Esther Williams, an athlete turned actress, was known for starring in MGM “aqua musicals” that thrived at the box office and paved the way for synchronized swimming to become an Olympic sport.
Born Aug. 8, 1921, in Los Angeles, Williams became a national swimming champion as a teenager. She was to compete in three Olympic events for the U.S. swim team in 1940, but World War II intensified, the Games were canceled and Williams landed in a swim revue at the San Francisco World’s Fair. Then Hollywood took notice.
Williams made 26 movies in 20 years. She and choreographer Busby Berkeley “turned a swimming pool into a seraglio, a sultan’s dream with breathtaking production numbers of gorgeous girls swimming in geometric shapes around blue water while Esther, with orchids and exotic plants wound round her hair framing that beauteous face, was the centerpiece,” Jim Murray described in the Los Angeles Times.
Her films, with titles including “Bathing Beauty,” “Neptune’s Daughter” and “Million Dollar Mermaid,” got mixed reviews — “I never had a picture that was praised by Time, [New York Times critic] Bosley Crowther or the New Yorker,” she once said — but the movies pleased audiences and packed theaters. For seven years she was in the top 10 box-office list.
Williams retired from film in the early 1960s and launched a line of swimwear in 1989 designed to be wearable for all women. "I'm not trendy," she told the Los Angeles Times. "I'm what you call a classic."
Williams died June 6, 2013 in her sleep, according to her longtime publicist Harlan Boll. She was 91.