Swimming through the looking glass

In which onetime movie mermaid Esther Williams turns on, meets the man in the mirror, drops out.


Lorenzo W. Milam
October 18, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Two seminal events crop up at the beginning of "The Million Dollar Mermaid," Esther Williams' recently published autobiography. One occurs when Williams faces down a young man who had been living with her family, and raping her, regularly, for over two years:

"I was fifteen, and the years of hard swimming had packed muscle on my frame and made me very strong. Not as strong as a football player, but strong enough to inflict heavy damage. He had to know that I was through being his trembling, passive victim ... Our eyes locked and I refused to look away. Suddenly his face crumbled and he sank to his knees."

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Already, she's a beautiful woman who has the power "to inflict heavy damage." With her will and her no-nonsense muscles -- it takes muscles to swim as gloriously as she did -- she puts an end to this early threat to her well-being.

Soon after, with the combination of beauty and power, she is on her way to the top, beginning with Billy Rose's Aquacades at the 1940 San Francisco World's Fair; and then -- shortly after -- as a rising young star at MGM. Swimming, always swimming; and smiling, always smiling.

She was the first real on-screen swimmer. She was good at it. It was pure power. It was her livelihood. And then there were the aesthetics of it. In one of the few lyric passages in "The Million Dollar Mermaid," she tells us about being on camera, in the water: "I began lolling underwater, rolling over and over very languidly in that pretty little suit ... It was as if I were at home. And of course I was -- I genuinely loved swimming and being underwater ... It appeared as if I had invited the audience into the water with me, and it conveyed the sensation that being in there was absolutely delicious."

"As if I had invited the audience in with me." And they came quickly, too. Soon enough she was a star; soon enough she was married, the breadwinner, the man of the family for her "buffoonish" husband and three children -- bringing in, over the next 15 years, some $10 million in 1950s dollars.

The second key event in Williams' tale comes with what we now call a "mid-life crisis." She's almost 40. Under the pressure of television, MGM -- which has been her training ground, her main support and her source of fame -- is falling apart. She wasn't minding the store, either. Her husband, somehow, managed to squander all $10 million and more -- on bad investments, booze, the horses.

After everything disappears (her marriage, her job, her youth, her money) she finds herself on the edge. "I was single again, and at a crossroads in my life. I was deeply in debt, with a career on the ropes, and I had three small children I was going to have to nurture and support. It was at this time that I read about Cary Grant's use of LSD under a doctor's supervision, and how it had given a new direction to his life."

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In those days, LSD was still an experimental drug, and was often used by doctors to help bring people out of terminal depression. A clinic in Hollywood administered the drug to her in a controlled setting, and, shortly afterwards, looking in the mirror, this is what she saw: "I was startled by a split image: One half of my face, the right half, was me; the other half was the face of a sixteen-year-old boy. The left side of my upper body was flat and muscular, like the chest of a boy. I reached up with my boy's large, clumsy hand to touch my right breast and felt my penis stirring. It was a hermaphroditic phantasm that held me entranced as I discovered my divided body. I don't know how long I stood there touching and exploring, but I was not afraid."

The two-in-one, the arsey-versey, the perfectly bifurcated soul. Esther Williams is still a gorgeous woman, but hidden somewhere within her, as with all women, is a man.

In psychological jargon, it's called the animus. Inside all of us, Carl Jung wrote, lies our opposite. For men, it is the anima, the female part, "relatedness, emotionality, a spontaneous and unplanned approach to life" (as psychologist Yoram Kaufman would later describe it).

For women, it is the animus, "to judge and to act, for discipline and aggressiveness ... The animus is symbolized by male figures appearing in a woman's dreams and fantasies, as a husband, son, father, lover, Prince Charming ..."

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Williams' acid-induced vision produces the two other key events that turn up in this autobiography. The first we might call "The unveiling of the animus." She's in love with Jeff Chandler, the handsome leading man from the '50s. They are thinking about getting married. They're in his house. She's cooking supper. She goes upstairs to find, "Jeff was standing in the middle of the bedroom in a red wig, a flowered chiffon dress, expensive high-heeled shoes, and lots of makeup."

She screamed. And screamed. And screamed. "'Take that off! Take that all off now!' I yelled and started screaming again."

Most critics have taken this passage as a wonderful joke. What a laugh! Hunky Jeff Chandler, dressed in drag. The gossip columnists have had a field day with it. But it's a five-page scream, and it goes beyond normal terror. "I couldn't stop myself ... It's a scream that has no logic. It is sheer, uncontrolled panic. I just stood there in the center of the doorway and screamed. It was the kind of scream that ... has one tone to it. It doesn't go into any bars of music. It's not a movie star scream, but the kind you make when your mind shuts down."

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What was it about Jeff Chandler in drag that created such an explosion in Esther Williams? She's no dummy. She has seen lots of strange sights in show biz. There was Johnny Weismuller: "Under the stage (out of the audience's sight) ... he'd whip off his trunks so I could see that he was beautifully equipped, and if he caught me, he'd try to get my suit off."

Or Morton Downey: "I had to listen to Morton Downey as I walked out onstage for each entrance ... in sotto voce, heard only by me, Morton spewed four-letter words, regaling me with graphic descriptions of what he would like to do on and to my body."

She's been hustled by countless stars and producers: Victor Mature, Billy Rose, Desi Arnaz. She's acted with dozens of boys: Mickey Rooney with his temper tantrums; Gene Kelly: small, petty and mercilessly cruel to her; Red Skelton crying because, in one sequence, he's going to have to shave his chest hair. What's different about this new vision is that she's fresh from her LSD experience, an extraordinarily powerful one. On acid, she saw herself in the mirror not only as a woman, but as a strong young man, whose "clumsy hand" touched her breast, as she "felt my penis stirring."

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When Williams saw Jeff Chandler dolled up (high heels! chiffon dress!) she was, again, looking in the mirror, as she had on LSD -- but this time she saw something different. She saw before her Esther Williams -- a man in woman's clothing. And the vision scared the bejesus out of her.

Shortly after, she found a way to deal with it, for within months, she took up with actor Fernando Lamas. It was a marriage that was to last for 22 years. Like almost all of the men she was associated with, Fernando was a boy. But he had something different going for him. He was the kind of boy they call macho.

They made an agreement. They would have a perfect MGM married life. She knew those well, because she had acted them out in dozens of movies, with names like "Thrill of a Romance," "Neptune's Daughter," "Easy to Wed" and "Fiesta." The script was simple. There would be a beautiful husband, a beautiful housewife, a big house. Lamas wouldn't play around. He would be faithful. She'd play her part of a married woman. No children (she had children, but he didn't want them in the house; she complied.) She wouldn't make any movies, either. Fernando didn't like competition -- from within, or from without.

Most of all, he would always be the man. She would never cross him. Once she tried. She called him "stupid." You don't call a Latino "stupid," ever. He grabbed her dress "and wrenched it down, ripping both side seams down to the waistline. The dress was completely ruined, and I was sitting in the parking garage exposed and humiliated by what had now become a public display."

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The unmasking. Before, she had been this strange, bifurcated being. No longer. She tries to assert herself, and Lamas rips off her dress in front of everyone. Look, he is saying. You are a woman. You don't believe me. Look in the mirror. And if you ever doubt it, or me, I will always unmask you. Now everyone knows that she is no longer the mermaid (torso of a woman, lower body a fish). Under Lama's tutelage, she's just a woman, a married woman, a hausfrau who cooks and takes care of the house; who won't ever touch another man; who will grow fat, so no one will ever want to touch her.

"If a positive conscious relationship cannot be maintained toward the animus," writes psychologist Kaufman, "we meet the notorious animus-ridden woman." For 22 years Esther Williams lived like that. For outsiders, it was the perfect MGM marriage -- learned from all those happy films she made. Perfect strong husband, perfect passive wife.

Lamas had been quick to recognize his main competitor, the one inside of her. He was even quicker to stamp it out -- and she was eager to cooperate. Because she had looked in the mirror and didn't like what she saw.

The East Coast media has gone quite gooey over "The Million Dollar Mermaid." There was an interview on National Public Radio. There was a fond review in the Washington Post, and an even fonder one in the New York Times -- with a follow-up interview, a nice squishy one by Todd S. Purdam.

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Too bad they missed the boat. She knew her lines perfectly. She'd been memorizing them for years. "Nothing quite prepares a visitor for the sight of Esther Williams herself," Purdam croons, "in short white shorts, black flats, black tube top and white cotton blouse adorned with a rhinestone-speckled applique of a top hat and gloves on the front. She emerges from the shade of her living room in full-body makeup, legs firm and posture perfect, smiling that 1,000 watt waterproof smile, and asks politely, 'Would you like to take a swim?'"

Yikes! We're back in 1950 again, on the MGM swim lot, aren't we?

At one point, Purdam questions her about the fact that she stayed with the tyrannical Lamas for so long. Why didn't she just get out? "I think it's so funny when people think they can't control a movie star," she says, smiling brightly. "They can. We're just women, you know."

Right. We're just women, you know. And mermaids.

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And, in the mirror, at times -- strange, passionate young men.


Lorenzo W. Milam

Lorenzo W. Milam writes for RALPH: The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy, and the Humanities. He is the author of "CripZen," "Sex and Broadcasting," "The Radio Papers" and "A Cricket in the Telephone (at Sunset)" among others.

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