Born in Inglewood, California, on August 8, 1921, she was the fifth and youngest child of Louis Stanton Williams and Bula Myrtle. Louis was a sign painter and Bula was a psychologist. Esther Williams, sometimes called “America’s Mermaid,” helped popularize synchronized swimming through a string of hugely popular films in the 1940s and ’50s. Williams suffered a great personal loss at an early age when her older brother, Stanton, a promising actor, died at the age of 16. Soon after her brother’s death, Williams found a respite from her sadness by learning to swim.
Williams was enthusiastic about swimming. Her older sister, Maurine, took her to Manhattan Beach and to the local pool. She took a job counting towels at the pool to pay the five cent entry fee, and while there, had swimming lessons from the male lifeguards. From them, she learned the swimming stroke skills with which she would later break records.
As a teenager, Esther Williams was a member of the Los Angeles Athletic Club swim team. Her medley team set the record for the 300-yard relay in 1939, and she was also National AAU champion in the 100 meter freestyle, with a record-breaking time of 1 minute 09.0 seconds. By age 16, Williams had won three US national championships in breaststroke and freestyle swimming. She also qualified for the 1940 Olympic Games. Unfortunately, the Olympics were canceled that year due to the onset of World War II.
Disappointed, Williams took a job at an upscale department store. Shortly after she took the new job, producer Billy Rose asked Williams to audition for his swimming and diving show, Aquacade, in San Francisco. She landed the lead role opposite Johnny Weissmuller, best known as Tarzan in the popular film series of the same name. Williams made a series of films in the 1940s and early 1950s known as “aquamusicals,” which featured elaborate performances with synchronized swimming and diving.
Her International Swimming Hall of Fame biography, says, “Her movie career played a major role in the promotion of swimming, making it attractive to the public, contributing to the growth of the sport as a public recreation for health, exercise, water safety — and just plain fun.”
Though not an especially good actress, Williams was a sight to see in the water. People around the world flocked to movie theaters to see the graceful Williams work her magic on screen, making her an international superstar.
In the 1960s, Esther Williams, instead of performing, focused on a number of business interests. After endorsing swimsuits in the 1940s and ’50s, she designed her own swimsuit line, the Esther Williams Swimsuit Collection. She also put her name on a line of backyard swimming pools. Both businesses are still thriving today.
Esther Williams died in her sleep on June 6, 2013 from natural causes, in her Los Angeles home. She was 91. She was cremated, and her ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.