The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography
You might remember Esther Williams and her famous pool movies (now either fondly remembered by those who first saw them in the movie theaters, or considered kitsch and belittled for their formulaic manner).
She was America's sweetheart for more than 18 years, appearing in 26 movies from the early 1940's to the end of the '50s, and she was MGM's top female box office star ever. There's no denying that Esther Williams is an icon & a phenomenon that shouldn't be easily dismissed. As such, her book is full of gossip, insider stories and the like.
But what's most impressive about this book is the life of Esther Williams the person.
Esther Williams was five feet eight inches tall, with a pretty face, long athletic legs and a firm, shapely figure from swimming. As a swimmer, she was photographed often -- not just for winning championships, but for swimsuit cheesecake photos. But Williams was a swimmer, an athlete, and refused entertainment as a profession for fear of being unable to attend the Olympics. However when the war cancelled the Olympics, she was convinced into joining The Aquacade -- a Broadway musical in swimsuits. It wasn't long before Hollywood came a callin'...
Given that Esther Williams was a swimmer rather then an actress or starlet, MGM had to court her long and hard to sign with the studio. Once signed, Williams had reasons to doubt giving in.
Little planning or consideration was made for simple facts such as water ballet or performances underwater were not the same skill-set as 'swimming' and Esther was not only on her own as far as learning, but in charge of finding and training others for this work. She became the expert in an industry without precedent and with no experience of her own.
Despite her value to the studio, care was not really put into the planning of the water performances or stunts themselves. On numerous occasions she found herelf in dangerous situations. She nearly drown due to poorly constructed underwater sets, she escaped having herself and her unborn child being dashed to death on a coral reef, she ruptured her eardrums numerous times, & she broke her neck diving while filming... Williams soon learned she only could count on herself to look out for her own safety -- and in a few rare instances, found another to perform a stunt she didn't feel capable of making.
All of this behind the scenes information was suprising and entertaining, but this is not what made this book worth reading; the story of William's personal life is completely captivating.
There was her childhood, including how open her mother was regarding not wanting her and the death of her older brother which led to Esther assuming his role as the family star. Swimming was a means to shine, to excel and find a way to greatness. There was the rape at the hands of a young man Esther's parents had more-or-less adopted. There was the first failed marriage between two people too young to know what they wanted and what to expect. And then there was motherhood.
Esther makes it clear that she tried to be a good mother, a hands-on parent to her three children (with second husband Ben Gage). But with a husband who doesn't work but drinks & gambles, her role became breadwinner and she wasn't 'mom' as often as she wished. This was compounded by her husband's complete bankrupting of their estate, which led to their divorce. She discusses how in trying to shield her children from the facts about their father, she made the divorce more difficult for them. And how in the face of the MGM publicity machine, it wasn't just the fan mags who thought her husband was a gem -- that their marriage was perfect -- but friends and associates as well. If you can imagine your divorce was no picnic, imagine a public life with an ignorant public & friends pointing at you as 'the failure'. Williams had moxy. And a lot of work to do.
Her three children go to live with her sister, and she sees them when not working to pay off the IRS. But her life wasn't all work and family. For quite some time she dated actor Jeff Chandler & almost married him, but upon discovery of his cross dressing she ends the relationship. (It's only about 5 pages or so in the telling, but it's a very honest & direct story.)
Then she runs into actor Fernando "You look marvelous!" Lamas again.
Theirs is a passionate love and a tale of bad timing, or star-crossed lovers. When she and Fernando Lamas first met a married Esther resisted the chemistry; but now she is free to persue the romance. She and Lamas have a passionate, intense relationship. But it has a dark side.
Lamas has Williams step out of the public spotlight so that he can fully bask in it -- and her attentions at home. Extremely possessive, Lamas is so jealous that he refuses to let Esther see her three children because they A) remind him that she once 'belonged to another man' and B) they don't allow him to be Esther's only focus. Esther is so in love with him and with being needed that she acquiesces. Like many of us Good Girls, she's made a commitment and she'll not break it. Even if it risks breaking her.
However, she is torn by the love of her children and sneaks off to spend the afternoons with them. At her sister's house she supervises homework while making Lamas his grand dinners which she then shuttles back to her house to serve before Lamas returns.
This relationship has all the control you'd expect, including violence, and is difficult to read. It's hard to imagine a mother accepting this. Unless of course you've been there, in the control of another. Unless of course you've been reading what William's life has been for so long: a life of giving while others take. She, like any one, is so worn down by being the strong one that she takes the highs of passions even if it requires equally low lows.
When Lamas dies of pancreatic cancer in 1982, Esther is left with bad self-esteem, issues with her children, the loss of a husband, and a very closed world. Yet she writes all of it, including the effort it took to move along and become "Esther Williams" again. Williams didn't focus on Esther the performer, but turned to her savvy businesswoman side. She created "Swim, Baby, Swim", became an Olympic color commentator for synchronized swimming, created a line of women's swimwear, and put her name on a line of backyard swimming pools.
Along with the hard work, personal tragedies and Hollywood gossip, there are charming stories too. For example, in the book there's a sweet story about Lorenzo Lamas as a boy which made me feel bad for thinking he's an arrogant snot. (Sorry, Lorenzo!)
What's remarkable about all of what Esther Williams shares is that this is a story of sacrifice, yet I don't recall this word ever being used. If it -- or a synonym -- was used it wasn't enough for me to notice, yet that's precisely what her story is, that of sacrifice.
Maybe it's that Esther has too much class. She knows she's had fame & fortune, so why complain? Or worse yet, be a cliche, "I had riches, but my beauty and glamour were paid for in other ways." Or maybe, and this is what I think, she's got the integrity to accept what she has done, the paths she's selected, and not use a word like 'sacrifice' because she's not going to be some whiner. Where some would complain, Williams doesn't see the point in it.
It's clear from this book that Esther Williams has looked into herself (medicinal LSD & psychotherapy included) and accepts what she has done -- as well as what she can & will do. She's both transformed and in process; sacrifice is often part of life.
If you go over to Amazon, you're going to find some scathing reviews -- reviews which seem to bash the life of Williams rather than focusing on the book itself. It's an autobiography, so perhaps that's the confusion or impulse. Maybe folks can't bear an aging beauty queen with a past that's not as rosy as her cheeks once were; that hurts the reader's fantasy. But if you make the mistake and take those reviews as gospel, you're going to miss out on something -- someone -- rather remarkable.
Ms. Williams offers a look at a real person, a real life, behind the movies & the glamour. I for one found the book and her most interesting. Not because of the 'tell all in Hollywood' angle, but because she told all about herself as a person, a woman. A woman treated as a commodity more often than a star, yet she opened up and shared difficult & damaging details leaving herself once again to the judgment and disdain of others. It would be an amazing tale of strength and self-identity if of a life today, but as a tale from decades ago it is even more inspiring.
Review by DeeDee.
Title: The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography
Author: Esther Williams (with Digby Diehl)
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (September 14, 1999)