Esther Williams, Swimmer Turned Movie Star, Dead at 91

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Williams starred in box-office hits like "Million Dollar Mermaid" and "Dangerous When Wet."

Esther Williams, the professional swimmer who parlayed her skills in the pool into a successful career in films, has died. She was 91.

On screen, Williams helped popularize the so-called "aquamusicals," which paired musical numbers with synchronized swimming. Throughout the 1950s, she was a witty, vivacious and chlorinated presence who was never too far from the diving board in films with titles that positively dripped, like "Million Dollar Mermaid" and "Dangerous When Wet."

She became a top box-office draw and was seen by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as its answer to Sonja Henie, the Olympic figure-skating champion who was a star on the 20th Century Fox lot.

But film stardom was a detour, a lucrative one, but a career path she hadn't planned on following. As a teen, she won national swimming championships and had hoped to compete in the 1940 Olympics. Those dreams were dashed when the outbreak of World War II led to the cancelation of the games.

However, because of the war and the dashing of her Olympic dreams, she joined "Bill Rose’s Aquacade" when it moved to San Francisco. There she spent five months swimming alongside “Tarzan” star Johnny Weissmuller and caught the attention of MGM scouts.

She was introduced on the big screen in 1942's "Andy Hardy's Double Life," alongside the franchise's star, Mickey Rooney, and a young Robert Blake.

Though her name became synonymous with "aquamusicals," some of her film work took place outside the pool. She took on more serious and varied roles in such films as the Depression-era drama "The Hoodlum Saint" and the bullfighting drama "Fiesta."

After her film career ended, Williams entered the retail side of the swimming industry, lending her name to a line of pools, retro swimwear and instructional children’s videos. She even served as a commentator for synchronized swimming at the 1984 Olympics.

She married four times, first to Leonard Covner, who she met while attending Los Angeles City College. That would be the last non-showbusiness marriage that Williams would have.

In 1945 she married singer/actor Ben Gage, with whom she had three children. In her autobiography, Williams accused Gage of being a drunk who squandered $10 million of her money.

Williams' third husband was Argentine actor/director Fernando Lamas, who died of pancreatic cancer after 13 years of marriage. In 1994, Williams married actor Edward Bell, and the couple lived in Beverly Hills.