The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography

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9780156011358: The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography

During Hollywood's heyday, big studios battled over the next box-office attraction. While Gene Kelly danced and Judy Garland sang, Esther Williams swam into the heart of America with her dazzling smile, stunning aquabatics, and whole-some appeal. Hand-picked for stardom by movie mogul Louis B. Mayer, Esther shed her wide-eyed innocence at what she affectionately calls University MGM, a unique educational institution where sex appeal and glamour were taught, a school where idols were born. Once a national swimming champion and struggling salesgirl, overnight she became one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. And though fame came quickly, Esther's personal life was often less than joyous. Through troubled marriages, cross-dressing lovers, financial bankruptcy, she shares the ups and downs of her extraordinary career in The Million Dollar Mermaid, a wildly entertaining behind-the-scenes account of one of Tinseltown's classic dream factories.

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Review:

Her big movies are hard to find these days, and her name doesn't evoke the fan recognition awarded fellow MGM grads Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, yet for more than a decade during Hollywood's age d'or Esther Williams was one of the studio's most bankable leading ladies. An American beauty and swimming champ, she was hired at MGM in 1941 at age 18, and from then on starred in two or three thinly plotted "swimming musicals" a year--movies with titles like Neptune's Daughter, Million Dollar Mermaid, Easy to Love, and Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Her inevitable role was the pinup you could pin up at home, and it seems to have reflected her offstage personality too. Her long (400 pages) memoir is not always a miracle of narrative, but it includes a wealth of juicy gossip: Louis B. Mayer's rolling-on-the-floor tantrums; Gene Kelly's verbal cruelty on the set of Take Me Out to the Ball Game; her three failed marriages, including a long, draining one to Fernando Lamas; Lana Turner's name for Mayer ("Daddy"); Johnny Weismuller's backstage pursuit of her (naked); her own heat for Victor Mature ("unleashed"); and the LSD she tried in 1959 on Cary Grant's recommendation. Like so many other as-told-to books, the memories often feel self-serving, and there are plywood sentences even Lana Turner would choke on delivering. Disappointingly, Williams rarely shares what went on behind her lowered eyes and those buoyant cheekbones. --Lyall Bush

About the Author:

Digby Diehl is the co-author of The Million Dollar Mermaid, the as-told-to autobiography of Esther Williams.

 Esther Williams' youth was spent as a teenage swimming champion. She eventually was spotted by a MGM talent scout while working in a Los Angeles department store.

She made her film debut with MGM in a 1942 "Andy Hardy" picture called Andy Hardy's Double Life (1942). She became Mickey Rooney's love interest in the movie, and her character was called "Sheila Brooks".

Following this short movie, stardom was not far away. MGM created a special sub-genre for her known as "Aqua Musicals". Her first swimming role was in Bathing Beauty (1944). "Bathing Beauty" was a simple movie compared to her later big splashes such as Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), co-starring Victor Mature and Walter Pidgeon. Esther Williams was often called "America's Mermaid", as it appeared that she could stay underwater forever!

Following the decline of the once lucrative MGM aqua musical, she attempted dramatic roles. The Unguarded Moment (1956), is one example of this new found dramatic confidence. It co-starred George Nader and John Saxon. Also, The Big Show (1961), co-starring Cliff Robertson and Robert Vaughn was another dramatic role. Overall, Esther's acting skills were limited and, as a musical star in the audiences eyes, she was unsuccessful.

She retired from the movie industry in the 1960s, returning as a star guest in That's Entertainment! III (1994) discussing her appearance in MGM films. She certainly is recognized today for bringing enjoyment, escapism and entertainment on the big screen and has also a highly successful business in swimwear. Occasional TV work discussing her contribution to the film industry is a treat for her fans from time to time

Digby Diehl is the co-author of The Million Dollar Mermaid, the as-told-to autobiography of Esther Williams. Author of more than three dozen books, he is a media critic and journalist, living in Los Angeles, California, with his wife, Kay.  

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