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Who Needs A Private Life?—Esther Williams

From the time fans first demonstrated a budding interest in me and my affairs, I’ve been perfectly willing to share my life with them. I think it’s a pity for people in pictures to wall themselves in and put up iron gates to close out the rest of the world. They miss all the wonderful experience and enrichment of knowing all kinds of people.”

Filmtown’s most honored mermaid—Esther Williams—sat in her handsomely decorated, blue-and-red Early American studio dressing room between scenes of MGM’s “Jupiter’s Darling,” discussing, with deep conviction, her private feelings about an actress’s public life.

“Let me just give you one ‘f’r instance,’ ” she began. “Before our baby, Susan Tenney, was born, our good friend of years and years—Governor Walter Kohler of Wisconsin—told me, ‘I just know you’re going to have a girl! And I want to be her godfather.’ Ben and I were both thrilled and honored, and when the governor recently phoned that Mrs. Kohler and he would be in Los Angeles for a day, we rushed around making plans for the christening.

“We’d put off having our boys, Benjie and Kimmie, baptized. It’s not that we considered it cheaper by the dozen—merely that we wanted them to be old enough to understand the meaning of this lovely sacrament before they were ready to start attending Sunday school. And we selected for the ceremony the church where Ben and I were married.

“Sixty friends were hastily invited and everything went off beautifully. Ben and I were emotionally swept away at the conclusion and I wanted to prolong the beauty and the solemnity of the moment. And then suddenly there were dozens of cameramen, reporters, and photographers filling the church, setting up lights, arranging cameras, requesting our guests’ names. And asking us to repeat the ceremony!

“For a moment I was tormented by doubts . . . appalled at this seemingly callous invasion of privacy. What would the governor and our minister and friends think? That we’d deliberately planned to turn a tender family ceremony into a publicity rout?

“I turned to my mother, almost tearfully. That all-wise woman put her arm around me, and didn’t agree one bit. ‘Darling,’ she soothed me, ‘I’m sure your friends will understand. Personally, I think it’s wonderful that you can let people see a really wholesome side of Hollywood family life instead of the all-too-frequent sordid scandals they find on their front pages. You should be thankful that it’s in your power to show readers, as a substitute, that the governor of a great state honored a member of the motion picture colony with his presence.’

“Mother, as usual, set me straight.

“Actors and actresses really can’t have private lives any more than politicians and athletes can, because they are not private people. If the public ceased showing an interest in me, if reporters and photographers passed me up with a blank stare, I’d know it’s time to retire, like Whistler’s Mother, to my fireside chair.”

Brave words, but even so, MGM’s Number One bathing beauty has found that her desire to make public her private life has inevitably brought headaches at the least—heartaches at the most. Not long ago, a very close friend was commissioned by a magazine to obtain, at a fat fee, exclusive photographs of Esther’s baby daughter, shortly after she was born. When Esther pointed out that this was contrary to studio policy and that, furthermore, tiny babies were not photogenic (an affront to any mother’s natural pride), the friend became angry and refused, forthwith, to speak to Esther.

Another publicity snafu brought heartaches to Esther and Ben on the eve of their marriage in 1945. Ben, then a sergeant in the Army, was nervously awaiting his separation, two days before the marriage ceremony was scheduled. As excited as a ping pong ball in a tornado, he had added and re-added his “points”; his papers were all in order, as he lined up with his buddies for official release from the Army. Every name was called—but his! And he was informed by the Commanding General that the press had given a good deal of attention to his forthcoming marriage. If Ben Gage were released with the first contingent, it might look like favoritism to the motion picture industry. Therefore, Ben must wait until the other men had left. It took all the to-be-bridegroom’s eloquence and persuasive powers to make the wedding ceremony. As it was, he didn’t have time to dress and was married in brown shoes!

Ben has suffered, as have other Hollywood husbands, through the Who is he? phase, and the Mr. Ben Williams introductions. Even Esther’s dad has felt the corroding effects of publicity.

During the last presidential campaign, Esther and Ben joyfully went around ringing doorbells for Ike. When it was pointed out that this might lead to bad publicity for Esther to proclaim herself a Republican and possibly offend Democrat picture-goers, she snapped: “I’m not operating as an actress, but as a voting citizen. And if that’s harmful then what’s the use of giving actors and actresses the right to vote?”

The five-foot-seven mermaid has an answer, too, for the prophets of marriage doom—the gossip columnists. She’s heard those rumors so often that by now she merely shrugs her shoulders and breaks into a wide grin as she reads the columnists’ perennial pronouncement: “This is one marriage that cannot last. The Gage marital craft has sprung a leak and Esther’s bailing like mad to avoid a divorce plunge.”

“Ben and I used to get boiling mad,” Esther candidly admitted, “when we first read that manufactured news. Wouldn’t a housewife in Arkansas be furious if she found out that her neighbors were spreading such an untrue story about her and her husband? But we’ve learned the hard way that, like everything, film stardom has a price on it. You’d think that after eight years and three children the gossips would realize that Ben and I have a truly sound marriage. But we’ve learned that marriage, in Hollywood anyway, is not a private affair.

“Of course, Ben and I have minor tiffs occasionally like any married couple. But who has time to fight? We’re both too busy.”

She’s been criticized by the press for her shrewd business ability, for her careful way with a dollar, for her highly successful business ventures. Fully aware that a swimming career can’t last forever, the Gages are building up financial security for the future. Other stars are criticized because they’re spendthrifts, are unable to meet alimony and child support payments. It almost seems as though you can’t win.

Still Esther Williams welcomes publicity. Could it be because she knows her private life is wholesomely American in the best tradition and that she has nothing to fear from exposure?

Over the years she seems to have achieved everything she’s ever wanted in, as she explains, this order: “A happy marriage; healthy, normal children; a good job that really hasn’t interfered as yet with the stability of the first two.”

It’s true that she’s not the typical Mrs. Jones next door; she’s a movie star who makes a fantastic amount of money, yet doesn’t live by the accepted glamour rules. She has a charming, Early American yellow farmhouse, a housekeeper and nurse, a swimming pool, fine cars. She doesn’t smoke, drinks moderately, can prepare an excellent salad, a fine casserole dish utilizing leftovers. She’s thrifty and frugal; admires a bargain as well as any of us. She loves to dance, loves parties, laughter and gayety; plunges into ventures with unbridled enthusiasm; has energy to burn . . . and brains.

But most of all, Esther reflects the upbringing she received in an intelligent, God-loving home, rich in love though poor in material possessions. That background is the real root of her stability and of her success.

“After I made my first picture, ‘Bathing Beauty,’ I thought I’d had it and that I’d have fun with my scrapbooks, showing my children how Mommy used to look in movies,” she explains. “But if audiences like what I’m doing, I want to keep on. And if they want to see photographs of our family and read about our everyday doings as a family, I’ll do nothing to jeopardize that interest. So—who needs a private life?”