LOS ANGELES — The water, Esther Williams once quipped, was her favorite co-star.
With her beauty, sunny personality and background as a champion swimmer, Williams shot to stardom in the 1940s in the “aqua musical,” an odd subgenre of films that became an enormous hit with the movie-going mainstream, fanned popular interest in synchronized swimming and turned Williams into Hollywood’s Million Dollar Mermaid.
The MGM bathing beauty, whose underwater extravaganzas made her one of the most popular actresses of the era, an idol in competitive swimming and a fashion force, died in her sleep early yesterday in Beverly Hills, said her publicist, Harlan Boll. She was 91.
Her movies — including “Bathing Beauty,” “Jupiter’s Darling” and “Million Dollar Mermaid” — were as light as sea foam, but she stuck with their mix of romance, comedy and underwater spectacle, concluding that she would “rather be a commercial success than an artistic flop.”
Her legions of fans didn’t seem to mind — for a time she was a top 10 box-office draw.
As Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote in 1984: “Esther Williams did more for a bathing suit than John Wayne ever did for a cowboy hat, Tom Mix for a horse, Errol Flynn for a sword, Ronald Colman for a pith helmet or Cary Grant for a tuxedo.”
MGM’s Louis B. Mayer had pursued Williams — a teenage swimming champion — to star in aquatic films as an answer to ice-skating star Sonja Henie, whose films were making money for 20th Century-Fox.
At the time, Williams, a Los Angeles native, was recovering from her disappointment at not having been able to compete in the 1940 Summer Olympics in Finland because of the war in Europe.
She was starring with Johnny Weismuller in Billy Rose’s live Aquacade revue in San Francisco but had no experience in acting, singing or dancing. She intended to return to her job as a stock girl at I. Magnin in Los Angeles, hoping to become a buyer for the store.