Esther Williams,
with Digby Diehl,
The Million Dollar Mermaid
(Harvest Books, 2000)

Esther Williams, the Hollywood star (born 1922) who made a splash with her own unique genre of synchronized swimming extravaganzas cum musical-comedy movies based on her specialized athletic skill, makes a splash with this as-told-to autobiography co-authored by media critic/journalist Digby Diehl. In a straightforward, witty, conversational style, Williams describes her life -- professional, public and private -- in unsparing detail.

The book opens with a dramatic description of LSD therapy (referral by Cary Grant), the insight from this providing a segue into the main narrative of a consistently unintentionally dramatic life. Williams recalls the tragic death at 16 of an older brother, and an adopted brother who raped her repeatedly when she was only 13. She survived these traumas with the aid of a strong, loving mother and the refuge of athletic, competitive swimming. She then goes on to tell how successes in swim meets earned her championships and the Olympics, which in turn led to a show biz career that started with Billy Rose's Aquacade where her co-star, Johnny Weissmuller (known on-screen as Tarzan), turned out to be a drunken exhibitionist. In 1944, at age 18, Williams signed with MGM pictures and the following movie years are the core of the book, revealing life inside a major studio during Hollywood's Golden Age (1940s and '50s) in all its fascinating and frequently bizarre detail.

With humor and a thoughtful sense of proportion, Williams recounts how she dealt with three disastrous marriages, manipulative moguls and life-endangering water stunts -- her colorful anecdotes alternating the scandalous, the charming and the absurd, and offering stories about the likes of Howard Hughes, Van Johnson, Ricardo Montalban, Victor Mature, Lana Turner, Bette Davis, Louis Mayer, Busby Burkeley and Gene Kelly, to name a few! Of great interest also, are descriptions of how William's trademark aquatic spectacles were achieved -- details about specialized make-up, hair preparation, costumes, pool construction, synchronized swimming choreography and the stunts which she did herself -- consistently enthrall.

In the final chapters, Williams covers the births of her three children, her work for TV, her swimsuit and pool licensing ventures, and her 22 years of marriage with jet-setting, tyrannical third husband Fernand Lamas, enduring catering to his every whim in exchange for fidelity (rare in Tinseltown) and fabulous sex (not so rare). Now happily married to spouse No. 4 and heading a bathing suit firm, Williams concludes that in her life the minuses were far outweighed by the pluses, for her achievements made her a part of a cultural phenomenon never to be repeated.

For those legions of readers intrigued by what made Hollywood in its heyday tick -- the studio system, the performer training "school," the affairs, the gossip, the tricks of the trade, the competition, the deals, the fights and the methods the studios had for keeping stars in line -- real life in a fantasy world -- it's all detailed here in The Million Dollar Mermaid but revealed with respect, clear-eyed candor, and a refreshing frankness that leaves most other run-of-the-mill Hollywood memoirs floundering in its wake.

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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