Splish-Splash: The Esther Williams Interview

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.

Fernando Lamas and Esther WilliamsIt’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.

Katharine HepburnAnd 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.

Artur RubensteinI 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.
Read More »

Jack Benny slept here

Though we’re committed New Yorkers, we woulnd’t mind a bit spending a few weeks — perhaps even a few months — a year in Los Angeles. We even find ourselves daydreaming about the City of Angels from time to time.

And yet, we came around slowly on L.A. Our first couple of visits were enjoyable enough, but we didn’t find the city particularly engaging. After three week-long sojourns there over the past six or seven years, though, we’ve been won over.

We view the city through a movie buff’s eye, primarily, and spend our time motoring about checking out movie stars’ homes, vintage movie palaces, and locations for favorite classic pictures (though we’re also happy just puttering through the various old neighborhoods south of the Hollywood hills — we love the residential architecture in old L.A.).

We didn’t snap the photos shared below; we bought them at a flea market some years back. They’re snapshots taken around Hollywood and its environs back in the day How old they are, exactly, we’re not sure — we’re inclined to think they’re from the late 1930s, but we’re open to guesses from you, gentle readers. (For larger views, just click the images.)

Fred Astaire’s home

Jack Benny’s home

Claudette Colbert’s home

Sam Goldwyn’s home

Norma Shearer’s home

Robert Taylor’s home

Mary Pickford and Douglas
Fairbanks’ Pickfair

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre

Puttin' on the Ritz

Fred Astaire, the very personification of suavity and grace, would have been 111 years old today.

Everyone knows Astaire was a great dancer, of course, but he was also a vastly underrated singer and an amazing dresser, one of the true icons of men’s fashion in the 20th century.

If I could manage to attain one-tenth of the style, grace, and savoir-faire Astaire possessed, I’d be a happy man.

Here’s hoping Mr. Astaire is somewhere dancing up a storm today, with Ginger Rogers at the head of a long line of lovely gals waiting to cut a rug with him.

“The Way You Look Tonight” — Fred Astaire
“Puttin’ on the Ritz” — Fred Astaire
“A Fine Romance” — Fred Astaire

Putting a polish on your day

Having our shoes shined is one of our favorite simple pleasures, and the reasons are many.

It’s a rare pleasure, this particular indulgence. We’ve invariably found those who perform the service to be congenial types, and it makes for a pleasant diversion from the day’s duties to take a break, perched on high and glancing at the sports pages, while an amiable gent fusses over one’s shoes (we’ve yet to meet a shoe shine gal, though she can count on our business when we do).

One definitely get one’s money’s worth with a shoe shine. We’ve rarely paid more than three bucks for this service (though we do fork over more when we step up for a shine at an airport), and the attendants are always conscientious and hard-working.

Compare the humble shoe shine to a professional shave at a barber shop. In NYC, you’ll pay twenty, thirty, even forty bucks for the latter, and while we’ve no doubt it’s a pleasure every bit the equal of the shoe shine, the price renders it an indulgence most of us can’t often allow ourselves.

But three bucks for a full ten minutes of a experienced professional’s services? That’s a bargain that’s hard to beat.

What’s more, the humble shoe shine presents one the opportunity to be a real sport — you can throw the attendant a five-spot and tell him or her to keep the change. Where else can one improve one’s karma — a 66% tip! — at such a reasonable rate? And even at the airport price of five or six bucks plus tip, a shoe shine is a relative bargain.

We live in a dressed-down era, of course, with many people wearing sneakers and hiking boots and other casual footwear. While there are still plenty of us who regularly patronize shoe shine stands, for most, it’s something they can only occasionally indulge in.

But we always enjoy the experience, and we highly recommend it to all members of the Cladrite Community.

It’s clear that Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz were fellow advocates for the shoe shine experience, given that they wrote a song celebrating the practice of paying for a polish for the 1932 Broadway musical “Flying Colors” (Fred Astaire also performed the song in the 1952 movie musical The Band Wagon):

A Shine On Your Shoes
When you feel as low
as the bottom of a well
and can’t get out of the mood,
do something to perk yourself up
and change your attitude.
Give a tug to your tie,
Put a crease in your pants,
but if you really want to feel fine,
give your shoes a shine.

When there’s a shine on your shoes,
there’s a melody in your heart
with a singable happy feeling.
A wonderful way to start
to face the world every day,
with a deedle-dum-dee-dah-dah,
a little melody that is making
the worrying world go by.

When you walk down the street
with a happy-go-lucky beat,
you’ll find a lot in what I’m repeating.

When there’s a shine on your shoes,
there’s a melody in your heart
What a wonderful way to start the day!
                      –Dietz & Schwartz

Here’s one of our favorite renditions of the song, recorded by Billy Banks and His Orchestra in 1932.

“When There’s a Shine on Your Shoes” — Billy Banks and His Orchestra

A Ginger-infused potpourri

It’s always a kick to see what familiar stars were up to before they became household names, and tonight’s lineup of early Ginger Rogers pictures on Turner Classic Movies provides just such an opportunity for fans of the twinkled-toed hoofer.

Rogers, a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1932, is best remembered, of course, for her storied association with Fred Astaire, with whom she made ten pictures, but she’d already appeared in nine movies before she was paired with Astaire for the first time in 1933’s Flying Down to Rio. Six of those movies are included among tonight’s offerings on TCM.

42nd Street is a title familiar to many, as much for its second life as a Broadway stage musical as anything, but if you’ve not seen the original picture, you should; it’s grittier (and sexier) than you might expect — a true Pre-Code musical.

Here’s the full line-up, beginning at 8pm and extending well into Thursday morning:

8:00pm42nd Street (1933)
The definitive backstage musical, complete with the dazzling newcomer who goes on for the injured star.
Cast: Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers. Dir: Lloyd Bacon.

9:45pmGold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
Three chorus girls fight to keep their show going and find rich husbands.
Cast: Warren William, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers. Dir: Mervyn LeRoy.

11:30pmProfessional Sweetheart (1933)
A radio star’s pure image leads to a fake engagement to a hayseed.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Norman Foster, ZaSu Pitts, Frank McHugh. Dir: William A. Seiter.

1:00amRafter Romance (1933)
A salesgirl falls for a night worker without realizing they share the same apartment.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Norman Foster, George Sidney, Robert Benchley. Dir: William A. Seiter.

2:15amCarnival Boat (1932)
A logger defies his father to court a showgirl.
Cast: Bill Boyd, Ginger Rogers, Fred Kohler, Hobart Bosworth. Dir: Albert Rogell.

3:30amSuicide Fleet (1931)
Three Navy shipmates fight over the same girl.
Cast: Bill Boyd, Robert Armstrong, James Gleason, Ginger Rogers. Dir: Albert Rogell.

5:00amChance At Heaven (1934)
A society girl steals a simple gas station attendant from his working-class girlfriend.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Joel McCrea, Marion Nixon, Andy Devine. Dir: William A. Seiter.

6:15amThe Tenderfoot (1932)
An innocent cowboy sets out to back a Broadway play.
Cast: Joe E. Brown, Ginger Rogers, Lew Cody, Vivian Oakland. Dir: Ray Enright.

7:30amYou Said A Mouthful (1932)
To sell his unsinkable bathing suit, an inventor passes himself off as a championship swimmer.
Cast: Joe E. Brown, Ginger Rogers, Preston S. Foster, Allen “Farina” Hoskins. Dir: Lloyd Bacon

9:00amThe Tip-Off (1932)
A dim-witted boxer helps a naive friend romance a gangster’s girl.
Cast: Eddie Quillan, Robert Armstrong, Ginger Rogers, Joan Peers. Dir: Albert Rogell.

10:15amFinishing School (1934)
A boarding-school girl has to cope with family problems and puppy love.
Cast: Frances Dee, Billie Burke, Ginger Rogers, Bruce Cabot. Dir: George Nicholls Jr.