Esther Williams Says It Isn’t So
“To begin with . . . about me. I’m not running a four-ring circus. I’m not a mermaid-tycoon. I’m not a business executive. And I am not head of the house of Gage! That sort of nonsense has gone on long enough.” Esther sat in her dressing room on the set of her new film, “Dangerous When Wet,” discussing all those rumors you’ve been hearing about her marriage; all those stories you’ve been reading.
“There are probably certain myths about all of us,” Esther says. “And when they’re repeated. of ten enough, they begin to look like the truth. I should have set the record straight about Ben and me long ago—but I didn’t because I hated to give the errors the importance of a denial. There is no use, though, in saying you don’t care what people say; you can’t live in this world and not care about the opinions of your fellow human beings. When they’re allowed to continue to believe untrue things, it can only cause unhappiness. I’ve always liked telling the truth. So here it is. . .
“I’m in love with my husband. I respect and admire him. He’s the busiest man I know. He was a fine master of ceremonies, he has a beautiful singing voice, he got out of show business because he prefers business-business, and he’s certainly been successful. His strength bolsters mine. I couldn’t love him unless this were so. This idea that I’m a four-ring circus got started because people were always asking me about Ben’s business enterprises; and because I had a working knowledge of the manufacturing of screen doors, the machine shop and the restaurant, they assumed that I was running those businesses. It made better copy that way, I guess. But it’s not only untrue, it’s ridiculous.
“It would be physically impossible for me to be at the studio in make-up at eight in the morning, stay at the studio until six, spend time with my husband and children, spend time on the phone working for my favorite charity—and still have time to do anything else!”
At this point, Esther began to laugh. “Why, I’d have to be shipping doors to Sacramento, ordering meat for the restaurant, hiring and firing waiters, speeding up shipments of steel for the machine shop, and be out at The Trails counting cash at 3:00 a.m. on the manager’s night off. I wouldn’t have time to be in pictures!”
Esther and Ben have always had the ability to lead their individually busy lives and still have the energy for their personal life and fun. Ben puts in anywhere from an eight to a twenty-four-hour day, every day. He arranges his time so he can have dinner with Esther at 8:30 p.m. That’s his concession to her career; and the only nights that vary are nights when Esther has to study a new script or is so tired that she has to get to bed extra early for an early morning call. Those are the nights Ben relieves his restaurant manager.
That is probably what started the string of rumors about this marriage, Because Ben worked late some nights—he and Esther “weren’t getting along.” The silly stories that have made her look like a one-woman dynamo have also implied that Ben just sits around and waits for her to come home, that he lives, as it were, on the fringes of Esther’s career. Nothing could be further from the fact. Ben is her business manager but he’s no Hollywood husband. He hasn’t time! During her last two pictures, he has been on the lot for a total of two half-hours. As he said, when he visited “Dangerous When Wet”—“This makes me nervous, to watch eighty men standing around waiting for my doll to dunk her torso!” He comes to the set when the picture is over, when he and Esther give a party for the crew and The Trails caters it.
“My husband is probably the most misunderstood man in Hollywood,” Esther says, “and that brings me to the truth about us. . . .
“I wouldn’t have married Ben Gage in the first place if he had not been a man of great personal strength— spiritual strength and mental strength. He’s a man who is sure of himself, he doesn’t need a clinging-vine female who can gaze up at him and say, ‘You big strong man, protect me from this big world!’ That’s not the sort of thing I can say, it would be artificial and sort of funny. Ben knows how much I need him, how completely I depend upon him. I have always had to have a top person in my life, someone whose love, whose strength and faith gave me a springboard from which to dive in and be my whole self. I couldn’t enjoy loving a weak man. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t love him. My man must be stronger than I. He is. He’s so strong he doesn’t have to shout about it; and he knows as well as I that I’d come apart at the seams without that strength of his.”
Not long ago, Esther and Ben spent a lot of time with Nancy Chaffee and Ralph Kiner. Nancy is the tennis champ and Ralph is home-run king of the National League. They had met before, but on a recent vacation at Palm Springs, the two couples got to know each other better and Esther and Ben realized that here were two people more like themselves than anyone they’d ever met. Nancy has the same sort of drive Esther has and Ralph has the same easy-going way of handling her that Ben has in handling Esther. “You should have seen Ralph and Ben together! They were wonderful, they recognized each other as kindred souls. They’ve met their problem the same way—they don’t try to suffocate their wives as weak men might try to do.”
Ben Gage is not dominated. He does what he wants to do. He was, as Esther says, a successful radio announcer, he has a beautiful singing and speaking voice and whenever he is asked to sing at a party, the song is followed by a chorus of “Why don’t you do something with that voice?” His answer is simple. “I’m a business man.” Plenty of people in this town have tried to boost Ben into show business. Even Esther tried.
“I was so convinced of Ben’s talent, so ecstatic about it, that I almost pushed him into not marrying me. I’ve always been convinced that his talent is far bigger and better than mine, and I was going to see to it that he became the biggest star of all time. In the early days of our marriage, Ben’s career was my big project. Then one day, he took me by both shoulders, held me still for a moment, then said, ‘Darling, did you marry me to make me a star?’ (Some people thought that that’s why he married me!) ‘Because if you did, you’re wrong. I don’t want a career, Esther. I don’t care about it. Get off my back!’
“Then he explained in detail and I began to see. Ben likes being his own boss. He doesn’t want to ask questions, he wants to answer them. When you’re a star, you have to accept certain aspects of life you don’t like because you want the career and it seems worth it. I’m willing to accept the debit side because I love the business. Ben doesn’t. He feels sorry for me, actually sorry. He can hardly wait for the day when I can retire. Every investment he makes is made with an eye toward that.”
So far as Esther, the actress, is concerned, Ben and Esther regard her not as a person but as Esther Williams—commodity. Together they try to figure out what is best for that girl, how long they can keep her alive and kicking. And from time to time have her enjoy the Creative aspect of her work. What are the best vehicles for her? Is this something that will last for ten more minutes or ten more years?
“This practical approach of Ben’s to life is what attracted me in the first place,” Esther says. “I don’t have it. I’m on the feminine side in the business department. I love knowing about business, but it would be a sorry day for any business I started running.”
Some of the myth about Esther’s business acumen stems from the fact that she’s not stupid. If she is with business people and they ask about the much-publicized Gage enterprises, she tries to say something intelligent. This is a surprise to visiting business executives who expect a glamorous actress to think of nothing more technical than putting on her eyebrows. To carry on such a conversation is no trick; for she and Ben do talk about politics and business cycles, the possibilities of inflation or depression, real estate values and whether or not a gas station is a good buy because of a possible price war. Ben explains matters and Esther asks questions until she understands. Then one night, she’ll find herself at dinner and a business executive will say, “By the way, why did you and Ben sell your gas station?”
“Because of the price war that was coming.”
“Oh, no—how brilliant! Bob, did you hear that? This girl knew there was a price war coming on gas!”
“How do you like that!” Esther says. “I’m ‘brilliant’ and all I’ve done is try to understand Ben’s opinions, and sop up some of his logic.”
So there goes one myth. Then there’s another—the myth about Esther and money. “It’s true, I’ve tried not to spend money like a drunken sailor. That doesn’t mean I don’t spend any. I came from a childhood home in which money was not easily come by. It’s hard for me to consider it otherwise today. So the idea that I’m money-wise has grown to the point of my being labeled tight. Result, I find myself tipping a little too much now, picking up tabs a little too often.”
One of the reasons for this tight-wad deal grew out of the fact that Esther has never bought herself jewelry. Her jewels are all the things Ben has given her: the star sapphire engagement ring, her wedding ring, the sapphire guard rings he gave her for their first anniversary and Christmas combined. When Benjy was born, Ben gave her a gold safety pin with little charms on it; he also gave her her charm bracelet with its mementoes of each picture.
That is the sum total of Esther’s jewel box and in Hollywood terms it’s not lavish. But each piece is important. She loves getting her treasures this way; they mark the years—that’s the sentimental Esther. The practical Esther will probably never have a pair of valuable earrings because her ear lobes are so thin, she constantly loses ear clips, and she’s squeamish about having her ears pierced.
Another reason she is thought frugal—she doesn’t buy lavish clothes. Like any star, she could spend as much money as there is on clothes. She could rationalize a complete French wardrobe every few weeks on the basis that it’s part of the career. The truth is that Esther has never been able to bring herself to the excitement of that extravagance. She’s happy without a French label. She’s happier, actually, finding a little dressmaker in Pacific Palisades who will copy clothes for her from pictures. Between picture assignments, Esther hauls her dummy from the wardrobe department out to this seamstress. By using the dummy, she doesn’t have to go for frequent fittings. When a new picture starts, Sam Kress of M-G-M wardrobe has to yell, “Get the body back!”
Ben is an excellent dancer. In fact, it was at Lick Pier in Ocean Park that they knew they were completely in love. Ciro’s and the Mocambo dance floors weren’t big enough for these two tall people who like to take long steps; so they went out one Wednesday night to the huge Ocean Park ballroom. They had the place practically to themselves that night, they danced to their hearts’ content. When Esther got home, she told her mother, “That does it. He’s the best dancer of all time!”
“Actually, I fell in love with Ben the first time I saw him. That very minute. It was at a charity benefit for a Jewish old-age home. I’d sold cigarettes and was just leaving, alone, when Bunny Green said, Esther, by the way, do you know Ben Gage?’ And there he was.
“ ‘Why, hello!’ I said. But to myself I said something else. ‘There he is,’ I said, ‘What’s taken you so long, Ben Gage? Where have you been?’ He was in a sergeant’s uniform. I hadn’t imagined him in that. As a matter of fact, I’d imagined him on a white horse. But there he was. And do you know, with all the problems of our seven-year marriage, losing our first baby and all the work separations that we hate—I’ve never lost sight of the magic moment when I first saw him. If anyone had told me twenty minutes or five years before that I could fall in love it first sight, I’d have thought he was out of his mind. On everything else in my life, I’ve had to think so hard. It took he a year to join a swimming team; it took me a year to accept a movie offer. I had to think and think about each move. But not about Ben.
“As a matter of fact, for the first part of our courtship and marriage, I was like Betty Hutton as the backwoods kid in the early scenes of ‘Annie Get Your Gun.’ I just stood around with my mouth open, listening to Ben and saying, ‘What did you, Ben?’ ‘Say it again, Ben.’ That’s why he’s so incomprehensible to me that anyone should think I could be having trouble with my man.”
Ben’s gentle with his sons and quiet; he eves them full scope to show off their personalities. Recently, they went to Palm springs, the whole family; but the weather has too hot for the youngsters and they want them home by plane. The next night, Esther called home and talked to Benjy. After a minute, he said, “Okay, I’ve talked to you, Mommie, now put Daddy on.” Esther had several other things she wanted I to say but Benjy was impatient. “Put Daddy on, Mommie, I want to talk to Daddy.” So Ben came to the phone and Esther, piqued and curious, picked up the extension.
“Daddy,” Benjy was saying, “you know, I didn’t want to get on that plane. I said, ‘Nonononononono, I don’t want to, I won’t.’ ” He hadn’t mentioned this to Esther at all.
“Then what didja do?” Ben said.
“I got on. And you know what, Daddy? It was a jet. It went rrrpt when it landed.”
“Yep,” Ben said, “that’s how a jet goes.”
The conversation went on, Benjy telling his dad all about it, what he felt and when he stopped being scared and how Kimmy took the trip. When they’d finished talking, Ben said, “Were you on the extension?” Esther admitted she had been. “Well, just don’t tell Benjy. This was man-talk.”
“Anyone who thinks I’d dissolve this marriage just doesn’t know anything about us,” Esther says. “It happens that we’re in love with each other and with l our life—but if the situation were different, if there were reasons for Ben and me not to be happy—I still could never give those boys what Ben gives them, and I could never deprive them of this dad whom they adore. I not only am not a mermaid-tycoon—I’m not a mother-and-father either. I’m just their mother and I hope I’m doing as good a job at that as Ben is doing as their dad.
“This Ben of mine is uninhibited, and I’m as uninhibited as he. I can’t imagine a life without utter naturalness. Ben needs me, and he’s the sort of man who needs only one person in the world. It’s wonderful to be loved that way, and I thank my lucky stars for my husband every day of my life, and every day of his. Today is his birthday and his gift from me is a chronometer watch. On the back I’ve had engraved, ‘Darling, happy birthday, happy life. E’ That’s how I feel and that’s what I mean. I thank God that I had the good sense to fail in love with a man who also has the good sense to know his love and his kind of life when he sees it.
“We’ve settled down for the rest of our happy days building an exciting and a sound future together.
“If you’re interested in the truth—this is the truth about us.”
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE APRIL 1953