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Esther Williams

A Career Change

Williams's three gold medals should have guaranteed her a place at the 1940 Pan American games in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but she waited for her invitation in vain. A few weeks after the games, at the 1940 U.S. National championships, Williams learned from another athlete that she had indeed been invited. A stunned Williams confronted the LAAC coach, Aileen Allen, and discovered that Allen had received her invitation but had kept it hidden, fearing that Williams would spend her time in Buenos Aires partying and meeting boys and not training. Furious, Williams quit the LAAC team, forfeiting her chance to defend her titles.

Chronology

1922 Born August 8 in Los Angeles, California, the youngest of Lou and Bula Williams's five children
1937 Begins swimming for the Los Angeles Athletic Club
1939 Wins gold in three events at the U.S. National Championships
1940 Stars in the Aquacade show at the San Francisco World's Fair
1940 Marries Leonard Kovner, June 27
1941 Signs a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
1942 Appears in her first movie, Andy Hardy's Double Life
1944 Divorces Leonard Kovnar
1944 Stars in Bathing Beauty, the first movie ever made that featured synchronized swimming
1945 Marries Ben Gage, November 25
1948 Becomes the first star to endorse a product, a line of swimsuits made by Cole of California
1949 Benjamin Stanton Gage born August 6
1950 Kimball Austin Gage born October 30
1952 Breaks three vertebrae filming Million Dollar Mermaid
1953 Susan Tenney Gage born October 1
1957 Divorces Ben Gage
1958 Begins a business selling backyard swimming pools
1961 Appears in her final starring role, in The Magic Fountain
1969 Marries Fernando Lamas, December 31
1982 Fernando Lamas dies of cancer October 8
1984 Becomes a sports commentator for synchronized swimming
1988 Launches her own line of swimsuits, The Esther Williams Collection
1999 Publishes her autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid

Williams still had a chance to make the 1940 Olympic team, but the outbreak of World War II forced the cancellation of those games. Williams even lost her chance to compete in swimming at the collegiate level when she got a D in her high school algebra class, which made her lose her swimming scholarship to the University of Southern California. Although Williams made up the class at Los Angeles City College, her career in the water had been indefinitely postponed, and she took a job as a stock girl at the upscale I. Magnin department store.

A month after Williams took that job, she received a call from the Aquacade, a swimming and diving show put on by producer Billy Rose at the New York World's Fair. The San Francisco World's Fair had now asked Rose to organize a similar show there. Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weismuller, who had starred in the New York version of the show, would be coming to San Francisco, but Rose needed to find a new female lead to swim opposite him. Rose, who had seen Williams in Life magazine, was in California auditioning swimmers, and he wanted Williams to be the lead. On her lunch break that day, in a swimsuit given to her as a gift from her supervisor at I. Magnin, Williams auditioned for Billy Rose. The next day, Williams left Los Angeles for San Francisco. She was now, before she had even turned eighteen, a professional swimmer.

Williams swam with the Aquacade the entire summer of 1940. She faced sexual harassment from many of the men, old and young, who were involved with the show—not an uncommon fate for female stars at that time, especially single ones. She was also cheated out of much of her salary by her agent. Frustrated at her powerlessness to remedy either situation, Williams agreed to marry a young medical student, Leonard Kovner, whom she had met while attending Los Angeles City College. The two were married between shows on June 27, 1940, shortly before Williams turned 18. Kovner returned to school, and when the Aquacade closed on September 29, 1940, Williams returned to Los Angeles to join him.

The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio had sent representatives to the Aquacade to try to recruit her, but Williams turned them down. She went back to her job at I. Magnin and settled into her new life as a wife and soon, she hoped, a mother. However, MGM was not accustomed to people refusing them, and additionally, Williams's marriage to Kovner soon turned rocky. Nearly a year after the end of the Aquacade, Williams finally agreed to meet with the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer. Kovner and Williams separated over her decision to sign a contract with MGM, but by October of 1941, Williams was ensconced in her own dressing room, earning $350 a week and learning to be an actress.

Additional topics

Famous Sports StarsSwimmingEsther Williams Biography - Learning To Swim, A Career Change, Chronology, Becomes A Movie Star, Awards And Accomplishments - CONTACT INFORMATION, SELECTED WRITINGS BY WILLIAMS: