#ClassicFilmReading: The Million Dollar Mermaid by Esther Williams

Esther Williams is one of my favourite actresses and the chance to re-read her autobiography after having recently finished watching all of her (available) movies, with more context into her life story, was one I couldn’t resist. 

This is my fourth book review for Raquel Stecher's Classic Film Reading Challenge. Follow along on social media using the hashtag #classicfilmreading!

Esther was the ‘million dollar mermaid’ and the ‘mermaid tycoon’ but as you’ll find when you read The Million Dollar Mermaid, she was so much more than that. This all-American starlet was confident and powerful and adaptable. 

The autobiography opens with the intimate details of an LSD trip. Like Cary Grant, she was into the experimentation and insight that could be gained from psychedelics and discovered that she’d been trying to be everyone and everything to her family and friends. 

This was in 1959, after her successful years were behind her and she was floating helplessly adrift. She wanted to learn who she was and what caused her pain, and she discovered it. 

From this point on, Esther tells a no-holds-barred story of her life, beginning with her traumatic early years that involved a mother who didn’t want her—she admits to Esther at one point that she tried everything, “hot mustard baths; she went horseback riding; she jumped off a chest of drawers” to lose her, and when she didn’t succeed, her mother simply shrugged and said, “This one’s for laughs.”

Before she’s ever a star at MGM, Esther deals with the loss of her teenage brother, sexual assaults from a teenager who’s living with the Williams family, and a promising competitive swimming career that’s ruined when war cancels the Olympics.

Plus, she’s a star in Billy Rose’s Aquacade as part of the World’s Fair, the young wife to a medical student, and a department store worker at I. Magnin. But because she’s been featured at the aquacade and in national advertisements, she catches the eyes of MGM and she’s brought in for a screen test with Clark Gable, of all people. 

Then, the Million Dollar Mermaid is born. And from the moment she signs a contract, she’s determined she’s in charge. She has a clause that she can’t be cast in any roles for 12 months while she undergoes formal acting and starlet training, and she’s eased into the waters with bit parts in A Guy Named Joe and Andy Hardy’s Double Life. 

Her first big role comes in 1944’s Bathing Beauty, where she’s not only the star, but the inventor of water ballet as we know it. The film was originally entitled Dancing Co-Ed as a vehicle for Red Skelton, but the writing was on the wall: it was Esther’s movie and it turned her into an international sensation. According to her, Bathing Beauty was only ever outranked in box office grosses in the ‘40s by Gone with the Wind

From there, Esther’s got nowhere to go up but, and she outlines the innovations behind each movie: how she creates her underwater dances; how the studio builds the pool and learns how to use cameras and lighting to get the best film from it; how a brush with danger led to her helping design her own swimming outfits (it involves a heavy tartan swimsuit that made her sink to the bottom of a pool); how the team learned how to get her braided hair to stay in place underwater; and how Hollywood really learned as it was filming her just how dangerous the water can be. 

On Million Dollar Mermaid she breaks three vertebrae in her neck and just misses total paralysis. On Easy to Love she nearly avoids being sucked into a boat engine because it was speeding towards her with a mounted camera to get a close-up shot. On On An Island With You she narrowly avoids disaster on the reef until the waves come in to save her. On Texas Carnival, the pool is painted black and the top is covered, and nobody notices that she’s about to drown until the last possible second. At one point she writes that she was the only person who seemed to be concerned for her safety, so she had to take it seriously even when the studio wanted the shot or the costume. 

 But she wasn’t just a Hollywood star. Esther details her loves and her business—she seems annoyed by the title of ‘mermaid tycoon’ but goes into detail on her Coles of California deal for naming rights to a swimsuit, her restaurant The Trails (that her second husband runs into the ground), and her Esther Williams Swimming Pool businesses. 

Ben Gage, her second husband, takes up a significant part of the book. She’s charmed by him at first, but then the veneer washes off, and he turns out to be an alcoholic who’s squandering her money behind her back. He’s also the father to her three children: Benjamin, Kim and Susan, and she loves being a mother, more than she wants to leave her husband. Until she finds out just how badly he’s squandered her money. They divorce in the late ‘50s. 

And then Fernando Lamas enters the picture. 

I loathe Fernando Lamas on the level that I loathe Dick Powell. He’s useless and abusive and cruel, and like June Allyson with Dick Powell, Esther spends far too much time on him. 

Writing decades after his death, you know that Esther’s had time to process that relationship and the wringer he put her through, because she doesn’t ever write about him in a sense that you feel she ever loved him or truly mourned his death. 

I loathe him so much, it’s making me angry even typing this out. But here’s an overview: Fernando Lamas came from Argentina “to be a star at MGM” and said he didn’t want to do Dangerous When Wet because he had no intention of being the Nelson Eddy to Esther’s Jeanette MacDonald. 

And for some reason, instead of recognizing her value and his terrible attitude, Esther wants him as a co-star and tells him they’ll make the part bigger for him. Then he disappears from her life for a period, until she, again for some reason, calls him up and asks him to be in her 1960 special at Cypress Gardens. 

From there, it’s ‘love’ and ‘marriage’ (even though they don’t legally marry until 1969). He needs to divorce his wife, Arlene Dahl. Esther says if it’s easier to name her as the correspondent, they should do it, but this cad wants to put out rumours that Arlene couldn’t sexually satisfy him. So that it makes her sound frigid for not pleasing the Latin lover, and destroying her new business venture in the lingerie business. This fucking guy. 

But Arlene caves and they get a quickie divorce, and then it’s life on Fernando’s terms. And that means no children. Even though he had three of his own already. He doesn’t want to share Esther with her kids. “They have no relation to the way I feel about you,” he tells her. “They’ve had you for eleven, ten and six years. I just want you for one year to myself.” 

Dear reader, she goes along with this. He buys a one-bedroom house for them to live in so that she can’t move her kids in. He doesn’t want her to see them, and if she does, he doesn’t even want to know about it. He makes her move her sons in with their father and her daughter in with her sister; and for years she lives apart from them, only seeing them when she does school runs and makes them supper that she drives across town to them. She doesn’t even get to spend Christmas with them!


Finally, in 1969, he decides they should get married, and so they do, despite Esther knowing for years that he’s like this. Fernando has also made it clear to her that she’s not Esther Williams anymore. She’s Esther Lamas. And he wants her home, like a good wife. He wants the spotlight and the attention, and God help her if she does anything to draw attention to herself. 

“I get off the pedestal and put you on it?” she asked him once. “Exactly. That would make me very happy,” he replied. 

You wonder what made her stay? I don't know. He has no redeeming qualities, but she does write a bit about his large manhood, so do with that information what you will. 

When they’re first seeing each other, her friends host a cocktail party for her to celebrate the premiere of Raw Wind in Eden, but he refuses to go because she’d be the centre of attention and she made it with an ex-lover (Jeff Chandler). AND THEN HE MAKES HER MISS IT, TOO.

He gets sick in 1982 and it turns out to be pancreatic cancer. You’d think he’d want to be nice and apologetic on his deathbed but you’d be wrong. He clocks all the visitors he’s suddenly getting at the hospital and tells Esther he needs a haircut before he’ll see them. 

And then he takes Susan’s hand, his step-daughter, and in his final moments forgives her for what happened in their lives. You know, instead of apologizing for any maltreatment he’d given her. Esther was appalled but Susan was pregnant and magnanimous and knew that it was the closest she’d ever get to an apology, so she took it that way. 

Luckily for Esther, but not soon enough, honestly, Fernando Lamas died in 1982. Shirley MacLaine called up and said, “You can be yourself again. Esther, finally, you’re free to be you.” 

Women put up with too much, honestly. Twenty-two years of her life being Esther Lamas! 

I’ve already spent too much time talking about that jerk, so let’s move on. 

In her ‘comeback’ years, Esther devotes herself to swimming as a sport. She releases a home video on teaching babies to swim and she becomes godmother to synchronized swimming, which is finally recognized as an Olympic sport at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. And she’s invited to provide colour commentary for NBC’s broadcast. 

“Unwittingly, I was godmother to a sport!” Esther crows. 

What I love and appreciate about Esther Williams is that she was confident and strong and unapologetically herself. She knew she was a star and she used that to her abilities; and until Fernando Lamas entered the picture, she had no problem standing up for herself. 

Hollywood loves to praise the acteurs and the dramatic films, but Esther’s career proves there’s value in fun, light, fluffy films. She charmed audiences for decades and inspired the creation of an entirely new sport.

There are two illuminating passages in The Million Dollar Mermaid that lend to this. Esther has two separate conversations with Ingrid Bergman and Deborah Kerr about her stardom. And we all know that Ingrid and Deborah are—rightly—considered two of the best actresses of all time. And that they mostly starred in serious dramatic fare (though to be fair, they both did well when they were in comedies, too). 

At one point, Esther is telling Ingrid that she wants to be like her: a serious star, taken seriously, and with the caliber of leading men that are cast in Ingrid Bergman's films. Ingrid in turn tells her that she wishes she could swim, but more importantly, that in Esther's movies, she's the star. “Nobody has ever tried to ask me to carry a picture all by myself, so take it as a compliment.” 

This does work on Esther and she finally realizes her value. She doesn't need to be like Ingrid or Bette or Katharine; she can be Esther Williams and thrive. 

And then later in the makeup area, Deborah's talking to Esther and says this: “Esther, I really love what you do on the screen. You’re so pretty and you swim so well. Your pictures are light and beautiful, but I wonder… isn’t there anything you can do about getting a good story? You know, a good script?” 

To which Esther replies: “Deborah, look at it this way. If I make one Neptune’s Daughter, you can make two If Winter Comes.” 

The Million Dollar Mermaid. The Godmother of Synchronized Swimming. The Mermaid Tycoon. 

She was Esther Williams, and she was a star. 

P.S. It wouldn’t be a book review by me without all the juicy Hollywood gossip, so here you go:

  • At Billy Rose’s Aquacade, before she was a star, Lana Turner came to the show and asked for her autograph. Esther thinks this is funny considering they were “two lives that would soon intertwine in so many different and disparate ways.” [Fernando is dating Lana at the time he makes Dangerous With Wet with Esther.]
  • When she worked at I. Magnin right before she became a Hollywood star, Greta Garbo came in. Esther says she would always come in and “paw through the entire inventory of the sweater department,” and not buy anything.
  • Speaking of Garbo, there was apparently a swimming move named after her: the Garbo Freestyle, which was big splashes with your feet, as if they’re paddles (because Garbo had big feet). 
  • Marlene Dietrich, meanwhile, would come in to try things on and would stand in the nude in her dressing room. She says this was a pattern she noticed, as Marlene would sit in the makeup chair nude several times at MGM right next to her. 
  • Did her MGM screentest with Clark Gable, who brought Carole Lombard with him, and received her first screen kiss from him. He also dubbed her ‘the mermaid’ which stuck. 
  • Became fast friends with Van Johnson on the set of their first movie, A Guy Named Joe
  • He quipped later that they never dated because “I’m afraid she can’t get her webbed feet into a pair of evening sandals.”
  • Esther admits too, that she and Van weren’t close off screen, saying that despite the chemistry and the many films together, “we had little or no contact.” 
  • Disliked working with Mickey Rooney on Andy Hardy’s Double Life because “he felt justifiably self-important” and always pulled focus back to himself. Even running into him decades later, Esther found his attitude hadn’t changed.
  • Feuded with Lucy on the set of Easy to Wed. Lucy thought Esther was trying to woo Desi, and publicly accused her of trying to steal him. When Esther replied that she wasn’t interested in Desi, Lucy was allegedly angry that Esther didn’t find him appealing. 
  • Jane Powell sang the song ‘Because’ at her wedding to Ben Gage on November 25, 1945.
  • Was instant friends with frequent co-star Ricardo Montalban. 
  • Said her favourite leading man was “the water” in interviews. 
  • Gave Joan Crawford a gag gift to mark the start of filming Torch Song. Joan replied, “I don’t like tacky.” Joan never spoke to her again. 
  • Had lunch with Grace Kelly at Cannes on the day she met Prince Rainier of Monaco. 
  • When leaving MGM in 1956, she did it in secret, cleaned out her dressing room and left a note on the door for Grace Kelly: “Dear Grace, Enjoy!” 
  • Was at a dinner party at Bette Davis’s house when she was married to Gary Merrill. Ben, her husband at the time, got too drunk and passed out in the bathtub; then Gary tried to hit on Esther. It didn’t endear her to Bette, and she held a grudge for the rest of her life.
  • Despised Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen because they were jerks to her on the set of Take Me Out to the Ball Game
  • Conversely, loved Frank Sinatra. 
Come back soon for a review of Lillian Gish's autobiography! 


  1. I am here for the Fernando Lamas slander. What a douche canoe! As always I love your memoir reviews and how you always share the juicy tidbits with us. I've been nervous about reading this one especially since I know that a lot of notable figures including R. Osborne were upset when it was published. Thanks for giving us the scoop!


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