Williams may have been known as a swimmer first and a movie star second, but if there were an Oscar for Hollywood gossip, that would be her real achievement. Her 1999 memoir, The Million Dollar Mermaid, dishes the dirt as few others have. Williams could be shameless, and shamelessly funny.
She became an actress when MGM studio chief Louis B Mayer set out to find the next big thing after the ice skater Sonie Henie had made a fortune for 20th Century Fox. “Melt the ice, get a swimmer, make it pretty!”, he cried, and thus began the movie career of the girl Clark Gable called a “mermaid”. Films with titles such as Dangerous When Wet and Skirts Ahoy! ensued. Elaborate aquatic sets were built for her – “never had plumbing been put to a more glamorous use,” she wrote – and her 1944 picture Bathing Beauty grossed more in its time than any other movie except Gone With the Wind.
Williams’s fame, and scant clothing, led her to see the machinery of Hollywood sharply – the lust, the greed, the vanity… and the prehistoric facelifts. Here are some edited highlights.
On being groped by Tarzan:
Johnny Weissmuller didn’t just play Tarzan. He thought he was Tarzan. He had this magnificent physique and he was very strong – six feet four inches, with muscles that rippled and flexed as he moved. Heaven knows, he was handsome. He had a classic profile and he loved to pose. He thought he was God’s gift to women. The holder of many US and world swimming records, he had been the gold medalist in the 100-meter freestyle, at the Paris Olympics in 1924, and again in Amsterdam in 1928. In 1932 he donned a loincloth for the first time as Tarzan the Ape Man, a role he repeated many times in his career on and off the screen.
Later on Weissmuller also played a character named Jungle Jim, who was really nothing more than Tarzan with his clothes on – not that hewanted to keep his clothes on. He had remarkable genitalia that he loved to exhibit and was constantly stripping his clothes to his swimsuit and beyond so that everyone could appreciate his extraordinary male attributes. It was his way of saying, “Look at me. I was made perfect. God gave me everything a man could dream of having.”
In the show, I performed the solo number first, and then Johnny and I swam the duet. At the end of our duet, we had to exit by swimming under the stage to a set of stairs that came up out of the water backstage. Under the stage it was pitch black and when we made this exit, there was no one in the water except the two of us.
Under the stage, 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. If he grabbed me at the platform before the stairs, he would hold me and grope me and let me know that he had this lovely erection. I would swim for those steps as though I was swimming for my life. Chasing me totally in the nude, he would splash and grunt like a lion. I think maybe he took that jungle character a little too seriously. On-screen it may have been attractive to the ten-year-olds who filled the theaters. Underwater, it was a menace. There was no one else ever in that tunnel-like passageway under the stage. It was an Alfred Hitchcock erotic nightmare! He was always right behind me, that big smile on his face, those groping hands – three shows a day (four on Saturday and Sunday), six days a week.
On Marlene Dietrich’s dressing room habits:
The day Marlene Dietrich came in was the most memorable. She went straight to the designer floor and demanded a private showing. Because I was as tall as she, I was asked to model the dresses she selected. I put on the first selection and knocked on her dressing room door. This deep voice said, “Some in, dahlingh.” As I opened the door, I saw Dietrich, the world’s most celebrated sex symbol, lounging on a chaise longue, totally nude. The rumors that Dietrich was an exhibitionist were obviously true – she loved the look of shock on my face and coolly proceeded to instruct me as to how I should model the dress. I was so taken aback by her apparent immodesty that I couldn’t find my way out of the room. I kept walking into the multimirrored reflection of the door as she sat laughing seductively at my confusion.”
On William Powell’s facelift:
“One of the first scenes in The Hoodlum Saint called for me to slap William Powell after he kissed me without my consent. The director, Norman Taurog, had told me I was really supposed to let him have it. By this time Bill was in his mid-fifties, and when you’re just twenty-two, that strikes you as quite ancient – frail even. I didn’t want to slap that “old man” because I was afraid I was going to hurt him. Swimming develops broad shoulders. I never needed shoulder pads in my dresses, because I had my own built right in; and the same powerful armstroke that helped me in the water gave me quite a wallop on dry land. Norman kept telling me that there was no way to fake it – I had to really connect with Bill’s face in order to make that distinctive hollow thwack of palm against cheek.
As the scene began, I had my back to the camera. Bill came up behind me and planted that big kiss. As directed, I put a look of righteous indignation on my face and hauled off and smacked him in the cheek – hard. Then I watched in horror as one side of his face collapsed.
The other side still looked normal. “Oh, my God!” I shrieked. I thought Powell was having a seizure or a stroke.
“Cut! Cut-cut-cut!” screamed Norman. “Makeup!”
“What do you mean, ‘Makeup’? Normie, get this man a doctor!”
Taurog glared at me the way a veteran shortstop might regard the team’s greenest rookie, which in a way, I was. I turned to my costar to apologize. “Oh, Mr. Powell, I’m so sorry. What have I done? I broke your face!”
Bill waved me off with a tolerant but lopsided smile. I tried not to stare at his face – half of him looked thirtysomething; the other half looked like the picture of Dorian Gray. “I’ll be fine in a few minutes, Esther: We can un-break my face.”
The makeup people came right onto the set and began working on him. To my astonishment I saw an intricate network of rubber bands all around his face, all running into a knot at the top of his head. There was one by the eye, another right below the eye, another along the jawline. I had hit him so hard that I’d broken the bands on one side of his face. Then the makeup men were finished, it looked as if somebody had pulled all of his face up toward the top of his head. It was an instant face-lift, which is what they did for older actors instead of plastic surgery back then.