A few weeks ago I watched my first Esther Williams film, Dangerous When Wet (1953). During her heyday, Williams’ brand of swimming adventures were highly formulaic, escapist fare and I say they hold up extremely well in all their wacky aquatic acrobatics. Since then, I’ve been eager to consume more of Williams’ work, including her autobiography. I’ve reviewed my fair share autobio’s in service to this this column, and too often there’s a false vein of friendliness running; a false honesty of blaming others’ for mistakes or just presenting a general “I got along with everybody” vibe. Williams has no fear about naming names and telling it like it is – one of the reasons why most wait till their friends are dead before writing. And yet, despite her honesty, there’s a positivity that never feels false.
Williams moves everything at a steady pace, surprising you from the first chapter where she details trying LSD because Cary Grant recommended it. Right there, you realize this isn’t an autobiography written by someone’s grandmother! Williams briefly introduces her family, the death of her older brother – a trauma causing her to take up the mantle of supporting her family – and being raped by a family friend. None of this is said with pity, but become a lengthy, metaphorical swimming pool for Williams to swim.
The majority of the biography examines Williams’ swimming career, with her unfortunate bypassing of the Olympics due to the outbreak of WWII, and subsequent movie career. You can almost see Williams’ big grin as she writes it all down. Her tone and storytelling capabilities are the autobiographical equivalent of drinking tea with an old friend and having them recount stories. The actress is unbelievably straightforward and candid, too much so at times. (She makes no bones about how fervidly Fernando Lamas chased her, both while they were making Dangerous When Wet and after.) She admits to affairs with Victor Mature and Jeff Chandler, the latter whom she maintains was a “crossdresser,” although from her descriptions he might have been flirting a taste with the desire for to be transgender, a topic then underdiscussed.
Williams always knew her career wouldn’t last forever, a divergence from most stars who couldn’t fathom that their luck would run out. Williams did a lot to diversify her portfolio, including designing a line of swimsuits and swimming pools. She was also a wife and mother and, considering the time period, these are the moments where the book shines. Williams reexamines her life through the benefit of hindsight, and comes to painful epiphanies regarding her husbands and children. Her second husband, Ben Gage, ruined her financially while third husband, the aforementioned Fernando Lamas, is revealed as a possessive cad who, despite Williams’ love for him, isolated her from her children. Williams doesn’t avoid this topic, nor push full responsibility onto her husband. She admits she should have stood up for herself more and doesn’t devolve towards excuses. You have no idea how refreshing it is reading an autobiography where someone admits, without guile or deflection, they screwed up.
There’s much more within Million Dollar Mermaid, such as Williams’ various swimming injuries – usually because the studio assumed she was superwoman – and her interactions with the likes of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Million Dollar Mermaid is an autobiography told without arrogance by a woman who loved her career and, yes, had her fun, but doesn’t regret it.
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