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Only Her Husband Knows—Esther Williams

No prospective movie star should be born in Los Angeles. It is a distinct disadvantage. The instant the star assumes her lofty position in the Hollywood solar system, thousands of local fans claim to be authorities on her life.

Esther Williams made this tactical error and practically every native Angeleño between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five claims to know everything there is to know about the leggy film star.

A few months ago when Esther was unfairly and unjustifiably voted the most uncooperative actress of the year by the Hollywood Women’s Press Club, everyone and his sister had something to say about the choice.

“I went to school with Esther in Inglewood.” one secretary commented, “and she’s always been real cool.”

Said a local photographer, “I was in high school with Esther Williams, and while I never would’ve married Ben Gage, this babe is okay. She’s honest and truthful. No phony-baloney about her.”

“Esther Williams and I were in grade school together,” a cab-driver said. “Matter of fact, she was gone on me. I never did give her a tumble, just wasn’t my type, but for my money she’s okay. She made it the hard way. Her old man was never head of any studio.”

As you can see, practically everyone in Los. Angeles went to school with Esther Williams. Knows all about her. How she learned to swim. How she went to work as a stock clerk in I. Magnin’s for $78 per month. How she swam for Billy Rose. All of it.

There are a few genuine authorities on the life of Esther Williams, some of whom never went to school with her. Her parents, for example.

The father, Lou Williams, now spends most of his spare time fishing. The mother, Bula Williams, is a social worker with two degrees, Doctor of Philosophy and Doctor of Divinity. (She is a licensed minister.)

Both of her parents think Esther got a raw deal when the press girls branded her “the most uncooperative.”

There are more oracles: Esther’s sister Maurine, also a Ph.D.; her sister June of the Pico Women’s Club, her brother Dave, a contractor-plumber. And of course, her tall, husky (six feet, four inches, 255 pounds) husband, smiling Ben Gage.

Naturally, Ben Gage knows more about Esther than anyone. He has been married to her for eight years. He is the father of her children.

How did Esther come to be voted the “most uncooperative actress of 1953?” This title was originally scheduled for Doris Day, who should have won it hands down. Last year Doris was about as cooperative with the Hollywood Press as a frightened porcupine.

The Women’s Press Club was told that Doris had been under a great nervous strain. For months she had suffered from cancerphobia, a fear of cancer which fortunately turned out to be groundless. Appeals were made to their kindness. Why make someone who was ill more ill by voting her uncooperative?

A press agent phoned and said that if Doris were branded “the most uncooperative” he would lose his job. Press agents often hold this sword over the heads of warm-hearted reporters.

So you can see what a tight spot these writers were in. Someone had to get the sour apple. It just wouldn’t do to say there were no uncooperative actresses in Hollywood.

It was close, but the honor finally went to Esther Williams. She has recovered by now, but when Esther got the news, she was hurt. Fortunately, she is blessed with an irrepressible sense of humor.

“At least,” she said, “they voted me an actress. That’s something.” Esther explained that in 1953 she not only worked at home as a mother and housewife, but that she was on location with a picture, and that for nine months of that year she was pregnant.

Despite all this she had managed to take part in more than fifty interviews and picture layouts. She said she had done the best she could with the time she had.

“I’m sorry,” one member snapped when she heard Esther’s explanation. “That just won’t do. Look at Virginia Mayo. She worked in pictures last year and had a baby and she always made time for the press.”

MODERN SCREEN, having carefully researched Esther Williams and her activities, refuses to brand this wholesome girl as “uncooperative.”

She is more warm-hearted, more generous and kind than a dozen other actresses. She is blessed with enough modesty to prevent her from talking about the good she does.

This is why we turn you over to her husband, Ben Gage.

“Esther,” he says, “is no angel. Stick a pin in her and she bleeds. Hurt her and she cries. She also gets sick, gets excited, eats food and buys dresses. In other words, she’s normal and she’s human. But she’s not typical.

“The overwhelming love in her heart, especially for children, is not typical. It’s unusual and wonderful and it colors our whole life.

“When we were married it was Esther’s idea to adopt a French war orphan, to pay a monthly allowance for a little girl’s support. The child has grown up and no longer needs our support. But Esther ordered the allowance transferred to the support of an Italian war orphan.

“Before we were married we decided that we wanted lots of children. Esther was one of five, and her family life was the happiest.

“After we were married, Esther announced one day that she was with child. We were both overjoyed. But after five and a half months she lost the baby. We don’t know exactly what was wrong.

“That set us both to thinking about handicapped children, babies who came into the world with some sort of physical deficiency. Esther began to think about what she could do for such babies. That’s how she became interested in the Nursery School for the Visually Handicapped.

“Esther has not only contributed a swimming pool in part, but whenever she has any spare time she’s down at the nursery teaching those little kids who don’t see so well how to swim.

“All our three children, thank God, are physically perfect, and looking after three healthy kids is job enough for any woman, but Esther always finds time for those handicapped little guys.

“She just happens to be a kind-hearted girl. I could point out many things—her generosity to her family, jobs she’s gotten for other swimmers, how thoughtful she is about the help—and they all add up to one word, cooperative, the opposite of what the Hollywood Women’s Press Club said.

“Esther has said many times that her home—I guess that includes me and the kids—comes first. After that comes her career.

“And she’s just not talking either. In Esther’s book, human relationships are the most important things in life. She hates to hurt people and so far as I know she’s never premeditatedly hurt anyone.

“We run a restaurant and a screen door factory. We employ quite a few people, and I don’t think you can find anyone who’ll say Esther hasn’t given them a fair shuffle.

“I don’t want to be in the position of defending a girl who is so guiltless that she has nothing to defend. I just mention these facts so that her fans can better understand Esther.

“But isn’t there the possibility, just the possibility, mind you, that a wee bit of jealousy might have been responsible for Esther’s having been named most uncooperative?”

The jealousy theory is widely held in Hollywood. For many years Esther and Ben Gage have been sniped at for no apparent reason.

You’ve read rumors to the effect that their marriage was coming apart at the seams, that a divorce was inevitable, and all the rest of the dirge.

“It so happens,” Esther says, “that every time these rumors begin, I get pregnant. Then the columnists get embarrassed.”

Why should people be jealous of Esther and Ben? They have everything: a comfortable home, beautiful children, a great future, a profitable career, and their love for each other. These are virtues enough to make them a target.

Ben was with Esther on location in Florida making Easy to Love. Someone asked, “What in heaven’s name does Esther see in that lug? Does he ever work? What does he do?”

The answer is that Ben Gage does work. He manages the Trails Restaurant and the Willgay Manufacturing Company. Although he doesn’t earn what Esther earns, neither does he use his wife to further his own schemes.

Esther’s personal life was not particularly happy until Ben came along. She was unhappy with her first husband, not only because they had different philosophies, but because her family didn’t like the young medical student. Esther has always loved her family and could not tolerate the near-estrangement.

When Ben Gage came along, her loneliness ended, they were married and have been happy ever since.

Ben was in show business for fifteen years before he met Esther. He was never too successful, probably because he is not hyper-ambitious. Ben believes in living and letting live. This sort of middle-of-the-way philosophy is not the route to stardom.

He is content to let Esther be the star in the family. Sensibly, he realizes that he cannot equal her achievements. Why try to compete?

He loves being with Esther and his family, making them happy, working around the house. The Hollywood gossips don’t bother him one bit.

Of course he was disturbed when his wife was voted the most uncooperative actress of 1953. There have been too many reporters and photographers around his house all year long for him to believe any such judgment. He just scoffs at rumors concerning him and his life with Esther.

“I don’t pay them any attention,” he “Why should I? I’m tired of denying that Esther and I are fighting or quarreling or whatever they’re saying. I know all about Esther, and she knows all about me. We don’t have to be told about each other by the newspapers.”

Several of the reporters who cast votes against Esther will tell you privately that she is driving, ambitious, and money-mad. They will tell you about the real estate investment she made in Twenty-Nine Palms, California, her deal with Cole of California bathing suits, her plan to organize an Aquacade, and many of her other business deals. But they can’t tell you all about them.

Several years ago Esther bought some desert property in Twenty-Nine Palms and had her brother David supervise the construction of half a dozen small homes. She didn’t do this to make a big profit or to speculate on land values.

David was sick, out of work, and had been ordered down to the desert. Esther thought it would be nice to give him something to do, so she invested her hard-earned money in the project. Her other brother, Stanton, died of an intestinal virus when he was only sixteen—she frequently refers to him as “the most talented of the group”—and she cannot stand to have any of her own family be unhappy.

She backed a filling station in Santa Monica, but when someone told her the neighboring filling stations couldn’t compete with her prestige as a movie star, she quickly sold out.

Esther was offered $50,000 a week to break in her Aquacade at Las Vegas.

This money-mad girl said, “That’s a lot of money, but an Aquacade is a wholesome kind of act, and while Las Vegas is a wonderful city, still there’s something about all that gambling—I don’t want to sound prudish, but I’d rather take the Aquacade out on tour all over the country.”

None of the charges leveled against Esther since she went to work in pictures ten years ago—that she’s self-centered, uncooperative, ruthless—will hold water.

As her husband says, “Esther isn’t perfect.” But Hollywood has yet to produce her equal as a mother, housewife, and actress.

As for being wholesome, morally upright, civic-minded, considerate, cooperative, and friendly, Esther Jane Williams will take a backseat to no one.





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