, yet, I was completely mesmerized and delighted.

Williams turned to Hollywood after failing to win the Olympic gold medal in 1940. She was only 17 when she won three gold medals and earned a place on the United States Olympic team. Unfortunately, the games were canceled with the onset of WWII.

She ended up becoming one of the biggest box-office stars of the 1940s and 50s. She appeared in more than 20 films, including “Bathing Beauty,” “Neptune’s Daughter,” “Million Dollar Mermaid” and “Ziegfeld Follies,” in which she played herself.

“I always felt that if I made a movie, it would be one movie,” Williams once said. “I didn’t see how they could make 26 swimming movies.”

“Ziegfeld Follies.” 1945. Prints and Photographs Division.

Over the course of her career, Williams ruptured her eardrums seven times –  “I gave my eardrums to MGM” – broke her back taking a dive and nearly drowned, all because she did her own stunts.

Following her film career, she went on to lend her name to a retro line of swimwear and a swimming-pool company, among other things. In 1966, Williams was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

All in all, Williams believed she was “just a swimmer who got lucky.”





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