History Through Hollywood: Esther Williams, swimmer
Like many of you, I’ve been enjoying the Rio Olympics for the last two weeks. The swimming events were particularly fun to watch, and of course they made me think of Esther Williams and her competitive swimming career. (But to be truthful, most things make me think of Esther Williams!)
Many people are aware that MGM’s mermaid was an Olympic-caliber swimmer before she became a movie star, but most accounts of her competitive career (even in her autobiography) start with her astonishing performance at the 1939 National Championships and end with the cancellation of the 1940 Olympic Games due to the outbreak of WWII. But there is more to the story than that. One doesn’t just show up at the National Championships without years of training and competing.
And although the majority of viewers, myself included, only pay close attention to these sports every four years, the athletes competing spend their lives preparing for the Games, and actually swim all the time in various competitions! Shocking, I know! And that was even the case back in the 1930s. The surprises just keep coming!
So, inspired by the Olympics (and by the unfortunate instances of sexism in the media surrounding the Games), I decided to write this slightly different History Through Hollywood about Esther Williams’ swimming career.
Generally, the History Through Hollywood series looks at classic Hollywood movies as inadvertent time capsules that can tell us a lot about the time in which they were made. For example, I’ve written about social conventions like courtship and weddings, and everyday traditions like telephone protocol and accents. I’ve discussed fashion, travel, alcohol, advertising, and even historical events such as the wartime housing crisis in Washington, D.C. as glimpsed through movies.
But this entry in the series is a little different. It’s more movie-adjacent and less of a literal examination of something I saw in a film. Instead, I focus on Esther Williams’ athletic career which enabled her to become a movie star and paved the way for her groundbreaking swimming musicals and the sport of synchronized swimming. (You can read more about Esther and her movie career here). This entry also takes a look at the sexism of Williams’ era and women in sports more generally.
So with the Rio Olympics and the success of swimmers like Katie Ledecky as our backdrop, let’s dive into Esther Williams’ life before she was MGM’s Million Dollar Mermaid!
It all began back in 1931 when public funds became available for city park improvement in Esther Williams’ Los Angeles neighborhood. As the city debated the details of the project, Williams’ mother, Bula, campaigned for a swimming pool along with the proposed baseball diamond, telling city officials that she had three daughters who needed someplace to play. Girls didn’t play baseball, but a pool might be just the thing.
The city agreed, and a pool was built at the Manchester Playground. In recognition of her efforts, officials asked Bula if one of her daughters would inaugurate the pool on opening day. Bula suggested nine year old Esther, despite the fact that she didn’t know how to swim.
To remedy that minor detail, Bula sent her oldest daughter Maurine and Esther on the Red Car trolley to Manhattan Beach. Esther remembered her first excursion into the waves: “I had absolutely no fear, and although I couldn’t swim yet, I could almost immediately ride the waves. Somehow, I sensed, the water was my natural element. It was where I belonged.”
After a few days with Maurine at the ocean, Esther could swim. And when the pool opened, a few hundred people were there to applaud as little Esther belly-flopped into the water and thrashed her way to the other side, successfully and adorably inaugurating the new pool. They had no idea that they were witnessing the first public performance of the Million Dollar Mermaid.
One wonders how Williams’ life would have been different if her mother had campaigned for a tennis court…
Williams began spending most of her time at the pool, which was about a block from her house, and during the summer she got a job counting towels to cover the five-cent fee to swim. The job also allowed her access to the pool during lunchtime when the lifeguards worked out. The young men noticed Williams’ raw talent and her love for the water, and they adopted Williams as a mascot. They taught the eager kid the different strokes, and once she’d mastered the basics they moved onto the finer details of competitive swimming like breathing and pacing.
Williams was clearly a gifted swimmer who was also stronger than most girls her age. She was able to handle anything the lifeguards threw at her, and after a summer under their tutelage, nine-year-old Williams could keep up with the boys during their lunchtime workouts. Significantly, these lifeguards didn’t view Williams as “just a girl;” for instance, they taught her the butterfly stroke, which at the time was only performed by men. She would later use this unorthodox technique to win races on the national stage.
Soon Williams began competing in swim meets, and in 1932 she won her first big race, the fifty-meter freestyle at the Metropolitan Meet. This was a huge swim meet that drew kids from all over Los Angeles and also attracted coaches from the best teams around. Aileen Allen, a former Olympic diver and the women’s swimming and diving coach at the prestigious Los Angeles Athletic Club, noticed eleven-year-old Williams, and she encouraged her to try out a few years later. The L.A.A.C. was a perennial powerhouse in downtown LA that churned out Olympians.
Williams finally earned a coveted spot on the Los Angeles Athletic Club swim team in 1937, and she excelled with the help of great coaches and the wonderful facility. She first appeared as a member of the L.A.A.C. swim team in November for the inaugural indoor meet of the 1937 season. She was barely sixteen at her first meet, but the teenager showed extraordinary poise and promise as she began swimming in elite competitions.
By February 1938, the relative newcomer was becoming her teammate Virginia Hopkins’ chief rival in the freestyle sprint events. Hopkins was the defending national champion, but Williams began inching closer throughout 1938. For example, in April at the National AAU Championships, Williams came in third behind Hopkins in the 220-yard freestyle event, and the winner, Halina Tomski, set a new national record in her dash to beat them.
In June, Hopkins and Williams set a new world record in the 50-meter freestyle in an exhibition race in front of fifteen-thousand spectators at the Olympic Stadium in Los Angeles, host of the 1932 Games. The record had stood since 1926, but the teenaged Williams and Hopkins broke it by two-tenths of a second in their sprint across the pool.
Williams kept chasing Hopkins all summer. And in late July, she finally beat Hopkins at a meet at Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains.
And she was only getting started.
In February 1939, Williams earned the title “fleet Los Angeles Athletic Club mermaid” after she won the 100-yard freestyle at the Junior National Championships held at the L.A.A.C. (Although Clark Gable would later be given credit for christening Williams a “mermaid” at MGM, she had earned the moniker years before in the sports pages.)
About a month later, Williams put on an astonishing performance at the Southern Pacific A.A.U. event in Pasadena. She won every event she entered: bringing home victories in the 150-yard individual relay and the 100-yard breaststroke, and winning the 150-yard medley relay with her teammates. Williams also set an unofficial individual relay record in her preliminary heat, and she left the meet as the only double winner in individual events and the only record-setter.
About ten days after dominating the Pasadena pool, Williams swam the breaststroke leg in the 300-yard medley relay at the 1938 Senior National Championships. But instead of swimming the typical breaststroke, Williams used the butterfly stroke that she had learned as a kid from the lifeguards at her neighborhood pool.
The butterfly was slowly becoming less of a male-only domain, and at the time, women could swim the butterfly in breaststroke events. But Williams was one of the few who had mastered it—most women were still using the traditional breaststroke. It wasn’t until 1952 that the butterfly would become a separate event (hence the 300-meter swim instead of the 400 modern day medley.) Williams’ team won the relay event and set a national record at the meet.
That spring, William’s streak continued. In April 1939, she demolished the national record for the 100-meter breaststroke, shaving off over one second from the previously held time. In May, Williams set a national 50-yard breaststroke record, then bettered it in June. She also captured the 100-yard freestyle and the 300-yard individual medley prizes. Her teammate, Edith Motridge, was setting records in the backstroke, and she soon joined Williams and Hopkins to make a relay dream team. (Motridge would later be Williams stunt double for scenes in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952).)
Williams was dominating three individual events and the relay, and had several national records to her name. Her extraordinary rise from gifted local talent to national star had been swift, and it was far from over.
Over four days at the end of July 1939, Williams competed at the National Championships in Des Moines and helped the L.A.A.C. to a resounding victory. Williams won plenty of individual prizes, too: the seventeen-year-old took home three gold medals in the 100-meter freestyle, the 4 x 100-meter relay, and the 300-meter medley relay.
Her 4 x 100 relay squad, with Williams swimming the anchor leg, set a national record, and they set another record in the 300-meter relay a few days later. Williams “unofficial” one-minute, 24.6 second breaststroke leg was a staggering 2.5 seconds under the American 100-meter record, which had been set in 1933. Her team won the relay by almost an entire pool-length. She was a star.
And she started getting a star’s attention, which included some descriptions that wouldn’t fly today. There have been several discussions about the sexism exhibited in the media coverage at the Rio games, and it has been discouraging to see how some of the female athletes and their achievements are described. You can read more about that in Cosmopolitan, The Huffington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, and this article in The Atlantic about the 2014 Games.
But we have made some strides compared to the nonsense that Williams and her teammates had to put up with. I’m not excusing today’s sexism, just putting it in context. At least the incredibly blatant stuff is immediately called out. No one could describe Katie Ledecky as a “lithesome lass” or “bathing beauty” and get away with it, but in the 1930s and ‘40s that kind of description was extremely common.
As one can imagine, back then as today, pretty young swimmers made for pretty pictures and popular features. Photos of Williams and her peers appeared in sports pages and magazines across the country, but even among the other fresh-faced “mermaids,” Williams stuck out as a stunningly gorgeous girl. A fan magazine recalled a few years later that “Whenever she put on a swim suit in public a news camera clicked. Esther Williams was what sports picture grabbers prayed for—a beautiful girl athlete.”
Williams garnered attention for her looks even before she was winning races. She was named the “Venus” of the Senior National AAU swim meet in Santa Barbara in July 1938, and she also was voted the “most perfect mermaid” at the event, based on her “style, her figure, height, and her beauty.” (All these accolades despite the fact that she came in third in her event!)
An article published in January 1939 in the Los Angeles Times had the headline, “One Very Good Reason for Going Swimming” above a huge picture of Williams in a bathing suit. The article mentions her talented teammates, too, some of whom were already national champions, record-holders, and Olympians. Next to their impressive accolades, Williams was given the somewhat anti-climactic title of “free-style runner-up.” Another photo of Williams published a few days later used the more nebulous title “free-style flash” since she hadn’t actually won any big-time titles yet. But she was always included in the photos!
Her beauty was difficult to ignore, and midcentury chauvinistic standards let comments fly. For instance, Williams was described as “one of the prettiest performers ever to wear the Los Angeles Athletic Club emblem” with a “pleasing personality and a gracious smile.” And a photograph of the teenager smiling in a bathing suit (always a bathing suit!) published a few days before the 1939 National Championships had the caption, “What’s More, She’s an Excellent Swimmer.” Gross.
These pictures of Williams and her teammates verge on cheesecake and appear with copy that seems laughable today. The photographs were captioned with gems such as “bevy of bathing beauties;” “Lithesome Lassies,” and “Sitting Pretty: Here’s one reason why swimming is such a popular sport…Incidentally, the girls are star performers.” Even when the Los Angeles Times reported on Williams, Motridge, and Hopkins breaking the 300-meter medley relay record at the National Championships, they emphasized the beauty of the three swimmers, writing that the record “went down twice today under the onslaught of a trio of ‘easy on the eyes’ swimmers from the Los Angeles Athletic Team.”
LIFE magazine’s article on the 1939 National Championships was no better. It featured photos of Williams and her competitors with the headline “Pretty Girls Set Records at National Swimming Meet.” The article is even worse than its sexist title, as it focuses on the pleasure sports photographers found at the swim meet: “For four idyllic days, scores of photogenic young girls, in skin-tight bathing suits, dove and swam in cool Birdland Pool, disported themselves before eager cameras like naiads before Neptune.” They were actually there to win races, not “disport themselves” for the cameras, but sure.
But she still had races to win.
Williams continued her extraordinary performance in the fall and winter of 1939. She won four events at the Southern Pacific AAU Championships just a week after the National Championships, including the 200-meter freestyle and the 200-meter breaststroke. In other meets that fall, she’d swim the 50 and 100-meter breaststroke races, too.
Williams finished 1939 with four national championships: her individual 100-meter freestyle victory, the two record-setting relays she’d won with her teammates in Des Moines, and an indoor championship in the 300-yard medley relay. Her astonishing performance earned her a spot in an Associated Press poll for Best Woman Athlete of 1939.
The tennis player Alice Marble, who had won singles and mixed doubles titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open for the second consecutive year, won by a landslide with 167 points and 54 first place votes. The second place finisher, golfer Betty Jameson, came in with 55 points, and Williams ranked tenth out of eleven with five points. But it’s remarkable that the barely eighteen-year-old Mermaid was there among those other internationally known athletes!
Williams was a shoo-in for the 1940 Olympic team. Many of her teammates were on the list, too, and they kept competing in preparation for the Games, which had been moved from Tokyo to Helsinki after the outbreak of war in Asia in 1938. Williams swam in meets in early 1940 and went to Miami in March for the national indoor championships.
But the domination that Williams and the L.A.A.C. had enjoyed for the last eighteen months came to a disappointing end. The relay team of Williams, Motridge and Hopkins came in second. The L.A.A.C. struggled as a team, and placed an uncharacteristic 4th in the team competition.
Even more surprising was Williams’ individual performance. She failed to advance to the finals of the 100m freestyle, the race she had won at the National Championships the previous July. One of the Los Angeles Times articles about the swim meet highlighted her poor performance with the headline “Local Girl Eliminated from Meet,” which probably didn’t boost her spirits.
What happened? Unfortunately, stark newspaper reports and result columns don’t explain why the L.A.A.C. and Williams were so off at this meet. And although she didn’t know it yet, Miami marked the end of Williams’ competitive swimming career.
In April, just a few weeks after the National Indoor Championships, the Summer Olympics were cancelled due to the outbreak of WWII. As you can imagine, it was a devastating development for all the athletes. Williams’ days as a champion had abruptly come to an end.
But her days as MGM’s mermaid were just beyond the horizon…
Happily, Williams did eventually get to the Olympics, though not the way she’d originally planned! As the “godmother” of synchronized swimming, Williams was invited to be a commentator at the event at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. It was the first time synchronized swimming had been included in the Olympics, and Williams was thrilled to be there and in awe of what the athletes could do in the pool.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at Williams’ pre-movie swimming career! For more on Williams and the next chapter of her life, visit this post or any of my posts on her films. I also highly recommend Williams’ autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid.