Dear Esther Williams
I address this letter to you with some hesitation. I think mainly because I intend having it published and read by a couple of million people before you see it. That, I suppose, could be called opening somebody else’s mail—a saved habit, according to the mailman on my street.
There must have been another way to do this but it has not occurred to me. The point is, you see, that I have a few matters to take up with you—and some things to write about you that require a broader medium than stationery—so the “open letter” serves my purpose admirably.
Now before you get nervous and begin howling for the postal inspectors, let me assure you that this is not the usual type of open letter, the kind generally used in magazines to caution a star that she is wayward, backward or headed for trouble. I have not heard that you and Ben have decided to call your marriage a silly infatuation, so I have no instructions to give you about your family life. I have not heard that you refused to go back-stroking with some rabid fan in the Wichita, Kansas high school pool, so I do not intend to warn you that such conduct can cost you the support of thousands of waterlogged admirers.
The simple truth is that I have been trying to get to talk to you in person for the past three weeks and have found it impossible. Oh, I have been given splendid cooperation at your studio. As a matter of fact, I have had the place in an uproar. And if anyone had been listening in on the conversations they would have thought we were all involved in some plot to get at the studio safe, because at the end we spoke only in clipped sentences and monosyllables.
My first approach was to call the MGM publicity department and suggest coolly that I might be willing to come and have a chat with Esther Williams if somebody would buy my lunch. This was received with a hearty cackle. I then telephoned and agreed to lunch elsewhere if it could be arranged for me to spend an hour or so with you discussing life and chlorine and life among the mermaids and life. We settled for the life and I promised to prepare a list of suitable questions and stand by my phone for an appointment.
After a day or two of getting my questions together I had just one. “What’s new?” And everytime I practiced it I slipped into a knowing leer. However, I lied and said I had a substantial basis for an interview ready and would appreciate a little action from the studio end.
I got my call on a rainy day. Frankly I am not too fond of water and if I could bathe in moth balls I would prefer to do so. But I shut all the windows of my car and drove carefully to MGM to see you. I was shuttled to a place called the Saucer Tank where you were doing the underwater ballet for One Piece Bathing Suit, and a young man trotted me up a flight of steps to a brightly lighted scaffolding atop a pool as more water than I have ever seen before.
“And where,” I asked, “is Miss Williams?” The leer was already pulling at the corners of my mouth.
The young man pointed into the water and I saw you down there waiting for the cameras to start rolling. They do it with mirrors, I thought, because you were apparently tying your shoe laces.
“I’ll tell you what,” I said to my guide. “I’ll flip you to see if she comes up here or I go down there.”
“We can’t permit you to get into the pool,” the young man said.
“That,” I told him, “is George with me.”
After what seemed a half-hour or so, during which I observed you through a watery film, you appeared to have taken your daily bending exercises, put on new lipstick and changed your hair-do. Well, frankly, Esther, just standing beside so much water made me feel like a regular frogman and I felt the need to get out and run a few laps on some dry turf, so I suggested to the guide that I go home and sit by my telephone and await the astonishing news that you had come up for air or food. He agreed almost too readily.
For the next few days we were in constant contact. And this is where our clipped conversations came in. My phone would ring, I’d answer it and somebody would whisper: “She’s out!” I would hum a husky “Roger,” hang up and sprint for my car which I kept parked at the curb with the motor running.
Usually, I would just get into gear when my wife would appear in the driveway and sing: “She’s in again!” And I would return indoors for the next flash. After a couple of days of my wife dashing outside and crying: “She’s in again!” and me coming back into the house our neighbors began to look at me oddly.
Oh, I saw you quite a few times. I would dash to the studio, climb the stairs to the top of the saucer tank and have the young man point gleefully into the depths of the water. He appeared to enjoy it. And pretty soon the workers on the set looked at me as though they thought I was a lunatic with a passion for taking peeks at girls under water.
I gave up in a huff. “Unless this girl gets a snorkel,” I told the studio publicity people, “I have a feeling we may never meet again.”
Someone suggested that I get in touch with your husband, Ben Gage. “Esther has to finish these scenes by the end of the month,” they said, “and it is beginning to look as though she won’t surface for more than a few minutes at a time until she does. Why don’t you talk to Ben—he knows all about her.”
“Unless,” I snorted, “he has gills I doubt that very much. It is impossible for a land creature to have much more than a water wings acquaintance with this lady.”
“But they have two children,” a publicity man pointed out.
I had no answer to that, so I went to your home to see Ben. He wasn’t even taking a bath when I got there.
To be perfectly honest with you, Esther, I love your home. I like the canyon in which you live and the clean brown earth on which the house is built, and the trees that cover the land. And I like Ben. He looks manly and competent and dry. He greeted me at the door and escorted me into your lovely living room and showed me your fine early American antiques. He apologized for your not being there.
“How long since you’ve seen her?” I sneered.
“Why just this morning,” he said. “We had a swim together before she left for work.”
“Now cut that kind of talk out!” I said heatedly, looking up at his face which was three feet above mine. And then I don’t know why, but I added, “Sir.”
We sat down on a large sofa and got set for a chat. But just as I got out the “What’s new?” the phone rang. Ben picked it up and began an earnest conversation.
“What do you mean the sink’s clogged up?” he said.
I looked into the kitchen and there was nobody telephoning from the sink.
“Get a plumber out right away,” he continued. “And have the coffee man leave an extra 50 pounds this morning. We’ll need it for the week-end.”
I thought “This man is a java addict,” but I held my tongue.
“How many dishes did we break. last night?” Ben asked the telephone receiver. “Sixty! Holy cow, we’ve got to be more careful.”
“You not only have to be more careful, bud,” I said to myself, “but I bet you never ever get invited back thereagain!”
The perfectly ridiculous conversation continued for a few more minutes and then Ben hung up.
“Must have been quite a party,” I chortled. Sixty dished broken. I once broke a Wedgwood cup at the Bill Holdens’ and Mrs. Holden darn near called the police.”
“What party you talking about?” Ben asked coolly.
“Well!” I said, “if you’d rather not talk about it let’s drop it and have a cup of coffee.”
“Never touch the stuff,” said Ben.
This man, I thought, is going to be difficult.
“Oh, I know what you mean,” said Ben laughing. “The phone call: That was our restaurant. Esther and I own a restaurant called The Trails. I was just talking to the manager. Place keeps me hopping night and day.”
I grinned stupidly, but I said to myself—because he was bigger than me even: sitting down; “Then why don’t you tell people you’re talking to a restaurant when you’re talking to a restaurant, ya big—! You go around giving wrong impressions!”
“What’s new?” I said out loud.
“Well,” said Ben.
The phone rang again.
“Oh, hi!” said Ben into the phone. “Yup . . . yup . . . yup . . . no kidding . . . how come? . . . what’d he say?
“Now this,” I said to myself, ‘is the kind of a telephone conversation a man can understand.”
“Then I tell you what you better do,” said Ben. “Call Washington and tell them we’ve got 50 axles and drums ready now, but we’ve got to have confirmation on the rest before we can tool out.any more, And you better look into that drill. It’s spitting oil! And spell that guy on the fogismutt tonight so he can jerrican the kranhope in the morning. If were not careful, we’ll wind up with more catteramicks than shustenbobbles and the whole thing will crustate on the winches.”
He waved his cold cigar at me indicating he would like to have some fire on the end of it. “For two cents,” I said to myself, “I’ll light this joker’s nose. Somebody has paid him to confuse me.”
Ben hung up in a moment and stared into my smiling, glassy eyes. My features were twisted into the shape of a question mark.
“Oh, that,” he said. “Esther and I operate a defense plant. Keeps me hopping from morning to night.”
I had an urge to ask him what department of the government was buying shustenbobbles these days but I restrained myself. He was almost lying down on the sofa now but he was still bigger than me.
“What’s new?” I asked listlessly.
“Oh, yeah,” said Ben. “Well . . .”
That’s right. The phone rang again.
“Hi,” said Ben into the instrument. “Is that a fact? . . . how many? . . . where does he want them? . . . You sure? . . . You got the measurements?
“He must take me for an awful fool,” I said to myself. “I just won’t listen. He’s probably got a chicken farm that keeps him hopping night and day.”
“Tell you what,” Ben mumbled into the phone. “Concentrate on the sashes. Get a sash on right and you got half the problem solved. Then make sure the net is fine enough and the whole thing is taken care of. And make sure they’re nice and clean when you put them on. What are the measurements? Seven feet by three-and-a-half, eh. Sounds okay to me. Go ahead.”
He hung up and turned back to me.
“Now don’t tell me,” I said. “You’re making costumes for Dagmar.”
“What’s the matter with you today?” Ben said. “Esther and I have a new business. We make aluminum screen doors and windows. We’re just getting ready for a field test.”
You think I didn’t know?” I sneered. “I was just kidding. I always kid like that.”
Well, Esther, Ben and I never did get around to talking much about What’s new?—we just sort of relaxed and talked about you. We talked about how you cook most of the meals and how people came from miles around to borrow a bowl of your salad. And we looked at your kids, Benjy and Kimmy. Not a sign of a gill on either one of them yet. And Ben told me how you get up every morning and take a swim and a bath before going off to spend the day in that saucer tank. And he told me that you never appear in public in a pool, because there would always be some character who would drown himself trying to race you or stay under the drink longer than you could. But he told me that you do make personal appearances in pools for service men, particularly at hospitals. And about the time you raced some of the paraplegic fellows and wouldn’t use your legs—and how some of them beat you, which was as nice a gesture as I’ve ever heard of.
Then he told me about how you bought your home in two days because Kimmy was coming and you needed room fast. And about how you both loved it so much you never wanted to leave it, which was why you were generally late for all the parties you are invited to. He showed me the orchids you grow in your back yard and he tried to give me one. He said that you had picked some that morning and taken them to the studio to present to Queen Julianna of the Netherlands.
Big him and little me walked around the grounds and smelled the wonderful fragrance of your canyon. He showed me your piano and explained to me that neither one of you could play it, but you kept it there because your babies’ pediatrician loved to play and liked to sit down and knock off a polka or two when he called to see the kids. That’s kind of thoughtful.
And after awhile he gave me a couple of spoonfuls of that 50 pounds of coffee and we sat for quite a while in your living room talking about you and the lads and your work. Ben told me he was through with radio as a career, for, as he put it, he had a restaurant, a defense plant and an aluminum screen factory which kept him hopping—I think he said, night and day. He told me that sometimes it was kind of hard to keep a home on a stable basis living in Hollywood, but that you both worked hard at it and it seemed to be working out all right. And he mentioned some of the wild times you had, like having waffles and sausages in the yard on Sunday mornings with the whole family gathered around a big table in the shade of your favorite pepper tree. Some fun, eh.
The whole thing turned out very well, I thought. I mean my talk with Ben. He apologized for your not being there and said you hadn’t had a day off in as long as he could remember—and that he missed you.
Well, Esther, that is about all. I didn’t get to ask you What’s new?—but I found out a few things about you anyway. I hope sometime soon we can get together and have a good laugh about me and you and the saucer tank. In the meanwhile, I wish you lots of luck and happiness, because I think you are living right. As a matter of fact, when I finish this letter in a minute, I’m going into the kitchen and drink a toast to you and Ben and Benjy and Kimmy. I’m going to drink a great big glass of water to you all.
Your constant admirer, afoot or afloat, Jim Henaghan.
It is a quote. MODERN SCREEN MAGAZINE JULY 1952