The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography

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Now comes Esther Williams's autobiography, all about an eighteen-year-old girl who reluctantly answers the siren call of MGM - at the time, the most powerful and prestigious movie studio in the world - and who soon finds herself launched on a career that will last more than twenty years, during which time she will help to create a genre of film that seems almost unimaginable today, yet which still holds all its original freshness and fascination, and who becomes during those years one of the world's top box ...
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Overview

Now comes Esther Williams's autobiography, all about an eighteen-year-old girl who reluctantly answers the siren call of MGM - at the time, the most powerful and prestigious movie studio in the world - and who soon finds herself launched on a career that will last more than twenty years, during which time she will help to create a genre of film that seems almost unimaginable today, yet which still holds all its original freshness and fascination, and who becomes during those years one of the world's top box office stars.. "Williams calls MGM her "university," and the education she got there was one in how to project glamour and femininity, how to make yourself desirable while always, always playing the lady. No one who went through that university has ever written before with such absolute candor about what it was really like - the affairs, the gossip, the tricks of the trade, the competition, the deals, the fights, and the methods the studios had for keeping their stars in line.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In the 1940s and '50s, Esther Williams was one of the brightest stars in MGM's galaxy, and she's still going strong today. Her kitschy-but-classic movies, with their memorable Busby Berkeley-choreographed aquatic extravaganzas, remain hugely popular today in revival houses and on cable television. And now, with the publication of her autobiography, Million Dollar Mermaid, Williams shares candid tales of her life as Hollywood's dampest denizen.
Robert Gottlieb
...fresh and convincing...Williams tells it honestly...This [is an] interesting and engaging account of her life, and of the Hollywood she knew.
NY Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
MGM swim-femme Williams delighted millions in choreographed aqua-movie-musicals during the 1940s and '50s: her unbuttoned autobiography examines both her splashy, sunny public image and the murky waters of her private life. Williams and Diehl (Tales from the Crypt) backstroke through a flood of memories, giving a fluid treatment to "hundreds of hours of conversations that are the basis for this book." Williams opens by describing the LSD trip she took in 1959 (Cary Grant helped her score the acid), then dives into her traumatic early life: a brother died at 16, and a boy the same age raped the young Williams repeatedly. Competing in swim meets at 15, Williams became a national champion in 1939, costarred in Billy Rose's Aquacade with the drunken, exhibitionistic Johnny Weissmuller and signed with MGM in 1944. Williams's movie years constitute the colorful core of the book, displaying life inside a major studio during Hollywood's Golden Age and showing screen legends with their pants down--sometimes literally. Williams had to deal with disastrous marriages, manipulative moguls and life-threatening water stunts. Her sparkling anecdotes alternate the scandalous, the charming and the ridiculous. When, during the rain-drenched filming of Pagan Love Song, Williams cables from Kauai to tell her studio head she's pregnant, the announcement reaches all the ham radio operators in California. Later chapters cover Williams's work for TV, her swimsuit licensing and her years with jet-setting, tyrannical third husband Fernando Lamas. Williams speaks of her own "zest for life"; she and collaborator Diehl demonstrate it many times over in this tremendously entertaining life story. First serial to Vanity Fair. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A national champion swimmer at 16, the statuesque 5'8" Williams reluctantly parlayed her talent into a lucrative MGM contract during World War II. She swam through a few small rolls A Guy Named Joe, Andy Hardy's Double Life and by 1948 was a full-fledged Hollywood star. In this rich memoir, Williams candidly looks back on her eventful life, from her amateur swimming days in the 1930s through her trademark aquatic musical spectaculars. Along the way, she gives readers glimpses of some of Hollywood's nuttiest celebrities, including studio chief Louis Mayer who once writhed on the rug to make a point. She also tells stories about the likes of Howard Hughes, Van Johnson, Ricardo Montalban, and Victor Mature and frankly reveals some surprising details from her life--including a sexual assault at age 13, LSD therapy, and catering to third husband Fernando Lamas's every wish in exchange for fidelity. Williams describes Hollywood's golden age thoughtfully and humorously; to echo Billy Crystal's affectionate parody of Lamas, this book is "mahvelous." Recommended for all public libraries, especially those with large film collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/99.]--Kim R. Holston, American Inst. for Chartered Property Casualty Underwriters, Malvern, PA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Time Magazine
It's hard to think of a better way to spend a summer Saturday than lounging with America's only swimming-star actress, Esther Williams, preferably at poolside. With the help of Digby Diehl, Williams writes so engagingely you can practically hear her voice, telling caustic but affectionate tales of Hollywood at midcentury...Williams had her share of traumas, including painful family conflicts and a disasterous financial breakdown. But there isn't a trace of self-pity here. Her book, like her movies, make no claim to be high art; but its charm and candor are irresponsible. And the photos almost make you nostalgic for those armored bathng suits of yore.
Robert Ellsworth
…Williams gives us not only a warts-and-all account of her life, but a vivid depiction of Hollywood's golden age. She tells her story with candor and dignity. It's a rich and sensitive autobiography you won't want to put down.
Genre
Kirkus Reviews
Film star Williams reveals all, including how every hair and eyelash remained in place during the spectacular water ballets that were the core of most of her movies. The 1940–50 Williams's films, like Neptune's Daughter, Thrill of a Romance, and Million Dollar Mermaid, are featured on cable television's movie channels, so a younger generation of viewers is familiar with the signature splashing fountains, corps de bathing beauty, and spectacular Esther Williams smile. Here's a description of how those effects were achieved (oil and Vaseline for the hair; the smile was her own), as well as tales about the star's four marriages, several affairs, three children, and coming of age as a contract player in the MGM "finishing school," along with Lana Turner, Katharine Hepburn, June Allyson, and Judy Garland. The Esther Williams films, as bland and predictable as the plots were, were big moneymakers. Only 18 years old when she signed with MGM, she had already been in the Olympics, where she swam fast, and a star of Billy Rose's Aquacade, where she swam "pretty." Straightforward and unpretentious, she understood that it was the wet Williams that drew people to her films. She developed increasingly complicated routines (precursors of synchronized swimming) and did her own sometimes dangerous stunts—she once broke three neck vertebrae in a diving sequence. As her career tapered off in the mid-'50s, she found that her second husband had lost or gambled away virtually all the money she'd earned in the water. Unhappy and confused, she took LSD (overseen by a doctor); it was like "instant psychoanalysis" and enabled her next marriage, to actor Fernando Lamas, although uneven, to last for 22 yearsuntil his death. Now happily married to husband number four, she heads a bathing suit firm. With the help of L.A. media critic Diehl, this is written with humor and a sense of proportion that leaven the usual movie star bio. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)
From the Publisher
"Forthright and affably ribald.-Entertainment Weekly
"Her sparkling anecdotes alternate the scandalous, the charming and the ridiculous....Tremendously entertaining life story."-Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Williams is capable and down-to-earth, but the movie star has just enough ego-and the requisite bad taste in men-to make her story interesting."-Chicago Tribune
"Williams, always sassy, proves herself to be a daring memoirist."-Time "One of the most engaging and involving movie-star bios ever; her Million Dollar Mermaid is really something special."-Liz Smith, The New York Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684852843
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 9/1/1999
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.48 (w) x 9.59 (h) x 1.26 (d)

First Chapter

Chapter One: Esther Williams, Cary Grant, and LSD Which Esther Williams do you want to hear about? As I look back through the filing cabinet of my life while writing this book, I realize that there are many of us. I love that sweet little child who grew up in the depression and, being the fifth child, felt the need to try so hard to please her family. I'm still rooting for that determined teenage swimmer who kicked and stroked her way through hundreds of miles of training in the water to a national championship. I'm awed by the kid with no theatrical training who walked onto the stage of Billy Rose's Aquacade at the San Francisco Exposition and became a media darling overnight. Of course, I have to chuckle as that same kid walks through the gates of MGM a year later and swims her way to movie stardom. That long-legged GI pinup was me!

Sometimes I think that there must have been three different women who became Mrs. Leonard Kovner, Mrs. Ben Gage, and Mrs. Fernando Lamas. Sitting here today as the happy Mrs. Edward Bell, my heart goes out to all of them for the naive expectations, the misplaced trust, the passionate love, and the need for a safe haven. The world remembers me as a movie star, but most of my life I have thought about myself in various family roles -- as daughter, sister, wife, and, above all, mother. The press portrayed me as a kind of post-World War II version of Martha Stewart -- "the Mermaid Tycoon," as I was dubbed on the cover of Life; the perfect homemaker; the Hollywood glamour queen; and a sex symbol in a bathing suit -- all rolled into one. Meanwhile, for most of that time I was working twelve-hour days in that huge pool at MGM, creating movie fantasies, and then coming home each night to a personal life that seemed to repeatedly unravel.

Never was I more "unraveled" than in 1959, when being Esther Williams became an exercise in schizophrenia. On the surface, everything looked rosy. The gossip columnists couldn't stop buzzing about my supposedly fabulous love life since I had divorced Ben Gage. My last movie, Raw Wind in Eden, had come out the previous year. During the location shoot in Italy, I'd begun a relationship, with my costar Jeff Chandler, which was still continuing. I was also considering the possibility of jumping into television. NBC was courting me to shoot a special called Esther Williams at Cypress Gardens. But it was all a Hollywood PR fantasy. Behind that public facade was a woman in deep emotional pain.

I remember, in late August of that year, boarding an American Airlines flight from New York and being in a state of exhaustion. It was one of those hot, humid times in New York, when brownout was a constant fear, air conditioners labored to no effect, and the air felt too thick to draw into your lungs. I prayed that my seatmate on the plane would not want to talk, which mercifully was the case. As we rose through the clouds, I stared out of the airplane window and indulged in the fantasy that this white and blue landscape was a vast undersea world in which I could float and swim effortlessly. In my mind, I drifted out the window, trying to escape the realities of my life. But tears soon welled up in my eyes. My chest tightened as I tried to breathe naturally. I was surprised by my own reaction. Ordinarily I loved flying, and I loved the idea that the blue sky reminded me of the blue water that was my second home. Now, however, I was fighting off panic -- the same kind of panic you feel underwater when you're out of air. My terror was only beaten back when the stewardess handed me a vodka on the rocks, which I gulped gratefully and sat back.

That episode was a shot across the bow, a warning that I was in trouble on all levels of my being. During the years when I was making movies one after the other in rapid succession, so much was happening at such a pace that there was no time to think clearly about my life. But in that summer of 1959, I had a sense of gathering crisis. My divorce from Ben Gage had become final that spring, but I was just beginning to be hit with the fallout from that marriage. Ben had made my personal life a constant turmoil for years with his out-of-control, erratic, alcoholic behavior. I had three young children I loved and worried about constantly. Between Ben's drinking and the demands of a movie career, I saw them as fragile victims who needed a lot more of my help. Over the years I'd always shielded the children from seeing Ben at his worst -- passed out drunk in the car in the driveway, or staggering around the house. As a result, they never fully understood how hard he was to live with, or why I'd finally left him. Now there was a new man, Jeff Chandler, in my life, which brought a new set of emotional baggage to three kids who already felt as if they didn't get enough of my attention.

And then I found out I was broke. Ben had literally thrown away money as fast as I could make it -- no -- in fact, faster than I could make it. In a series of disastrous investments, he managed to lose nearly $10 million. And what he didn't lose that way, he gambled away at the track.

Worse yet, he had hidden all of this from me and from the Internal Revenue Service. After the divorce I was left with three wonderful children and memories of happier times. But the IRS wanted cash. By their estimate, I owed three quarters of a million dollars in unpaid back taxes. Suddenly, I was without resources. To make matters worse, all of Hollywood was reeling from the rapid onslaught of television. My beloved MGM had all but crumbled after the departure of studio chief L.B. Mayer and the ensuing damage inflicted by Dore Schary. Nobody was going to make multimillion-dollar aqua-musicals ever again. I was thirty-seven years old. I was still working, but I knew that there was not much mileage left in my movie career.

I had tried to ignore all of that while I was in Italy filming Raw Wind in Eden. I knew that my marriage to Ben was over and that my life was collapsing, so I plunged into la dolce vita. My affections ricocheted between a charming Italian businessman with a fast Lancia and my ruggedly handsome costar Jeff Chandler, whose own marriage was disintegrating. Once I was back in the United States, however, the bleak realities were impossible to avoid, and I was forced to spend months focused on dealing with the wreckage of my finances and the needs of my children. Jeff kept asking me to marry him, but somehow it didn't seem right.

At that point, I really didn't know who I was. Was I that glamorous femme fatale tearing up Tuscany? Was I just another broken-down divorcée whose husband left her with all the bills and three kids? Had I spent so many years reading the fantasy press releases that Howard Strickling and his publicity team at MGM pumped out that I actually had come to believe them? Had I lost touch with that fearless young swimmer or that devoted mother I once had been?

Listlessly, I picked up a magazine. It was the September 1959 issue of Look, with Cary Grant's startling confession that he had taken a drug called LSD under a doctor's supervision and that it had changed his life. It seems he hadn't known who he was either! The drug had made possible an incredible recovery from psychological problems he was having, and he wanted to share his discovery with others. Hungrily, I read Cary's words over and over: "I am through with sadness. At last, I am close to happiness. After all those years, I'm rid of guilt complexes and fears."

This sounded too good to be true, yet there he was, declaring himself a new man: "I've asked myself what do I want out of Life? Beautiful women? Fantastic houses? No, I'm finding courage to live in the truth, as I want to live, not to impress other people. Possessions don't make you happy. I take my sunny and foggy days with me....All my life I've been searching for peace of mind. I'd explored yoga and hypnotism and made attempts at mysticism. Nothing really seemed to give me what I wanted until this LSD treatment."

In the article, Cary's therapist, Dr. Mortimer Hartman, described LSD as "...a psychic energizer which empties the subconscious and intensifies emotion and memory a hundred times."

Cary added, "I know that, all my life, I've been going around in a fog. You're just a bunch of molecules until you know who you are. You spend your time getting to be a big Hollywood actor. But then what? You've reached a comfortable plateau, and you want to stay on it; you resist change. One day, after many weeks of LSD, my last defense crumbled. To my delight, I found I had a tough inner core of strength. In my youth, I was very dependent upon older men and women. Now people come to me for help!"

That day, I resolved that I would be one of those people.

Cary and I had known each other for years, having spent time together at many parties and public events, although we never had been close friends. But movie stars all belong to a sort of secret society; we share a special understanding of the burdens and comforts of celebrity. There is a shorthand we can use when we meet, and we empathize in ways other people cannot comprehend if they haven't stood in the spotlight. He came to the telephone immediately when I gave my name to his secretary. When I said, "Cary, I've got to see you right away about something," he invited me to come to his office at Universal the next morning.

"Cary, I'm at the end of my rope," I told him the following day. "I'm deeply troubled about my life, and when I read what you said about how LSD had changed your life, I wondered if it might help me."

"Esther, it takes a lot of courage to take this drug," he warned me. "You may not want to do it when I tell you what it's like, because it's a tremendous jolt to your mind, to your ego. Some people don't react well to it at all."

"But it was so successful with you."

"Yes it was," he admitted, with a flash of his glittering "Cary Grant" smile. "But it's only being used on an experimental basis. You'd have to be as desperate as I was to try it."

I smiled back my own "Esther Williams" smile. "But I am as desperate, Cary," I said as calmly as I could. "I need to find some answers, fast. Would you call your doctor and make an appointment for me?"

This conversation took place long before LSD became the recreational drug of the 1960s that Tom Wolfe wrote about in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and the Beatles sang about in "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." The newspaper articles were always about the young people who misused it, and that is what most people remember today about LSD. We seldom heard about the benefits that people such as Cary and I experienced. All I knew was that my life was falling apart and I needed some answers. If LSD was the key, then I wanted it.

The Psychiatric Institute of Beverly Hills was tucked away on one of those quiet back streets where no one noticed comings and goings. Dr. Hartman, a radiologist and internist who had undergone five years of classical Freudian analysis in New York, and his partner, Dr. Arthur Chandler, were the directors of the institute. They had been conducting psychotherapy experiments with the hallucinogenic drug lysergic acid diethylamide LSD-25, which was virtually unknown in the United States. After a cursory interview and explaining the procedure to me, Dr. Hartman asked, "Are you ready?" I answered with a fervent "Yes!"

He led me to a small room in the back. It was darkened with blackout drapes and had a traditional psychiatrist's couch in one corner. He gave me five little blue pills with a glass of water and told me to lie down and close my eyes. "Now I'm leaving you alone for two hours. Let it take you wherever you want it to take you. Don't be afraid." Then he closed the door behind him. I was about to take the most amazing journey of my life.

LSD seemed like instant psychoanalysis. With my eyes closed, I felt my tension and resistance ease away as the hallucinogen swept through me. Then, without warning, I went right to the place where the pain lay in my psyche. The first thing I saw was my father's face the day my brother Stanton died. My brother had been just sixteen when it happened; I was only eight. I saw my father's face as a ceramic plate. Almost instantly it splintered into a million tiny pieces, like a windshield when a rock goes through it. The shards fell to the floor. He was left faceless. Then I looked at my mother. All the emotion had drained out of her, and her soft, kindly features had hardened.

I began to relive the devastation to my two parents over the death of this wonderful, handsome boy. Stanton was their oldest son, and his good looks and acting talent had brought the Williams family to California, the place my parents had dreamed of when they left Dodge City, Kansas. My brother was going to be a star -- everyone said that. They had pinned so much hope and expectation on him that his sudden death left them without a reason to live.

I lay there in the darkened room, spinning back in time, swirling through a host of unanswered questions. Why did my mother take me, the youngest, with her on the night of the viewing at the mortuary? Why did she take eight-year-old Esther, instead of sisters Maurine or June, or my brother David? Why did she take me to watch her absolute nervous collapse as she threw herself across Stanton's coffin, sobbing, "Why did you leave me? Let me go with you"?

I stood back in the shadows in that place of death, watching my parents fall apart. And I was a woman again, observing it from a distance as if I were acting in or watching a movie. Suddenly, with that double vision, a revelation hit me, and I knew what my life was all about. Everything that happened to me after Stanton's death came to me with a new maturity that had not been mine prior to his loss. I remembered that after returning home from that harrowing trip to the mortuary, I had, at the age of eight, come to the realization and a decision: Stanton had been our pride, our hope, our golden prince. His talent, his good looks, his ambition had been our only chance to break out of poverty; he had given us courage and kept us all together. Now that he was gone, somebody had to take his place or we would all be lost. My brother David was frail and asthmatic. My sister Maurine suffered from emotional problems that I couldn't understand at my age, but which made her sadly overweight from compulsive eating; my other sister, June, was a malcontent. My mother took refuge in her spirituality while my poor father was barely able to bring home enough money to keep food on the table this was during the depression. So I looked about me and realized that if none of them could replace Stanton as the rock on which the family stood, then I would have to be that rock myself. My mission in life was as clear and simple as that.

I made that decision at the age of eight, and I made it without feelings of doubt, fear, or nobility. If my shoulders weren't strong enough as yet, then I would make them strong. I would become my family's hope; I would be the one to take care of them. Once I made that decision, I no longer felt eight years old. I said farewell to childhood, and virtually overnight I felt as though I was at least sixteen, Stanton's age. Suddenly this little girl was in a race against time to be an adult.

At the end of the session, Dr. Hartman gave me another drug to bring me gradually out from under the LSD. He warned, however, that some afterglow would stay with me, and that it wouldn't be until the next day that the drug would be out of my system.

This LSD trip, which explained so much about my life's script, and which was such a breakthrough for me, had a bizarre epilogue. I returned from the doctor's office to my home on Mandeville Canyon to have dinner there with my parents, something I did about once a month. In a way, true to my mission, I had taken care of them since Stanton's death, first struggling to fill the emotional void, then, after becoming a movie star, making sure they lived comfortably. I put them on a payroll so they had no financial worries, and eventually they could collect decent Social Security. I paid for their trips to Europe, and -- the biggest treat of all for them -- I got them invitations to glittering movie premieres, especially to mine, where they could watch their youngest daughter on a screen forty feet high.

At last, the LSD experience gave me insight into why I had taken on the role of the firstborn son. As I sat and looked at my parents at the dining room table, I saw into their souls. I saw my mother's angry, self-involved countenance that had sealed out all expression of feelings after my brother died. I looked at my father's sad, empty expression, the facade that was left after his real face shattered like a glass plate. I understood them that night in a profound way, and while I sympathized, I was also sickened by their weakness and their resignation. I saw that they both simply had given up, which, no matter what life had in store for me, was something I could never and would never do. At least, so I thought, so I hoped.

After dinner, I gently ushered my parents into the guest house for the night. Then I rushed back to my bedroom and locked the door. I needed to be alone. I went into the bathroom and looked at my face in the mirror. I couldn't see myself clearly. I scrubbed away all of my makeup. I splashed water on my hair and slicked it back because I couldn't stand to have anything soft around my face. I stripped off my clothes. When I looked in the mirror again, I was startled by a split image: One half of my face, the right half, was me; the other half was the face of a sixteen-year-old boy. The left side of my upper body was flat and muscular, like the chest of a boy. I reached up with my boy's large, clumsy hand to touch my right breast and felt my penis stirring. It was a hermaphroditic phantasm that held me entranced as I discovered my divided body. I don't know how long I stood there touching and exploring, but I was not afraid. Finally, I understood perfectly: when Stanton had died, I had taken him into my life so completely that he became a part of me.

Copyright © 1999 by Esther Williams

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Interviews & Essays

In the 1940s and '50s, Esther Williams was one of the brightest stars in MGM's galaxy, and she's still going strong today. Her movies, with their memorable Busby Berkeley-choreographed aquatic extravaganzas, remain hugely popular today in revival houses and on cable television. And now, with the publication of her autobiography, Williams shares candid tales of her life as Hollywood's "Million Dollar Mermaid." I recently chatted with Ms. Williams about a wide range of topics, from her husband Fernando Lamas's sometimes philandering ways to cross-dressing in Hollywood. It was a conversation as lively and open as her book, The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography.

Brett Leveridge

Barnes & Noble.com: As I read your book, it struck me that you've have had a life filled with such extreme highs and lows. There have been many wonderful chapters in your life but so many sad and tragic events as well.

Esther Williams: It's the idea that you're smiling underwater -- doing the impossible! -- and then going home to a life that's unraveling around you. I was struck with it, too. You know, writing your autobiography is therapy. You get in tune with a lot of things you thought you'd forgotten.

Fernando had asked me years ago not to be in the movies or television or do interviews anymore; as I say in my book, he asked, "Can you stop being Esther Williams?" And I said, "Well, that's an interesting idea; I've been her for a lot of years. Let's see how I do without her."

And when Fernando died in 1982, the thing I noticed about the death of a life partner, especially one as difficult as Fernando was -- when they go, you're out of a job! The first person who called me after he died was Shirley MacLaine, who is my friend, and she said, "Well, Esther, you can finally get out of the house." And I thought, Oh, Shirley, you tell it like it is. I'm so very fond of her.

And then Barbara Walters called. And I said, "Oh, Barbara, I haven't been photographed in 20 years!" The one thing that Katharine Hepburn said that really made sense to me is that the good thing about the talk shows is that people get to watch you rot. And I said, "I've been rotting in private!" And she said, "I've seen you at parties, and you don't look like you're rotting to me. I want you to come and do one of my specials." I said, "I'm not going to look good next to Jane Fonda or Sally Field." And she said, "I won't put you next to Jane Fonda and Sally Field; I'll put you in the middle segment -- we'll put Mr. T before you and Howard Cosell after you, two of the ugliest men in the world." And I said, "Oh, then I'll do the show -- of course!" [laughs]

bn.com: In the book, you detail a clinical experience with LSD; you reveal that you were the victim of a rape at the hands of a family friend when you were a young woman; you share that your older brother died a tragic death when he was just in his teens. Was the book a form of catharsis for you?

EW: You know, we seem to acquire, as we age and deal with various diminished capacities, an ability to articulate our feelings. To say, "No, no...you don't understand. It wasn't that way; it was this way." And what happened to me is that, when I would go through the problems of day-to-day living, it was always wonderful to go to the studio and dive into that wonderful water. The water was very healing for me, and it remains so even today. I'm in my 70s. I had a knee replaced not so long ago and was going through physical therapy and it hurt, you know? They've got to bring the muscles along, and it hurts.

So I said to Mark, my physical therapist -- he came to my house to work with me and he didn't know how to swim -- I said, "You're $60 an hour, Mark. And you hurt. I don't want to be hurting anymore; I'm going to get in the pool. And I tell you what we'll do -- we'll call the $60 a push because that's what I'll charge you for your swimming lesson." And I got him swimming, and he loved it.

bn.com: What an opportunity for him, to receive a swimming lesson from Esther Williams! That's a rare treat.

EW: I thought it was worth the $60! Candy Bergen rang my doorbell one day and said, "I want Chloe [her daughter] to learn to swim." And I said, "If you wanted her to learn to play piano, would you ring Arthur Rubenstein's door?" And she said, "I don't care if she plays piano, but she's got to learn to swim." And I said, "Yes, that's true. Because that can save her life. Piano won't ever save her life."

bn.com: Are you pleased -- or perhaps surprised -- by the rise of women's athletics? Would you ever have imagined the sort of attention that's been lavished on the U.S. women's soccer team or the Olympic basketball players and gymnasts?

EW: And synchronized swimming! It's an Olympic sport now. Yes, it's very exciting.

bn.com: You tell a rather shocking tale from Fernando Lamas's childhood in the book -- that at a young age, he was forced by his aunt to identify the exhumed remains of his parents.

EW: You see, that's the reason I can identify with Hillary Clinton and her statement to Talk magazine -- to Tina Brown -- about the reason she stayed with Bill. Because of my experience with Fernando and feeling his need and what the love of a good woman could do for someone who'd had horrible childhood experiences that'd created this void. [His aunt] laid down that traumatic event that he didn't need as a 12-year-old.

So giving up my career for this particular man, with his magnetic personality and deep sorrow -- he was so troubled that he imagined he saw the skulls of people he met -- and yet he became a movie star anyway. I thought that was salutary.

I used to love him with Johnny Carson. He was wonderful. He would spend the first five minutes of his appearance rearranging his clothes so that they would lie just so and not wrinkle. He'd straighten the jacket; he'd get the collar just right; he'd get the tie just right; he'd pop the cuffs so that the cuff links would show. And Johnny would just sit there. He'd look at the audience with an expression that said, "How long is this going to go on?" And finally Fernando would turn to Johnny, after he was completely satisfied with the way he looked, and he'd say, "So, how are you?" And Johnny would just fall on the floor. He had such great timing, you know? I used to love to watch him.

I was a little annoyed with Billy Crystal and his "You look marvelous" bit, when he made such a big thing about what a womanizer [Fernando] was. Because it was too close to his death. I called Billy and he explained that he'd recorded a CD and that it was some of his best material on "Saturday Night Live" and that he just couldn't give it up. And I could see it. He'd launched himself with that.

bn.com: It always struck me as affectionate ribbing.

EW: Yes, and it was. And Billy made that point with me. People magazine called me about it, and I told them I'd talked to Billy but more importantly I'd talked to [Fernando's son] Lorenzo. I asked him, "Does it hurt you to see your father portrayed as a ridiculous womanizer?" He told me to come out and look at his car. His license plate somehow used particular letters to read "You look marvelous." So I said, "That settles it; I won't be upset about it anymore." He said, "It keeps him alive for me." But you never know until you ask the question of people what it is that makes something have meaning for them. It's a wonderful thing.

bn.com: Back at the height of your movie career, did you ever feel trapped by the wholesome image created for you by the studio?

EW: Oh yes, and I'm sure Doris Day had the same feelings I did at times, and Debbie Reynolds and June Allyson. There was a tendency to typecast you when they found that something worked. It happened to John Wayne; he was always on a horse or in uniform. Typecasting was what studios did because far be it from them, if they hit on something that made money for them, to change it. I took scripts to them all the time that Lana Turner, for example, wound up doing. "Cass Timberlaine" I wanted to do with Spencer Tracy. But everybody was locked into their system, the things that worked. And it was really was a matter of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it, Esther."

I'd go upstairs and I'd say, "Let me do this; let me show you." And I did a couple of "dry" things -- Universal didn't have a pool like Metro had, so when I went over there and did two pictures, they were just fine. People liked them a lot.

But I guess what MGM found was that my audience wanted that bathing suit. And you know, Cinemascope came in and you've got that water all wrapped around you and they'd do big closeups of me. And the audience is in the water. I think it had too much pleasure connected with it for them to change it.

bn.com: Well, they certainly had something unique in you. It wasn't as though you had a great deal of competition; there were no other swimming stars. So they probably didn't want to, if you'll pardon the pun, "water that down" by having you do serious roles.

EW: [laughing] You mean they didn't want to "dilute" it?

bn.com: Exactly!

EW: You know, one thing that came up when I was writing the book, I asked myself, why the heck did I do all these dangerous things when I was carrying babies? I went through four pregnancies. And I lost one baby, although it wasn't the fault of the studio; it was just that something went wrong.

But those dives that I took and the waterskiing and the outrigger canoe accidents that I nearly had right over that coral -- I was carrying babies all that time!

The way they would talk me into it is to say, "We have nobody to replace you." And they would have, like, 68 water-skiers -- champions from all over the world...Israel, Australia, New Zealand -- and they said, "We can't replace you; you have to do it!" And then they would change the shooting schedule; we always tried to do all the swimming at the beginning, before the baby showed. I could always do all the looping and the songs and all the work that had to be recorded but not seen -- not photographed -- later.

bn.com: Do you think there could ever be an Esther Williams today, a young woman who is perhaps a swimmer -- or even some other type of athlete -- who could use her talent to break into the movies?

EW: We're going to have to find one because we have somebody who is terribly interested in turning the book into a Movie of the Week. So they'll have to find someone. I asked my husband, Edward, who is taking the meetings with the people that would produce it, "Where are they going to find someone?" He said, "Esther, as unique as you are, you're not the only swimmer in the world." Nowadays there are wall-to-wall synchronized swimmers.

bn.com: But nowadays they wouldn't allow a leading actress to perform all the stunts you did.

EW: No, they wouldn't; they would double it. And the reason I did them is that nobody else would. I had one sequence in "Jupiter's Darling" where I come up over a turbulent sea and all these rocks over on the isthmus of Catalina, which, incidentally, is where Natalie Wood died in her boating accident, and my stand-in, Edie Motriege, who was a champion swimmer, took one look and said to me, "I'm not going to do that." And this was a film where I wasn't pregnant, I guess, and I said, "I'll do it. It's just surfing through rocks."

I was really comfortable in the water. It didn't hold any terrors for me; I know it does for a lot of people, but it doesn't for me.

bn.com: Of all the actors you worked with, who was your favorite costar?

EW: When people ask me that, I have to say, "The water." It was my costar. Most of my leading men couldn't swim! I've told this one, and Van Johnson can stand it: I had to hold him up with my hand under his back. Because he was a sinker! You know, there are people who are floaters and people who are sinkers. And the people who could talk weren't floaters, they were sinkers! It happened to me several times. Ricardo [Montalban] worked out in the gym all the time, and muscle is very heavy. Schwarzenegger would go right to the bottom. He would dive in and he would go to the bottom, and we'd never hear from him again. So I just figured I would always have to teach them.

But Fernando was a swimming champion in Argentina. He told me this story, when I asked him, "You really can swim?" Because to me, only a swimmer can really judge a swimmer. By a swimmer's standards, are you a swimmer? Like one might ask a golfer, are you a golfer by Arnie Palmer's standards?

So I said that to him and he got very grand on me -- it was early in our relationship -- and he said, "My dear woman, at one time I was considered one of the five fastest men in the world." And I said, "I know, I know -- but can you swim?" [laughs]

bn.com: Which of the many actors and actresses you worked with or came to know in your years at MGM was least like the image we, the moviegoing public, might have of them?

EW: I think it would be Debbie Reynolds, who is very glib and has a wonderful kind of schmaltzy way of putting things -- nobody would know she was such a wonderful, hip, showbiz person from the innocent little roles like Tammy. [sings] Tammy...Tammy...Tammy's in love.

I saw a picture recently that she did back then. Fred Astaire played her father and Lili Palmer played her mother and she was this little girl who just wanted to be with her daddy, you know? And I thought, oh boy, the real Debbie...

bn.com: She was a little wilder than that, was she?

EW: And that image that we saw when Debbie walked out on the lawn when Eddie Fisher left her for Elizabeth Taylor before Liz did "Cleopatra," and Debbie had a baby in her arms and she had a safety pin on her apron, and I thought, oh boy. Debbie really knew how to lay 'em in the aisles. I admired it; I really did.

bn.com: Now I have to ask which of your fellow actors was most like the image we have of them today.

EW: Lana. Lana Turner. Lana was famous for deciding on the man she was going to get involved with. And that was that wonderful quality she had on the screen, too, in "Johnny Eager" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice." What you saw was what you got.

I once saw Ingrid Bergman right in front of my hotel in Paris; I was doing an Italian Red Cross benefit at the Moulin Rouge. And I suddenly found out that Ingrid Bergman was staying at the same little pensione that I was in. And I saw her walking and I said to myself, I don't care if she doesn't speak to me. I admired her so much on the screen. I said, "I just have to talk to you, because I've loved you so much. In 'For Whom the Bell Tolls,' you were so magical and so powerful in the way that you loved Gary Cooper that it brought tears to my eyes." And she said, "Well, thank you." And I said, "Do you know who I am?" And she said, "Of course I do." And I said, "You know, I envy you so -- your leading men! Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Charles Boyer! I mean, I had Peter Lawford and Johnnie Johnston...little boys!" And she said, "My dear, your costar was your swimsuit."

So sweet! I couldn't believe she said it, and I asked her, "Have you seen my movies?" And she said, "Oh, yes, I loved to watch your movies because you swam so well. And you didn't need a strong leading man like Gary Cooper. I did."

bn.com: In the book, you tell a delightful tale of an afternoon spent kissing Clark Gable on an MGM soundstage.

EW: That was my screen test! He was very much older than I was, and I could never figure out why he did it. I could never figure out how Mayer talked him into doing a screen test with me. I was 18, and that was awfully young for Clark Gable at the time. I wondered at the time why he was doing it, though he was as sweet as he could be about it. He didn't learn the lines; he just kissed me five times. But he gave me the answer as he was leaving. It was one of those scenes where you're all huddled over in a corner of one of these big empty soundstages, and as he was walking toward that heavy door and they were about to open it, he said to Carole Lombard, who was on his arm -- he had brought her to see him do the screen test -- he said, "I told you I was going to kiss me a mermaid today."

bn.com: What actor didn't you get to do a love scene with that you wish you had?

EW: Oh, Cary Grant! He was wonderful. I did like Gary Cooper, I did like...I liked Tyrone Power! He was so beautiful, one of these men who are prettier than their leading ladies. I had loved "Blood and Sand." But it never happened; it just never happened. I got whoever wasn't working.

bn.com: Perhaps if you'd managed to break out of the rut of the swimming pictures...

EW: Yes, I think so. My scripts were awfully light for those strong actors. As a matter of fact, Fernando decided, when he came from Buenos Aires and was put in "The Merry Widow" with Lana Turner, that he was not going to star with me in a movie. And I said, "Why? Why don't you want to? You're such a wonderful swimmer; you were a champion in Argentina." And he said, "I do not want to be Nelson Eddy to your Jeannette MacDonald in the swimming pool. That's what will happen." I said, "What don't you like about the script?" Because by that time I had quite a bit of clout, and he said, "I don't have enough good scenes; I just hold your towel." And I said, "Well, let's do a rewrite." I got them to do a rewrite and put in more scenes -- more interesting scenes -- and I said, "Well, will you do it now?" and he said yes. That was "Dangerous When Wet"; that was the only picture we made together.

bn.com: It must have been a treat to work with an actor who was a strong swimmer, rather than you having to hold him up, as you'd done with some of your other costars.

EW: Oh, I finally knew what Rogers and Astaire felt like when they danced together; it was wonderful. I later did a television special at Cypress Gardens, and I got him to come and be my costar on it. It's wonderful; there's a clip of us doing a wonderful seductive scene in the water to "This Is My Beloved" from "Kismet." And there's lots of groping!

bn.com: Your book very successfully gets across to the reader what it was like to be a movie star in the 1940s and '50s.

EW: I did have total recall about it; I was amazed at how I remembered everybody's name and what we did.

bn.com: And you did reveal a few things that might be considered a bit scandalous. One that leaps to mind is when Jeff Chandler, whom you thought you might marry, revealed to you that he was a cross-dresser.

EW: I went with him for three years and didn't have a clue! And he'd asked me to marry him, and I realized that I just couldn't do that. I couldn't live with that.

bn.com: Were there any of those sort of skeletons that you decided were better left in the closet, that were too shocking or too personal?

EW: You know, I wasn't going to tell that story about Jeff in the book. I was thinking about protecting his two daughters, and I don't know if Marge, his ex-wife, is still alive. It's interesting; when he absolutely knocked me off my feet with the fact that he wanted to do that and had been doing it for years, I wanted to share with him the fact that I had a million questions. I asked him if he was in therapy. And I tried to read everything Havelock Ellis had written on transvestism.

But I realized that the reason I was not going to tell the story in the book was not valid. Because after Monica and Bill, I didn't see how anybody in this country -- this planet! -- could be shocked anymore. We live with a tabloid mentality now. And I realized that times had changed so much -- from 1962, when he dressed up like that, until now, when I'm writing the book. And I said, I've got to stay in tune with the times. I mean, Jerry Springer recently had two men -- in wedding gowns and hoop skirts and a bouquet -- getting married on his show. So how in the world can I write a book now, for this audience that's used to reading the National Enquirer? And that's helped, because it liberated me to write some of the things that I did. I wrote a fair amount about my affair with Victor Mature from that, too, because I thought, I'm not going to shock anybody.

bn.com: You've mentioned Debbie Reynolds a couple of times, and I wonder if you might consider doing another movie, as she did with Albert Brooks in "Mother."

EW: I'll tell you something -- it's happening right now. And if it happens, it's going to be immediate; it'll shoot in September. It's a picture with Richard Gere and Winona Ryder, and they want me for the part of the grandmother. Winona dies at the end of it -- it's very complicated -- and her illness is part of the story. And I said to the people who are involved, I'd want another scene; I think it needs one more. Because one of the saddest things -- and I know my parents felt this when my older brother died -- is this tremendous empty feeling because they feel that the parents should have died before the child. And here's this grandmother that goes on living what really is this worthless life compared to this wonderful girl. And I think that would be a very profound meaning for this scene.

I'm going to be meeting with these people very soon; they've got to cast this almost immediately. So a return to acting is very much in the works, and we'll see how it goes.

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 6, 2006

    WOW,SHE SURE WAS A WORKER

    What a beautiful lady!! i was alittle shocked about some of the details.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2005

    Not all wet

    Very enteraining book. Some of the side stories are just as interesting as hers. I think her life was pretty sad when she could not have her children live with her. However her contribution to the swimming world is truly remarkable.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2001

    Esther Williams, the mermaid, tells all

    This book was very funny. Your readers will be amazed by the antics of Jeff Chandler, L.B. Mayer, and naturally, her husbands. I was held spellbound by the descriptions of what had to go into the aquatic stunts in many of the MGM pictures Ms. Williams made.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2000

    Dishy!

    A fun read - really dishy stuff -a nude Marlene Dietrich, a cross dressing Jeff Chandler and a pompus overbearing egotistical, chauvinistic, vain Fernando Lamas not to mention a manipulative Arlene Dahl.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 2, 2000

    Swimmingly Honest Autobiography

    Esther Williams has written an utterly fabulous narrative of a life with many dents and dinks, but still full of much personal satisfaction and strength. She leaves no stone unturned in describing details of her relationships, her MGM days and the sometimes harrowing events during filming. One comes away from her book feeling as if they have just met someone they would love to meet, chat with and share a swim.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2000

    Good for Esther

    She tells it like it is.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2000

    Problem with my Scholl

    I am Cambodian just came from Cambodia for 3 years ago , now I have problem with my School Becuase I am young no work and no Money for pay school when I go in College, right now I am A good student in Garey High School I will Graduate in 2000 may be on a serveral Month ahead.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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