"Wet, she's a star. Dry, she ain't!" said Fanny Brice about MGM's swimming box-office queen Esther Williams, who died last Friday at age 91.
Williams, who graduated from swimming champion to movie queen, was incredibly popular during the late 1940s and 50s. MGM fashioned the most elaborate "wet" musical numbers to showcase her athletic abilities and her strong swimmer's body. The numbers look like high camp today, but they were taken more or less seriously by audiences of the time. Perhaps because Williams was not simply adept in the pool. She could sing a little, she could dance a little, and was no slouch as an actress--she was very good, in fact. Esther had a formidable presence that was evident, but wasted, once the vogue for MGM musicals -- wet or dry -- went barren. (Williams was brought into MGM as their answer to 20th Century Fox's ice-skating star, Sonja Henie. Olympic swimmer Johnny (Tarzan) Weissmuller was the first sports star elevated to cinema fame.)
Esther was one of those people who loved to talk. She had no barriers when looking back on the "good old days." Years ago I visited Williams in her Hollywood home, when she -- and other still-living MGM stars -- were promoting "That's Entertainment III." I'd spoken to my old friend Lena Horne the day before, on the MGM recording studio, but even Lena held back a bit. "They just didn't know what to do with me," was the most Lena would say, with wry, bittersweet regret.
Not Esther! She had a ribald tale for every star in the MGM pantheon. I couldn't possibly have printed everything she said -- some of these people were still living. (Some still are!) Of full-figured Kathryn Grayson she recalled: "They needed derricks to lift to those bosoms!...Elizabeth Taylor: "Gorgeous and nice, but hairy. The studio begged her to wax. So did her awful mother. Elizabeth said, 'They can film around it!' Which of course you can't. She eventually agreed, but not before she'd given everybody a breakdown. She was tough, even as a young girl."....Judy Garland? "Fabulous talent. But, come on, we all worked hard. She was very poor pitiful me."
And Esther enjoyed her cocktails. As the afternoon wore on, Miss Williams imbibed cheerfully. She didn't get drunk. But she was -- happy. And, I felt exaggerating just a bit.
One subject Esther did not broach was her romance with hunky movie star Jeff Chandler. In her autobiography, written a few years later, she would claim Chandler was a cross dresser, and once she saw him in drag, she opted out of the affair. Many Chandler fans were outraged by this--even if true, why sully his manly reputation? (Very few people actually did believe this tale.)
She would eventually marry actor Fernando Lamas, who was Latin to the core, and preferred his lovely mermaid to confine herself to private backstrokes. When we spoke of this, Esther shrugged good-naturedly: "If I didn't want to accept that, I would never have married him. We were very happy. He had his ways." She paused and added with a little smile, "And I had mine."
RIP, Esther. Watch out for too much chlorine up there, and avoid Jeff Chandler.
• P.S. Speaking of Esther Williams, I have a letter from her after she wrote her book in 1999.
"It was great seeing you at Elaines- it turned out to be a really good party. I'm having such a fun time with the New York reaction to my book. There was a big story in USA Today this morning also and combined with your nice remarks my morning coffee tasted especially good.
I had no idea my remarks would have such a resounding effect on the press but I'm so glad people are enjoying my glance back at my life. I knew it was busy and variegated - and now I find out people are finding it fun and surprising. I guess that the meeting is truly not over till we're all thru singing!"
• Back in February, Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West were cast in a BBC 4 movie about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Now comes photo evidence that this is indeed a totally real thing. Go ahead, gaze upon this, the first promotional shot for Burton and Taylor! The movie is set in 1983 and focuses on Taylor and Burton's revival of Noel Coward's "Private Lives." It was not well received critically, though audiences had a fine campy time with it! As did Miss Taylor, who took to tossing biscuits into the audience, and appearing with a parrot on her shoulder. Nothing to do with Mr. Coward's play, but what the hell. (Burton, for the most part, looked like he was in hell!)
Anyway, if the photos are anything to go by, buy stock in lavender eye-shadow. And smoldering stares.
• Now comes "news" for our friends in Greenwich where I always think that there are maybe even more million-billionaires than anywhere else. (I'm sure this is a wrong concept and Dubai wins the real toss, but - never mind)
Quest magazine is out for June with its cover line "The Greenwich Issue." Prince Harry is on the cover, playing polo. Of course that's hard to miss, but inside is a story on one of the premiere denizens of Oyster Bay -- the late C.Z. Guest. C.Z. was the genuine article as they say and I tried, once again, to do her justice for my old friend the editor Chris Meigher.
But the real big news in Greenwich was about a bird -- Le Penguin. This is the restaurant I wrote about here on April 9, being masterminded into existence by the grand Antoine Blech at the famed Connecticut address -- 61 Lewis Street. Right now, Antoine, is taking only 40 reservations per night in his supreme try-out and you'd better call 203-717-1200 or address him antoineblech.com. The café is only serving when Antoine is a'mind to, so mind your manners.