Esther Williams, whose experiences as a young swimming champion led to a career of Hollywood aqua-musicals designed just for her, died Thursday in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of 91, her spokesman said.
Williams, one of the biggest box-office stars of the 1940s and 1950s, died peacefully in her sleep and had been in declining health due to old age, spokesman Harlan Boll said.
Williams became known as Hollywood’s Mermaid and The Queen of the Surf. At her peak, the woman with the wide smile and bright eyes was second in earnings only to Betty Grable and often in the top 10 box-office draws.
Williams’ aqua-musicals were escapist comedies in lush color with lavish song and watery dance numbers and lots of footage of synchronized swimming. They were so popular that some credited her with a jump in the popularity of home swimming pools.
A typical finale featured Williams diving into a pool or lagoon and surfacing to a crescendo of music with water drops glistening on her smiling face and sleek body.
She dismissed her talent, saying “I can’t act, I can’t sing, I can’t dance. My pictures are put together out of scraps they find in the producer’s wastebasket.”
After watching the films decades later, she softened that self-deprecating assessment, saying: “I look at that girl and I like her. I can see why she became popular with audiences. There was an unassuming quality about her. She was certainly wholesome.”
Williams was born in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood on Aug. 8, 1921. As a young swimmer, she set what were then world records in the 100-meter freestyle and 880-yard relay. She also worked as a model.
In her later career, Williams did a few 1960s television specials and hosted swimming events for ABC-TV’s coverage of the 1984 Olympic Games.