Readers of this blog are probably familiar with my appreciation for the films of the Studio Period.
One of the most intriguing and at the same time peculiar stars of that era was Esther Jane Williams, the "Million Dollar Mermaid".
Williams has always held an odd sort of fascination for me because her place in American film is so...bizarre. She said it herself: “I know I can’t act. I know I can’t dance. I can’t sing, but I’m going to keep trying until I get it right.” Her movies were almost interchangable, the only differences the setting or the names of the characters. They were bright, cheerful, accessible, and trivial; in some ways like the lady herself.
She is also intriguing because in a movie world full of tiny, petite little women she was a titan. Like many of the best swimmers she was tall, broad-shouldered, and long-legged. And that wasn't all that was big about her. Look at her pictures; the woman had nature's swim fins on the ends of her legs. I haven't found any sources that will come straight out and talk about Esther's shoe size but I'll bet she wore a women's 10 or 11. Not a bad thing for a competitive swimmer, but I'll bet the studio costumers and camera guys had a hell of a time ensuring that she never got photographed with those big ol' dogs right in the camera. Wouldn't do for the lads to see the girl had some big, strong feet, right?
I wonder if her arch-enemy Gene Kelly cracked wise about her ginormous hooves? He certainly seems to have snarked about all the other aspects of her size during the filming of Take Me Out To The Ball Game...
She had wretched taste in, or luck with, men. The ones that she got on well with were married to other women; the ones she married were frightful - the first was neurotic, the second drunk, and the third, Fernando Lamas, a psychiatrist's poster boy for priapic self-centered egotism. Once when Esther has an argument with him he tells her that he isn't going to do something purely because she wants to do it, and that is what's going to happen every time she wants something other than what he wants.
"Then the best thing for me to do is not to want anything, right?" she says, to which Lamas replies serenely;
"Yes, that would be best."
William's "autobiography" - which is where I culled this gem - is a delight, full of gossip about the Hollywood of the studios and stars of her day. Esther dishes the dirt, too, and for all that she is often elliptical she comes across as a woman who knew what she wanted. Her biggest troubles always seemed to come from men and her weakness for them. She doesn't come right out and say it but you get the feeling that Esther was a bit of a lusty lass who tended to ignore her man's other bad news if her man was good at pleasuring her.
In later life - after Lamas' death - she seems to have found a great deal of satisfaction in her businesses and the "sport" of synchronized swimming. She seems to have finally found a good man who was good to her (and good with her, since though in her autobio she finally shuts up about her carnal escapades after Lamas it's hard to imagine Ms. Williams being happy with a fella who couldn't make her shout when the lights went out...). She died peacefully in her sleep at 91 after twenty-five years with her husband and kids beside her and a happy ending to a busy life.
And speaking of that...for what it's worth, I'm not sure that I don't believe her story about Jeff Chandler and the striped dress. Chandler's people got into a tizzy and Esther sorta-kinda said that she might have made the story up. But no reason that Jeff couldn't have been all man AND a cross-dresser. It takes all kinds. Thank heaven.
Well, Esther went to the big Pool in the Sky this June.
We will never see another like her. She was a creation of a studio system that is long gone, and a public whose taste in entertainment has vastly changed since her stardom. Her films, her family, and her odd little sport, though, remain behind so she will remain a shining smile and a sparkle in the eyes of those who come upon her works.
Not exactly a bad legacy, that.