The always lovely (even when damp) Esther Williams was the Star of the Month on Turner Classic Movies for May (we say was because, well, the month’s almost over, and her movies were being featured on Thursdays, of which we’ll see no more before the arrival of the hot and sticky month of June).
So we thought it an apt time to share with the Cladrite community an interview we did with the divine Ms. Williams some years ago on the occasion of the publication of her memoir, The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography.
Enjoy! But wait at least an hour after eating before reading this Q&A.
An Interview with Esther Williams
In the 1940s and ’50s, Esther Williams was one of the brightest stars in MGM’s galaxy and she’s still going strong today. Her movies, with their memorable Busby Berkeley-choreographed aquatic extravaganzas, remain hugely popular today in revival houses and on cable television. And now, with the publication of her autobiography, Williams shares candid tales of her life as Hollywood’s “Million Dollar Mermaid.” We chatted with Ms. Williams about a wide range of topics, from her husband Fernando Lamas‘s sometimes philandering ways to cross-dressing in Hollywood. It was a conversation as lively and open as her book, The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography.
As we read your book, it struck us that you’ve have had a life filled with extreme highs and lows. There have been so many wonderful chapters in your life, but so many sad and tragic events as well.
It’s the idea that you’re smiling underwater—doing the impossible!—and then going home to a life that’s unraveling around you…I was struck with it, too. You know, writing your autobiography is therapy. You get in tune with a lot of things you thought you’d forgotten.
Fernando [Lamas] had asked me years ago not to be in the movies or television or do interviews anymore; as I say in my book, he asked, “Can you stop being Esther Williams?” And I said, “Well, that’s an interesting idea; I’ve been her for a lot of years. Let’s see how I do without her.”
And when Fernando died in 1982, the thing I noticed about the death of a life partner, especially one as difficult as Fernando was—when they go, you’re out of a job! The first person that called me after he died was Shirley Maclaine, who is my friend, and she said, “Well, Esther, you can finally get out of the house.” And I thought, Oh, Shirley, you tell it like it is. I’m so very fond of her.
And then Barbara Walters called. And I said, “Oh, Barbara, I haven’t been photographed in 20 years!” The one thing that Katharine Hepburn said that really made sense to me is that good thing about the talk shows is that people get to watch you rot. And I said, “I’ve been rotting in private!” And she said, “I’ve seen you at parties and you don’t look like you’re rotting to me. I want you to come and do one of my specials.” I said, “I’m not going to look good next to Jane Fonda or Sally Field.” And she said, “I won’t put you next to Jane Fonda and Sally Field; I’ll put you in the middle segment—we’ll put Mr. T before you and Howard Cosell after you, two of the ugliest men in the world.” And I said, “Oh, then I’ll do the show—of course!” [laughs]
Early in the book you detail a clinical experience with LSD. Later, you reveal that you were the victim of a rape at the hands of a family friend when you were a young woman, that your older brother died a tragic death when he was just in his teens. Was the book a form of catharsis for you?
You know, we seem to acquire, as we age and deal with various diminished capacities, an ability to articulate our feelings. To say, “No, no, you don’t understand. It wasn’t that way; it was this way.” And what happened to me is that, when I would go through the problems of day-to-day living, it was always wonderful to go to the studio and dive into that wonderful water. The water was very healing for me, and it remains so even today. I’m in my 70s. I had a knee replaced not so long ago and was going through physical therapy, and it hurt, you know? They’ve got to bring the muscles along, and it hurts.
So I said to Mark, my physical therapist—he came to my house to work with me, and he didn’t know how to swim—I said, “You’re $60 an hour, Mark. And you hurt. I don’t want to be hurting anymore; I’m going to get in the pool. And I tell you what we’ll do—we’ll call the $60 a push, because that’s what I’ll charge you for your swimming lesson. And I got him swimming, and he loved it.
What an opportunity for him, to receive a swimming lesson from Esther Williams! That’s a rare treat.
I thought it was worth the $60! Candy Bergen rang my doorbell one day and said, “I want [her daughter] Chloe to learn to swim.” And I said, “If you wanted her to learn to play piano, would you ring Artur Rubenstein‘s door?” And she said, “I don’t care if she plays piano, but she’s got to learn to swim.” And I said, “Yes, that’s true. Because that can save her life. Piano won’t ever save her life.”
Are you pleased—or perhaps surprised—by the rise of women’s athletics? Would you ever have imagined the sort of attention that’s been lavished on the U.S. women’s soccer team or the Olympic basketball players and gymnasts?
And synchronized swimming! It’s an Olympic sport now. Yes, it’s very exciting.
You tell a rather shocking tale from Fernando Lamas’s childhood in the book, that at a young age, he was forced by his aunt to identify the exhumed remains of his parents.
You see, that’s the reason I can identify with Hillary Clinton and her statement to Talk magazine—to Tina Brown—about the reason she stayed with Bill. Because my experience with Fernando and feeling his need and what the love of a good woman could do for someone who’d had horrible childhood experiences that’d created this void. [His aunt] laid down that traumatic event that he didn’t need as a 12-year-old.
So giving up my career for this particular man, with his magnetic personality and deep sorrow, that he was so troubled that he imagined he saw the skulls of people he met, and yet he became a movie star anyway—I thought that was salutary.
I used to love him with Johnny Carson. He was wonderful. He would spend the first five minutes of his appearance rearranging his clothes so that they would lie just so and not wrinkle. He’d straighten the jacket, he’d get the collar just right, he’d get the tie just right, he’d pop the cuffs so that the cufflinks would show. And Johnny would just sit there. He’d look at the audience with an expression that said “How long is this going to go on?” And finally Fernando would turn to Johnny, after he was completely satisfied with the way he looked, and he’d say, “So, how are you?” And Johnny would just fall on the floor. He had such great timing, you know? I used to love to watch him.
I was a little annoyed with Billy Crystal and his “You look marvelous” bit, when he made such a big thing about what a womanizer he was. Because it was too close to his death. And I called Billy and he explained that he’d recorded a CD and that it was some of his best material on “Saturday Night Live” and that he just couldn’t give it up. And I could see it. He’d launched himself with that.
It always struck me as affectionate ribbing, though.
Yes, and it was. And Billy made that point with me. People magazine called me about it and I told them I’d talked to Billy but more importantly I’d talked to [Fernando’s son] Lorenzo. I asked him, “Does it hurt you to see your father portrayed as a ridiculous womanizer.” He told me to come out and look at his car. His license plate somehow used particular letters to read “You look marvelous.” So I said, “That settles it; I won’t be upset about it anymore.” He said, “It keeps him alive for me.” But you never know until you ask the question of people what it is that makes something have meaning for them. It’s a wonderful thing.
Back at the height of your movie career, did you ever feel trapped by the wholesome image created for you by the studio?
Oh yes, and I’m sure Doris Day had the same feelings I did at times, and Debbie Reynolds and June Allyson. There was a tendency to typecast you when they found that something worked. It happened to John Wayne; he was always on a horse or in uniform. Typecasting was what studios did because far be it from them, if they hit on something that made money for them, to change it. I took scripts to them all the time that Lana Turner, for example, winded up doing. “Cass Timberlane” I wanted to do with Spencer Tracy. But everybody was locked into their system, the things that worked. And it was really was a matter of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, Esther.”
I’d go upstairs and I’d say, “Let me do this; let me show you.” And I did a couple of “dry” things—Universal didn’t have a pool like Metro had, so when I went over there and did two pictures, they were just fine. People liked them a lot.
But I guess what MGM found was that my audience wanted that bathing suit. And you know, when Cinemascope came in and you’ve got that water all wrapped around you and they’d do big closeups of me. And the audience is in the water. And I think it had too much pleasure connected with it for them to change it.
Well, they certainly had something unique in you. It wasn’t as though you had a great deal of competition; there were no other swimming stars. So they probably didn’t want to, if you’ll pardon the pun, “water that down” by having you do serious roles.
[laughing] You mean they didn’t want to “dilute” it?
You know one thing that came up when I was writing the book, I asked myself, why the heck did I do all these dangerous things when I was carrying babies? I went through four pregnancies. And I lost one baby, although it wasn’t the fault of the studio; it was just that something went wrong.
But those dives that I took and the waterskiing and the outrigger canoe accidents that I nearly had right over that coral—I was carrying babies all that time!
The way they would talk me into is to say, “We have nobody to replace you.” And they would have, like, 68 waterskiers—champions from all over the world, Israel, Australia, New Zealand—and they said, “We can’t replace you; you have to do it!” And then they would change the shooting schedule; we always tried to do all the swimming at the beginning, before the baby showed. I could always do all the looping and the songs and all the work that had to be recorded but not seen, not photographed.
Do you think there could ever be an Esther Williams today, a young woman who is a swimmer—or perhaps even some other type of athlete—who could use her talent to break into the movies?
We’re going to have to find one because we have somebody who is terribly interested in turning my book into a Movie of the Week. So they’ll have to find someone. I asked my husband, Edward, who is taking the meetings with the people that would produce it, “Where are they going to find someone?” He said, “Esther, as unique as you are, you’re not the only swimmer in the world.” Nowadays there are wall-to-wall synchronized swimmers.
But nowadays they wouldn’t allow a leading actress to perform all the stunts you did.
No, they wouldn’t; they would double it. And the reason I did them is that nobody else would. I had one sequence in “Jupiter’s Darling” where I come up over a turbulent sea and all these rocks over on the isthmus of Catalina which is where, incidentally, Natalie Wood died in her boating accident, and my stand-in, Edie Motriege, who was a champion swimmer, took one look at that and said to me, “I’m not going to do that.” And this was a film where I wasn’t pregnant, I guess, and I said, “I’ll do it. It’s just surfing through rocks.”
I was really comfortable in the water. It didn’t make any terrors for me; I know it does for a lot of people but it doesn’t for me.
Of all the actors you worked with, who was your favorite costar?
When people ask me that, I have to say, the water. It was my costar. Most of my leading men couldn’t swim. I’ve told this one and Van Johnson can stand it, but I had to hold him up with my hand under his back. Because he was a sinker! You know, there are people who are floaters and people who are sinkers. And the people who could talk weren’t floaters, they were sinkers! It happened to me several times. Ricardo [Montalban] worked out in the gym all the time, and muscle is very heavy. [Arnold] Schwarzenegger would go right to the bottom. He would dive in and he would go to the bottom and we’d never hear from him again. So I just figured I would always have to teach them.
But Fernando was a swimming champion in Argentina. He told me this story, when I asked him, “You really can swim?” Because, to me, only a swimmer can really judge a swimmer. By a swimmer’s standards, are you a swimmer? Like one might ask a golfer, are you a golfer by Arnie Palmer‘s standards?
So I said that to him, and he got very grand on me—it was early in our relationship—and he said, “My dear woman, at one time I was considered one of the five fastest men in the world.” And I said, “I know, I know—but can you swim?”
Which of the many actors and actresses you worked with or came to know in your years at MGM was least like the image we, the movie-going public, might have of them?
I think it would be Debbie Reynolds, who is very glib and has a wonderful kind of schmaltzy way of putting things—nobody would know she was such a wonderful, hip, showbiz person from the innocent little roles like Tammy [sings] “Tammy … Tammy … Tammy’s in love.”
I saw a picture recently that she did back then. Fred Astaire played her father and Lili Palmer played her mother, and she was this little girl who just wanted to be with her daddy, you know? And I thought, oh boy, the real Debbie…
She was a little wilder than that, was she?
And that image that we saw when Debbie walked out on the lawn when Eddie Fisher left her for Elisabeth Taylor before Liz did “Cleopatra,” and Debbie had a baby in her arms and she had a safety pin on her apron and I thought, oh boy. Debbie really knew how to lay ’em in the aisles. I admired it; I really did.
Now I have to ask which of your fellow actors was most like the image we have of them today.
Lana. Lana Turner. Lana was famous for deciding on the man she was going to get involved with. And that was that wonderful quality she had on the screen, too, in “Johnny Eager” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” What you saw was what you got.
I don’t know who’d I’d choose among the male actors, though.
I once saw Ingrid Bergman right in front of my hotel in Paris; I was doing an Italian Red Cross benefit at the Moulin Rouge. And I suddenly found out that Ingrid Bergman was staying at the same little pensione that I was in. I saw her walking, and I said to myself, I don’t care if she doesn’t speak to me. I admired her so much on the screen. I said, “I just have to talk to you, because I’ve loved you so much. In “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” you were so magical and so powerful in the way that you loved Gary Cooper that it brought tears to my eyes.” And she said, “Well, thank you.” And I said, “Do you know who I am?” And she said, “Of course I do.” And I said, “You know, I envy you so—your leading men! Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Charles Boyer! I mean, I had Peter Lawford and Johnnie Johnson—little boys!” And she said, “My dear, your costar was your swimsuit.”
So sweet! I couldn’t believe she said it, and I asked her, “Have you seen my movies?” And she said, “Oh, yes, I love to watch your movies because you swim so well. And you didn’t need a strong leading man like Gary Cooper. I did.”
In the book, you tell a delightful tale of an afternoon spent kissing Clark Gable on an MGM soundstage.
That was my screen test! He was very much older than I was, and I could never figure out why he did it. I could never figure out how [Louis B.] Mayer talked him into doing a screen test with me. I was 18, and that was awfully young for Clark Gable at the time. I wondered at the time why he was doing it, though he was as sweet as he could be about it. He didn’t learn the lines; he just kissed me five times. But he gave me the answer as he was leaving. It was one of those scenes where you’re all huddled over in a corner of one of these big empty soundstages, and as he was walking toward that heavy door and they were about to open it, he said to Carole Lombard, who was on his arm—he had brought her to see him do the screen test—he said, “I told you I was going to kiss me a mermaid today.”
What actor didn’t you get to do a love scene with that you wish you had?
Oh, Cary Grant! He was wonderful. I did like Gary Cooper, I did like … I liked Tyrone Power! He was so beautiful, one of these men who are prettier than their leading ladies. I had loved “Blood and Sand.” But it never happened; it just never happened. I got whoever wasn’t working.
Perhaps if you’d managed to break out of the rut of the swimming pictures…
Yes, I think so. My scripts were awfully light for those strong actors. As a matter of fact, Fernando decided, when he came from Buenos Aires and was put in “The Merry Widow” with Lana Turner, that he was not going to star with me in a movie. And I said, “Why? Why don’t you want to? You’re such a wonderful swimmer; you were a champion in Argentina.” And he said, “I do not want to be Nelson Eddy to your Jeannette MacDonald in the swimming pool. That’s what will happen.” I said, “What don’t you like about the script?” Because by that time I had quite a bit of clout, and he said, “I don’t have enough good scenes; I just hold your towel.” And I said, “Well, let’s do a rewrite.” I got them to do a rewrite and put in more scenes—more interesting scenes—and I said, “Well, will you do it now?” and he said yes. That was “Dangerous When Wet“; that was the only picture we made together.
It must have been a treat to work with an actor who was a strong swimmer, rather than you having to hold him up, as you’d done with some of your other co-stars.
Oh, I finally knew what [Ginger] Rogers and Astaire felt like when they danced together; it was wonderful. I later did a television special at Cypress Gardens, and I got him to come and be my costar on it. It’s wonderful; there’s a clip of us doing a wonderful seductive scene in the water to “This is My Beloved” from “Kismet.” And there’s lots of groping!
Your book very successfully communicates what it was like to be a movie star in the 1940s and ’50s.
I did have total recall about it; I was amazed at how I remembered everybody’s name and what we did.
And you did reveal a few things that might be considered a bit scandalous. One that leaps to mind is when Jeff Chandler, whom you thought you might marry, revealed to you that he was a cross-dresser.
I went with him for three years and didn’t have a clue! And he’d asked me to marry him and I realized that I just couldn’t do that. I couldn’t live with that.
Were there any of those sort of skeletons that you decided were better left in the closet, that were too shocking or too personal?
You know, I wasn’t going to tell that story about Jeff in the book. I was thinking about protecting his two daughters and I don’t know if Marge, his ex-wife, is still alive. It’s interesting; when he absolutely knocked me off my feet with the fact that he wanted to do that and had been doing it for years, I wanted to share with him the fact that I had a million questions. I asked him if he was in therapy. And I tried to read everything Havelock Ellis had written on transvestism.
But I realized that the reason I was not going to tell the story in the book was not valid. Because after Monica and Bill, I didn’t see how anybody in this country—this planet!—could be shocked anymore. We live with a tabloid mentality now. And I realized that times had changed so much—from 1962, when he dressed up like that, until now, when I’m writing the book. And I said, I’ve got to stay in tune with the times. I mean, Jerry Springer recently had two men—in wedding gowns and hoop skirts and a bouquet—getting married on his show. So how in the world can I write a book now, for this audience that’s used to reading the National Enquirer? And that helped, because it liberated me to write some of the things that I did. I wrote a fair amount about my affair with Victor Mature from that, too, because I thought, I’m not going to shock anybody.
I’ll tell you something—it’s happening right now. And if it happens, it’s going to be immediate; it’ll shoot in September. It’s a picture with Richard Gere and Winona Ryder and they want me for the part of the grandmother. Winona dies at the end of it—it’s very complicated—and her illness is part of the story. And I said to the people who are involved, I’d want another scene; I think it needs one more. Because one of the saddest things—and I know my parents felt this when my older brother died—is this tremendous empty feeling because they feel that the parents should have died before the child. And here’s this grandmother that goes on living what really is this worthless life compared to this wonderful girl. And I think that would be a very profound meaning for this scene.
I’m going to be meeting with these people very soon; they’ve got to cast this almost immediately. So a return to acting is very much in the works, and we’ll see how it goes.