MGM's beautiful swimming star of the '40s and '50s – and businesswoman in the '60s – was 91
Credit: Herb Ball/NBC

The silver screen has long boasted many great beauties, but only one was ever worthy of the title “America’s Mermaid.” Esther Williams, MGM’s great synchronized swimming star and box-office attraction of the ’40s and ’50s, has died. She was 91.

The star’s publicist, Harlan Boll, told the Associated Press she died in her sleep Thursday.

Relatively removed from the public eye since the publication of her 1999 memoir, The Million Dollar Mermaid, Williams suffered some health setbacks in the past several years. In 2001, she fractured her ankle (which then became infected, necessitating the use of a walker) after a spill down some stairs in her Beverly Hills home. Then, in 2007, she suffered a stroke.

Olympic Aspirant

Born in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Inglewood, the fifth and youngest child of a sign-painter father and psychologist mother, Esther Jane Williams competed in amateur swimming competitions in the late 1930s, hoping to make it onto the U.S. swim team at the 1940 Olympics until that event was canceled due to the war in Europe. Instead, she performed in the Aquacade at the 1940 San Francisco World’s Fair, where MGM talent scouts spotted and signed her.

Her first movie was 1942’s Andy Hardy’s Double Life, in which she played a comely coed opposite Mickey Rooney’s collegiate all-American boy. She made her first splash in the MGM pool for 1944’s Bathing Beauty, costarring the comedian Red Skelton. The movie was Williams’s first in Technicolor, which was still a rarity in those days – but which became a standard for her movie musicals.

Although Williams’s acting often left something to be desired, and some of her costars and directors found her domineering, her figure and finesse in the water was always admired. Writing of a typical Williams vehicle, 1949’s Neptune’s Daughter, New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther observed: “Her smooth and voluptuous arching through pools of pellucid blue, skinned down to shimmering form-fit numbers, is still something pretty to behold.”

Her final movie for MGM was 1955’s Jupiter’s Darling, after which she attempted the occasional drama for other studios and some TV specials. By the early ’60s she had essentially retired from the screen but started a lucrative career in the bathing suit and backyard swimming poll businesses. In 1984, she finally did make it to the Olympics – as a TV commentator for the synchronized swimming event.

Wife and Mother

In all, Williams had four marriages. The first, in 1940, was brief, to pre-med student Leonard Kovner. The second, in 1945, was to singer-actor Ben Gage, with whom she had three children. Both of those unions ended in divorce.

Her third husband, Latin actor Fernando Lamas, insisted she give up her career, and she did. Despite his philandering, which Williams said she knew about, the two were married from 1969 until his death in 1982. She was also a devoted stepmother to his son, Lorenzo Lamas, the Grease and Falcon Crest actor (whose birth mother is the actress Arlene Dahl). Her fourth husband was Edward Bell.

“The press portrayed me as a kind of post-World War II version of Martha Stewart – ‘the Mermaid Tycoon,’ as I was dubbed on the cover of Life; the perfect homemaker; the Hollywood glamour queen; and a sex symbol in a bathing suit – all rolled into one,” Williams wrote in her autobiography.

“Meanwhile, for most of that time I was working 12-hour days in that huge pool at MGM, creating movie fantasies and then coming home each night to a personal life that seemed to repeatedly unravel.”

Despite the roles others were always creating for her, she said, “Most of my life I have thought about myself in various family roles – as daughter, sister, wife and, above all, mother.”