Williams' epitaph printed in USA Today was only half right. It said that Williams was one of Hollywood’s biggest moneymakers because she appeared in spectacular swimsuit numbers that capitalized on her “wholesome beauty and perfect figure.”They didn’t mention she was an accomplished actress, a championship swimmer and personally overcame the politics of the World Olympic Committee in her fight to have synchronized swimming added to the events of summer Olympics.
In the beginning, all Williams wanted in life was to be an Olympian swimmer. As a member of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, she set many regional and national swimming records. Still in her late teens she wasn’t able to compete in the 1940 Summer Olympics because of the beginning of World War 11.
But she was in luck.
Billy Rose moved his elaborate stage production of aquacade to San Francisco from New York City. At the time, Rose was to aquatics as Ziegfeld was to the follies. She was hired by Rose and worked for five months beside Olympic gold medal winner Johnny Weissmuller. Williams said good ole Johnny was pursuing her charms every day. Evidently, she managed to escape the arms of Tarzan They both went on to greater things.
An agent for MGM spotted Williams and signed her to a movie contract. She worked with Mickey Rooney in Andy Hardy and many films starring Van Johnson. She starred in a series of “aqua- musicals” which featured complicated athletic performances in synchronized swimming. She retired from moviemaking in the 1960s and became a business woman and entrepreneur, loaning her name to swimming pools, swimwear and instructional videos for children.
Even though she was a registered Republican, I always admired Ester Williams because she was an outspoken political activist, not in the arena of Washington D.C. politics, but in the sanctified halls of the International Olympic Committee.
For years after her retirement, she lobbied foreign governments and their IOC representatives to approve synchronized swimming as an Olympic medal event. Finally, they approved the first-time event for competition in the 1984 Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles, California.
But all movie legends, especially republicans, are not alike: Moses is still trying to get that assault weapon out of Charlton Heston’s “cold dead hands.” And sometime soon, Clint Eastwood could be joining Heston at a podium, threatening to cut the throat of an imaginary president sitting on an imaginary chair in front of an imaginary republican convention.
Ester Williams didn’t use her celebrity to exercise her creative license, threatening the President of the United States or defending our personal rights to murder each other with assault weapons. Instead, she acted as a true American athlete, creating an international platform for a new competitive sport — what an achievement. Her contributions to sport and society should be proof that she wasn’t just another pretty face.
David Farside is a Sparks resident and political activist.