Esther Williams in the 1944 musical "The Ziegfeld Follies."
The swimming champion-turned-actress who starred in glittering and aquatic Technicolor musicals of the 1940s and 1950s died Thursday, June 6, 2013. She was 91.
By CBSNews.com senior editor David Morgan
Following in the footsteps of Sonja Henie (who went from skating champion to movie star), Esther Williams became one of Hollywood's biggest moneymakers, appearing in spectacular swimsuit numbers that capitalized on her wholesome beauty and perfect figure.
Left: Williams in "Bathing Beauty" (1944).
She was born Aug. 8, 1921, in Inglewood, a suburb southwest of Los Angeles, one of five children. A public pool was not far from the modest home where Williams was raised, and it was there that an older sister taught her to swim. When she was in her teens, the Los Angeles Athletic Club offered to train her four hours a day, aiming for the 1940 Olympic Games at Helsinki.
In 1939, Williams won the Women's Outdoor Nationals title in the 100-meter freestyle, set a record in the 100-meter breaststroke, and was a part of several winning relay teams. But the outbreak of war in Europe that year canceled the 1940 Olympics, and Esther dropped out of competition to earn a living.
Left: Esther Williams in August 1942, pictured as the theme girl of the first annual Los Angeles Swimming and Diving Contest.
While appearing as a bathing beauty at the World's Fair in San Francisco, she was spotted by an MGM producer and an agent. She laughed at the suggestion she do films that would popularize swimming, as Sonja Henie had done with ice skating. "Frankly I didn't get it," she recalled. "If they had asked me to do some swimming scenes for a star, that would have made sense to me. But to ask me to act was sheer insanity."
She debuted in "Andy Hardy's Double Life" (1942).
After a small role in "A Guy Named Joe," Williams starred in 1944's "Bathing Beauty" (left), which co-starred Basil Rathbone, Red Skelton, and the Xavier Cugat Orchestra.
It began a string of immensely popular musical spectaculars -- with much bathing attire in evidence.
Esther Williams and Carlos Ramirez in "Bathing Beauty" (1944).
A spectacular sequence from "Bathing Beauty," featuring Esther Williams.
Van Johnson plays a war hero who falls hard for a just-married swim teacher (Esther Williams) in "Thrill of a Romance" (1945).
Williams in a bathing suit became a favorite pinup of Americans in World War II, and her popularity continued afterward. She was a refreshing presence among MGM's stellar gallery -- warm, breezy, with a frankness and self-deprecating humor that delighted interviewers.
Movie star Esther Williams poses off of Catalina Island, California, August 25, 1947.
Among the cast of the Busby Berkeley musical "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (1949) were Esther Williams, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett and Gene Kelly.
Esther Williams in "Skirts Ahoy!" (1952).
The biopic "Million Dollar Mermaid" (1953) featured Esther Williams as Australian Annette Kellerman, who overcame polio to become a pro swimmer and movie star. The film also starred Victor Mature and Walter Pidgeon.
In "Dangerous When Wet" (1953), Esther Williams is rescued by Fernando Lamas while swimming the English Channel.
Esther Williams with Fernando Lamas in "Dangerous When Wet" (1953). Lamas would later become Williams' third husband.
Before her fame she was married briefly to a medical student. In 1945 she wed Ben Gage, a radio announcer, and they had three children (Benjamin, Kimball and Susan). They divorced in 1958.
A memorable sequence in "Dangerous When Wet" is Esther Williams' underwater ballet with MGM's animated duo Tom and Jerry.
The water show at Cypress Gardens was the backdrop for Esther Williams' 1953 film, "Easy to Love."
After starring together in "Pagan Love Song" (1950) and "Texas Carnival" (1951), Esther Williams and Howard Keel appeared in the 1955 musical "Jupiter's Darling," which featured figures from Roman history and swimming.
George Sanders and Esther Williams in "Jupiter's Darling" (1955). Williams played a Roman woman who swims the Tiber.
After her contract with MGM ended, Esther Williams was hired by Universal to star in two dramatic films, including the 1956 mystery, "The Unguarded Moment," which was written (under a pseudonym) by actress Rosalind Russell. The film was Williams' first out of the water in more than a decade, and did not fare well at the box office.
Esther Williams and Cliff Robertson in the 1961 circus drama "The Big Show."
In 1963 Fernando Lamas (Williams' costar in "Dangerous When Wet") directed her last film, "Magic Fountain," in Spain. It was never released in America.
After Lamas' death in 1982, Williams regained the spotlight. Having popularized synchronized swimming with her movies, she was co-host of the event on television at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. She issued a video teaching children how to swim, and sponsored her own line of swimsuits (left).
"I've been a lucky lady," Williams said in a 1984 interview with The Associated Press. "I've had three exciting careers. Before films I had the experience of competitive swimming, with the incredible fun of winning. ... I had a movie career with all the glamor that goes with it. That was ego-fulfilling, but it was like the meringue on the pie. My marriage with Fernando -- that was the filling, that was the apple in the pie."
Left: Esther Williams in a scene from "Million Dollar Mermaid."
By CBSNews.com senior editor David Morgan. The Associated Press contributed to this report.