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  • Writer's pictureEllen Cheshire

Esther Williams: Million Dollar Mermaid

Updated: May 5, 2023

I have always had a soft spot for the MGM musical extravaganzas of the 1950s, particularly those starring Esther Williams, the swimming superstar.

Reading her autobiography reveals a fascinating story of heartache and triumph behind the fabulous smile.

esther williams.jpg

The Million Dollar Mermaid by Esther Williams and Digby Dell

Published by Pocket Books, 2000

Esther Williams, the million-dollar mermaid, made a number of great films for MGM. The swimming sensation and founder of water ballet now known as synchronised swimming, may have often seemed a bit of light froth of the edge of the MGM ocean of great entertainment, but as her autobiography reveals this as anything but the case.

She certainly had it tough. One of five children, she grew up in near poverty, the family finances buoyed when her brother was offered a Hollywood contract, but this dream was shattered when he unexpectedly died aged 16, when Esther was only 8. From 14 she was repeatedly raped by a 16-year-old boy her parents ‘adopted’.

Her activities both on and off-screen are neatly interwoven. Her four marriages are shown in parallel to her rise and fall at MGM.

What is most revealing, is not who she slept with (although I was very surprised to read of the secret cross-dressing life of one of Hollywood’s most masculine of stars), or who she fought off on the infamous casting couch, but the intricacies of making her films. Deemed to be a light fluff forever, she often risked her life to make these films. There was only one swimming star, she had no understudy and performed all her stunts. She spent six months in a full body cast, after breaking three vertebrae diving into a pool with a metal crown; the dive made it into the final cut, but not her near drowning and paralysation.

A truly revealing autobiography, although it does dwell somewhat on the negative aspects of her personal life. Her triumphs at MGM overshadowed by the sheer pressure of devising, staging and performing her routines, and her constant desire to be taken seriously within the industry.

Through her book, Esther Williams comes across a feisty and forthright woman. One who never quite came to terms with her film success or with the failures in her personal life.

Reviewed by Ellen Cheshire

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