Esther Williams, a teenage swimming champion who became an enormous Hollywood star in a decade of watery MGM extravaganzas, died on Thursday in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was 91.
From “Bathing Beauty” in 1944 to “Jupiter’s Darling” in 1955, Ms. Williams swam in Technicolor pools, lakes, lagoons and oceans, cresting onto the list of Top 10 box-office stars in 1949 and 1950.
“Esther Williams had one contribution to make to movies — her magnificent athletic body,” the film critic Pauline Kael wrote. “And for over 10 years MGM made the most of it, keeping her in clinging, wet bathing suits and hoping the audience would shiver.”
In her autobiography, “The Million Dollar Mermaid” (1999), Ms. Williams spoke of movie stardom as her “consolation prize,” won instead of the Olympic gold medal for which she had yearned. At the national championships in 1939, Ms. Williams, who was 17, won three gold medals and earned a place on the 1940 United States Olympic team. But Hitler invaded Poland, and the 1940 Olympics were canceled with the onset of World War II.
At a time when most movies cost less than $2 million, MGM built Ms. Williams a $250,000 swimming pool on Stage 30. It had underwater windows, colored fountains and hydraulic lifts, and it was usually stocked with a dozen bathing beauties. Performing in that 25-foot-deep pool, which the swimmers nicknamed Pneumonia Alley, Ms. Williams ruptured her eardrums seven times.
By 1952, the swimming sequences in Ms. Williams’s movies, which were often elaborate fantasies created by Busby Berkeley, had grown more and more extravagant. For that year’s “Million Dollar Mermaid,” she wore 50,000 gold sequins and a golden crown. The crown was made of metal, and in a swan dive into the pool from a 50-foot platform, her head snapped back when she hit the water. The impact broke her back, and she spent the next six months in a cast.
Ms. Williams once estimated that she had swum 1,250 miles for the cameras. In a bathing suit, she was a special kind of all-American girl: tall, lithe, breathtakingly attractive and unpretentious. She begged MGM for serious nonswimming roles, but the studio’s response was, in effect, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Audiences rejected her in dramas like “The Hoodlum Saint” (1946) and “The Unguarded Moment” (1956). Her only dry-land box-office success was “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (1949), with Ms. Williams as the owner of a baseball team whose players included Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly.
She is survived by her husband, Edward Bell; a son, Benjamin Gage; a daughter, Susan Beardslee; three stepsons, the actor Lorenzo Lamas, Tima Alexander Bell and Anthony Bell, three grandchildren and eight stepgrandchildren.