How Esther Williams moved to Hollywood

 

Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid: Courtesy of TCM

In the summer of 1940, Jonny Weissmuller, the fastest swimmer of the world had a herculean task – to search his new co-star for the aquatic show at the Frisco World Fair, San Francisco. So the project began with auditioning hundreds of pretty long-legged girls who were dressed up in swimsuits beside a pool flaunting their curves.

They were smiling brightly into the cameras and the photographers had the look of men enjoying their work.

However, he was not dazzled by this glitter and glamour.

Amidst the audition, his eyes fell on a young lady lined up in the centre. “Now she`d be fantastic,” he said, “but can she swim?”

This question delighted Jack Carson (American Actor) “Can she swim?” he echoed. “She just happens to be the reigning American champion, that`s all!”

“In that case,” said Weissmuller promptly, “let`s hire her before she changes her mind.”

And that was how Esther Williams came into show business and bid goodbye to the Olympic pools of the world.

Swimming`s loss was most definitely Hollywood`s gain: but it nevertheless posed a bit of a mystery. For the switch meant that no one would ever know for sure just how good she really was.

She had already proved herself as the best freestyler in the United States and it was being suggested that this meant the best in the world.

Certainly, her choice of leaving the sporting world and entering the glamour arena had disappointed the sports league. But it was an obvious choice. As World War was gearing to explode and the possibility to conduct Olympic Games seemed dubious.

Day by day, she swam with Weissmuller who had once been the greatest swimmer in the world. Frequently, they raced one another over 100 metres – and frequently she won.

Esther Williams swimming with Johnny Weissmuller (C) johnnyweissmuller.com

Although Weissmuller had won his last Olympic title in 1928, such accomplishment on her part was quite remarkable. So remarkable, in fact, that there was a talk of publicity gimmicks and the like.

She could have become the greatest swimmer ever had she not decided to put on the grease paint to the Jane of Tarzan of the Apes.

She was the ultimate sporting glamour girl, and her theatrical impact upon men everywhere proved quite devastating.

“Bathing Beauty,” the film which launched her, was shown to packed cinemas all over the world. The newspaper of the time carried stories of men who`d watched every performance on each day of the week.

Bathing Beauty (C) tcm.com

24-HOUR Guard

In Britain, there were three separate cases of the entire film being stolen from the projection room.

Esther Williams had become a real-life “Wonder Woman”…. at least, that`s the way Weissmuller saw it.

“It was this incredible combination with Esther that used to drive men halfway out of their minds. On the one hand, she was glamorous as Monroe or Mansfield; on the other, a champion athlete. We had to place a guard on her night and day. It got the bad. What these guys hadn`t realized was that when she became my co-star, she was only 17, and yet curved like an hourglass. An early developer, I guess.” Weissmuller said.

She was strong, too, and this helped to save her life once on location in Spain. She had been caught in a very strong current when swimming off a deserted beach and swept out to sea.

Very sensibly, she made no attempt to fight against the current. She relaxed, went with the flow, conserving her energy… and finally landed three miles further down the coast.

In many ways, that had been a bigger challenge than her swim in the 100-metre final of the United States championships of 1939.

She was just 16, although she could have been mistaken for a 20-year-old, and her sights were on the Olympics which she believed to be just a year away. If a global war hadn`t blown up, it would have been.

So, she pursued what she considered to be the safest tactics, cruising down the first length and then pouring on the pace in the second. She was supremely confident that no one else could match her speed.

Her close competitors were Wendy Miller and Jilly Smith. She stayed with them for another 10 metres and then went away as though they were standing still.

She won, easing up, climbed effortlessly out of the pool and smiled for the cameras. It was a smile that Hollywood and the world would come to know well.

 

 

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