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My Defense Of Esther Williams

Esther Williams’ hearty laughter sounded across the room at the Mervyn LeRoy cocktail party as I made my way toward her. A changed woman from the last time I talked with her when she was—frankly—hopping mad. Esther, on that last occasion, had just had her pretty pants paddled by the hundred and more women who belong to the Hollywood Women’s Press Club. At year’s end, the women of the press had given her the raspberry as 1953’s least-co-operative actress, a dubious honor she had also captured in ’52. Esther had been mad, fighting mad, and a little bitter at the women who daily pour thousands of words out of the film capital on the public’s favorites.

“I was out of the State of California for two months of ’53 and in a state of pregnancy for nine months,” she snapped irritably. “At least my husband found me co-operative!”

But tonight, last week’s mood was gone, and Esther was her unruffled self.

“Not mad anymore?” I asked.

She shook her head. “Not mad. Not hurt. The first time, I was hurt. The second time, mad. But that’s over too. I just feel—puzzled. 

“Honestly, Louella, what do you think is the matter? Since I don’t seem to have the right idea on all this, please, Louella, why don’t you tell me what’s wrong. Why should they do this to me?”

“You and Ben come on to dinner with me at La Rue,” I proposed. “It’s quiet there and we can talk and perhaps I can tell you some things about you that may surprise even you.

So, that’s how it happened that long after most of the diners had left the cafe, and Ben was table hopping to visit with a crony or two, Esther and I sat talking over our coffee cups.

I had started by saying, “Esther, did it ever occur to you that the press girls gave you the axe as the least-co-operative movie star because they are judging you by the standards of other glamour girls who live by the glamour rules? And you don’t. You never have.

“For example, Joan Crawford is a movie star. So is Marilyn Monroe. And Lana Turner. And Ava—but not you, Esther.

Let me tell you what a certain glamour girl, a typical run-of-the-mink movie star said when I mentioned to her my surprise at your twice winning the press club’s booby-prize.

“This belle sniped: “ ‘Well, I’m not surprised. What does she know about getting there the hard way?

“Did she ever date a dozen eligible drips-around-town in a different night club every night just to keep her name in the gossip columns until she got a toe-hold on a career?

“This is the way many of us had to do it—but not Esther. Not on your life. Miss Neptune’s daughter sprang full-blown into stardom from a heated swimming pool and then to add insult to injury, she gets everything else that matters to a woman.

“She gets her man, a house full of babies, and a fortune on the side from other investments!’ ”

Esther threw back her head and laughed her hearty, healthy laugh.

“Perhaps she expressed it crudely,” I said, “but there’s some truth in it.”

“How do you mean, Louella?” Esther asked.

And, here is what I told her:

There are so many things in your life you put ahead of being a movie star. First and above everything else, you’re Ben Gage’s wife, sweetheart and his woman.

It’s said that all women fall into two basic categories—the man’s-woman or the mother-woman. You’re both—but first, you belong to Ben. You are a strong, vital, happy woman who has found her guy—and that’s enough, sister.

In your unabashed realization of your perfect mental and physical mating with Ben you have found what most women search for all their lives, and too many of them never find. And, you are smart enough to know what you’ve got and to cherish it.

I’ve often heard you say without embarrassment—which is the way it should be —that you and Ben are Married Lovers.

The only time I ever knew of you really blowing your top, even to wanting to take a swing at someone or something, was when Ben had a hassle with a tipsy drunk in a cocktail lounge and the gossip started that you were leaving him. You were furious. Remember you said, “Fiends and Devils! Leave us alone. What Ben does, I would have done. He’s my guy, and what he does is all right with me . . .”

It follows naturally that your other pre-occupation, equally strong, is being mother to Benjie, Kimmie and now little Susie Gage—that happy clan of babies who swarm all over you.

To them you are just Mommie—who holds the hankie while they blow their buttonhole noses and who let Kimmie cut his teeth on one of your gold loop earrings and who dries Susie’s diapers before an open fire in the living room.

You once said you should have a dozen kids, you have them so easily—can’t even remember a labor pain when you wake up after one of your babies is born.

And it isn’t only your own kids you love—it’s your nature to reach out to all children. That’s why you give so much of your time and yourself to the Nursery School for Visually Handicapped Children.

You are at the Home as many hours a week as you can possibly spare teaching these little blind children to swim and to help them gain confidence in themselves in a dark world.

I’ll never forget what you did one day when a girl who had once been a beauty in the chorus at Earl Carroll’s called me with hysteria and desperation in her voice.

I barely knew her myself—but my secretary was caught by the tragedy in her voice and put me on the ’phone.

She had just been told by the doctor that her baby, just nine weeks old, was stone blind and that there was no hope that the baby would ever see.

“I don’t know Esther Williams,” the distraught mother sobbed, “But I know you do. Miss Parsons, I have to have help. I have taken my little boy to the Home for blind children but they tell me they can do nothing until the baby is a year old.

“What can I do? Where can I turn? My poor little blind baby cries all the time. I don’t even know how to care for him. I have to have help now or I’m afraid I can’t carry this burden. Could you appeal to Esther for me, please!”

You were working on the set of “Easy to Love” at the studio, but I got an emergency call through to you.

“Don’t worry,” you said after I had explained the plight of this unhappy mother, “something will be done, and not a year from now. Give me that girl’s number and I’ll call her now.”

I didn’t hear from you again about this, but ten days later the mother called me again to thank me and to say that an “angel” had come into her life.

“Do you know what Esther Williams did?” she told me. “That very day she left the studio at her lunch hour and went to the Home. She explained the situation and said that in this case she hoped an exception would be made.

“Within a few hours, I had a call from the Home. They said that at Miss Williams’ personal request they were not only taking in my baby, but my husband and I were to come to the classes for parents and receive instructions in the care and handling of a blind infant!

“I can never, never tell Esther Williams what is in my heart. Will you please say it for me, Miss Parsons?”

Well, as you know—I didn’t need to do this because you didn’t let that initial good deed stop there. Maybe you don’t know that I know, but you and Ben called the parents of the blind baby soon after this, invited them to your home for dinner—and you gave them your friendship as well as your help. That’s what I call being “co-operative.”

And being a good wife, a good mother and a good friend aren’t all the things you put ahead of being a movie star.

You’re a good level-headed Yankee business woman, a full-time partner in toil as well as finances with Ben in the operation of your successful restaurant, various real estate and investment ventures and the bathing-suits and bathing-dolls, sidelines of your bathing-beauty fame.

I hear your Trail’s cafe does $250,000 per year and that your earnings during the remaining years of your M-G-M contract will amount to nearly $2,000,000.

Yet, you and Ben do.the unheard-of thing of paying your giant income-tax bite in a lump sum in advance each year, live on $18,000 annually, and save what you can.

Because you are a property owner and a taxpayer, you make it a point to be a good citizen. The year of the presidential election, you got out in the rain and rang neighbors’ doorbells campaigning for Ike because in your heart you believed in him and in the good you believed he would do the whole country.

Several people tried to advise you that actresses shouldn’t fool around in politics—might offend too many people on the other side. “I’m not operating as an actress,” you snapped with your dander up, “but as a citizen.”

When you were asked recently to be Honorary Mayor of your community you didn’t laughingly accept it for the publicity value and then forget all about it. You attended all the meetings at the public school about community problems, clearly marking the school crossing zones—repairing certain streets, making sure hoodlums were policed out of the district.

Meetings such as these and gatherings with your family are practically your entire social life.

To your wonderful mother, you’re still just her baby.

Just last Thanksgiving you cooked the turkey dinner yourself—with one maid helping—for 22 people, all relatives—and with a half-dozen assorted nieces and nephews under your feet—just for the sheer warmth and devotion of having the whole family together at one time.

I hear you were so tired after dinner that you got out a pan of hot water, sat right down in the middle of the family clan, and soaked your feet! These are the doings of a Glamour Girl?

All right, all right—I’m coming to that part of your life now, the part that belongs to work and glamour. Believe me, I’m not underestimating what you have accomplished as a star.

I know you have worked very hard to improve yourself with each picture. The public might easily have grown weary of looking at a mere bathing beauty if there hadn’t been a warm and talented personality behind the big splashes.

You have done much to improve yourself as an actress to the point where you are now an accomplished comedienne and musical comedy star as well as our top water baby.

You can look back over the past ten years and be proud of the girl who was discovered in Billy Rose’s Aquacade, who was brought to Hollywood for one film, and who remained to become one of the great stars of the screen at the boxoffice.

Indeed, you can take a bow on your achievements as a career woman.

You have proven you can have all the things the other glamour girls have—and Heaven, too.

In fact, you’re the girl who has everything in the world—everything, that is, but the vote of the Hollywood Women’s Press Club as the Most Co-operative Actress.

Now, how about going out after that, too, in ’54?

I took a deep breath and sat back. I’d started out to tell Esther what was wrong with her approach from the point of view of the girls of the press, and had wound up delivering an oration on her virtues as a wife, mother and citizen. I’d hardly given her a chance to get a word in edgewise.

Across the room, Ben was saying goodbye to his cronies, who were getting ready to leave La Rue, and I knew he and Esther would be wanting to get back home soon.

“Louella, you’re wonderful,” Esther said, with that hearty, healthy laugh of hers. “You’ve just told me I’m all the things I’ve ever wanted to be, praised me to the skies in the terms that mean the most to me—and that’s your explanation of why I’ve been called the most un-co-operative actress in Hollywood!”

“Strange as it seems, that’s it, Esther—and I know you’re still puzzled. You want to know how you can be all the things you are to Ben, your kids and your community, and still be everything the girls of the press would like you to be to them. Well, maybe the answer is as simple as this: Let the press and the public know you as well as I do. I’ll start by telling the world about the Esther I know—the Esther who may not live by the glamour-girl standards, but whose own high standards ought to inspire the greatest admiration and respect. The Esther who puts many things ahead of being a movie star—the most important things in the world.”

“Louella, my ears are burning again,” Esther laughed, as Ben came over to our table. “Don’t tell me any more.”

“Okay, Esther. I’ll tell the world!”

This is it—the story of the Esther Williams I know and love. The defense rests.




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