Esther Williams, a swimming champion known for the MGM “aqua musicals” of the 1940s and ‘50s that turned her into a major Hollywood star, died early Thursday in her sleep, her longtime publicist, Harlan Boll, announced. She was 91.
Her films had such titles as “Bathing Beauty,” “Neptune’s Daughter” and “Million Dollar Mermaid” and received mixed reviews, but they packed theaters. For seven years she was in the top 10 box-office list.
She and choreographer Busby Berkeley “turned a swimming pool into a seraglio, a sultan’s dream with breathtaking production numbers of gorgeous girls swimming in geometric shapes around blue water while Esther, with orchids and exotic plants wound round her hair framing that beauteous face, was the centerpiece,” former Times columnist Jim Murray once wrote.
Over 20 years, Williams made 26 movies; later they would be credited with paving the way for synchronized swimming as an Olympic sport.
Born Aug. 8, 1921, in Los Angeles, Williams became a national swimming champion as a teenager. She was to compete in three Olympic events for the U.S. swim team in 1940, but World War II intensified, the Games were canceled and Williams landed in a swim revue at the San Francisco World’s Fair. Then Hollywood came calling.
She retired from show business in the early 1960s and later launched a line of swimwear.
Williams, who was married four times, is survived by her husband, Edward Bell; two children; three stepchildren; three grandchildren; and eight stepgrandchildren.
A complete obituary will follow at latimes.com/obits