The Mermaid Who Started a New Olympic Sport


You can't talk about synchronized swimming without mentioning Esther Williams, the queen of the pool. She may not have invented the sport but she certainly launched it into the limelight. In 1984, Jim Murray did the following column on Williams and how the sport of synchronized swimming came to be in the Olympics.Congratulations to the Russian team that took gold in both team and duets in Rio.Enjoy! —————THURSDAY, AUGUST 2, 1984, SPORTSCopyright 1984/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
The Mermaid Who Started a New Olympic Sport
No one knows exactly the derivation of about half the sports in an Olympics. The javelin is pretty easy to figure out. How else could you kill a dinosaur in 1 million BC? The discus is a little harder to figure. So is the hammer throw. Come to think of it, the backstroke seems a pretty inefficient way to get away from crocodiles. The inventors of a lot of the ball sport events are no longer with us. Dr. James Naismith of basketball fame, for example, has gone to a higher tournament. Whoever invented kayak pairs; small-bore rifle, prone; the coxless fours, or the clean-and-jerk weightlift and the uneven bars has gone to his reward. Presumably, they were all dour, pipe-smoking, gym teacher types with handlebar moustaches, festooned with stopwatches and charts. But the inventor, or at least, the popularizer, of one Olympic sport is none of the above. She is, in fact, an American Aphrodite, an orchidaceous goddess of the sea who put a whole generation of her contemporaries in back-yard swimming pools and was the mermaid of a thousand schoolboy dreams. 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. She put a generation of shopgirls not only in handkerchief bathing suits but in upswept hairdos. She practically made the suntan-oil industry and wrecked the parasol business by herself. Esther was a dirt-poor Los Angeles schoolgirl who became the best swimmer in the world in the hectic prewar year of 1940, when she won gold medals in 100-meter freestyle, butterfly and medley swimming at the national championships in Des Moines that year. Esther was 17. When you shed a tear for the poor boycotting athletes of 1980 and '84, consider that Esther's generation was one of the first to be deprived of its gold-medal shot. The Helsinki Olympics of 1940 were canceled. The Red Army was at the gates of Finland, and Hitler was rolling through France. Esther, instead of winning a gold medal in Helsinki, was working in the windows of I. Magnin's Wilshire Boulevard store pinning scarves on mannequins for $78 a month. It was a time when Billy Rose was married to Eleanor Holm, the unfrocked swim star of the '36 Olympics, and was staging an ‘Aquacade’, i.e., a Ziegfeld Follies, in a tank at the San Francisco World's Fair. Rose figured it was a swell way to undress some of the most gorgeous chorus-girl shafts in the country. Esther Williams was tall, green-eyed and voluptuous. She really didn't have to swim, but she did. MGM came panting. Johnny Hyde, Sam Katz, L.B. Mayer himself came waving blank contracts. Esther, a practical sort, balked. She already had a career — after all, they promised to make her assistant buyer with a raise to $200 a month at Magnin’s. She made a screen test with Clark Gable, no less. The studio figured once Gable kissed her, a movie career would look infinitely better. They were right. "I melted," admits Esther, who always had a lusty interest in the other sex and romance. "You're tall," Louis B. Mayer told her accusingly. "You're short," Esther told him, accurately enough. From then on, she was studio pet. Hollywood had a canny history of turning Olympic sport into beauty pageant and a welcome break in the programs of gangster movies, war dramas and horse operas. In the silent era, they had signed up Annette Kellerman, the bathing beauty who had popularized the one-piece bathing suit and took ankles out of the closet, and made a fortune with her. They found Sonja Henie, a Dresden doll in a skating costume at Hitler's Olympics and not only made Sun Valley Serenade, but launched a dozen Ice Follies-type touring shows. Esther Williams and 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. The plots weren't much. The titles should tell you. Neptune's Daughter, Jupiter's Darling, Million Dollar Mermaid, Bathing Beauty, Pagan Love Song, Easy To Love, Andy Hardy's Double Life. Esther got to kiss her leading men, including Mickey Rooney, under water. The critics were beside themselves with gnashing teeth, of course. The critics always want Hollywood to make Ibsen and Grapes Of Wrath, in that order. "Wet, she's a star. Dry, she ain't," they jeered. "I never had a picture that was praised by Time, Bosley Crowther or The New Yorker," Esther lamented. But she never had a picture that lost money. Million Dollar Mermaid was the second-biggest grosser (to Gone With the Wind) in Metro history at the time. The songs were toe-tapping. Magic Is the Moonlight, Baby, It's Cold Outside. Recalls Esther: "More girls between the ages of 12 and 18 went to my movies than any others on the lot or in the town." She was the hottest single property the town had seen since Shirley Temple. But what was more important, her films introduced the world to the beauty of choreographed swimming. "We called it 'Water Ballet,' " she said. Stage 30 at MGM became the most important swimming hole in history. When Esther first showed up on camera, she splashed down the pool in near-world record time. Mayer was disgusted, "I don't want fast, I want pretty!" he shouted. They've been getting it pretty ever since. A new sport was spawned. It was called ‘synchronized swimming.’ Women who had been trying to get it certificated for years saw its acceptance grow by quantum leaps every time Esther surfaced through leis of plumeria and birds of paradise to fall into the arms of Fernando Lamas. Esther got rich huckstering swimming pools (Hollywood didn't give residuals in those days), but synchronized swimming became an Olympic event and gave a new meaning to the term “breaststroke," at least for the men in the audience who had popped for $200 a seat to watch medleys. Avery Brundage, the crusty old czar of the Games, had resisted the event for years. "It's not sport, it's show biz," he growled. Esther, still the unlined beauty who used to rise out of a sea of chlorines and corsages, is finally getting her Olympics. She will be an ABC-TV commentator for the swimming, diving, and, of course, synchronized swimming events in the Olympics. She sternly defends its inclusion in the Games. "It's a grueling sport. You have to do acrobatic lifts, you can't touch bottom, you have to train for years, you have to be precise, skilled and athletic.” And of course, in the old days, you got kissed by Clark Gable.
Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.
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