Jezebel beat me to the punch with the reference, but since it was the first thing I thought of when I heard that Esther Williams, the Hollywood Mermaid and gigantic star of the 40s and 50s, had passed away at the age of 91, I figured I would share it here.
When I was 9 or 10 years old, I read as much Judy Blume as I could get my hands on. Forever remained slightly frightening (and rightly so), although a dog-eared copy was passed around my 6th grade class, and we would have worried whispered conversations about it. Later on, when I was a teenager I would fall in love with Tiger Eyes, a beautiful book. But before then, I tore through her children’s books and young-adult books. Of course there was Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret and Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great (two personal favorites). But she was prolific, and I read everything.
My favorite book of hers was called Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. It tells the story of a young Jewish girl, post-World War II, whose family moves to Miami Beach from New York City in 1947. Sally is an imaginative girl, who lives a rich world of fantasy. She has rich storylines going in her head of being a detective, or the star of some sweeping romance. And during her first months in Florida, she becomes convinced that their next-door neighbor is Hitler, in disguise. Judy Blume has said that this book was her most autobiographical, dealing with a post-WWII childhood, the lingering spectre of Nazism over American Jews, and the domination of Hollywood over the dreams of kids. It’s an escape for Sally.
Sally is obsessed with Esther Williams, who was in her heyday at that point.
I was a kid who loved watching old movies, whenever they were shown on channel 56. That’s how I first saw James Dean, Marlon Brando, Joan Fontaine, Cary Grant, and all the rest of them. On a staticky little black and white TV on Saturday afternoons. When I first saw an Esther Williams movie, I remember feeling a thrill of how smart I was, because I already knew the name, and knew how important she was, because hadn’t Sally J. Freedman introduced me to her so well?
Thanks, Judy Blume.
I wanted to share this excerpt from Judy Blume’s Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself:
Esther Williams was her favorite movie actress. Some day she was going to swim just like her, with her hair in a coronet and a flower behind her ear. Swimming along underwater, always smiling, with beautiful straight white teeth and shiny red lipstick. Esther Williams never got water up her nose or had to spit while she swam, like Sally, who didn’t like to get her face wet in the first place. Not even when she dove off the high board. You’d never know you had to kick to stay afloat from watching Esther Williams. And when she swam in the movies there was always beautiful music in the background and handsome men standing around, waiting. It would be great fun to be Esther Williams!
Fanny Brice, the original Funny Girl, supposedly once wisecracked, “Esther Williams? Wet, she’s a star. Dry, she ain’t.”
When Esther Williams heard that remark, she laughed. She knew her career was improbable, and she knew she was very lucky. She didn’t have pretensions about who or what she was. And she was a natural onscreen, not a great actress, perhaps, but she didn’t need to be. She needed to be fresh and fun and lively, and she was (not to mention a phenomenal athlete).
There’s a great obituary in the NY Times by Aljean Harmetz.
Here’s a clip from Bathing Beauty, 1944. Have fun. Esther Williams sure is.
R.I.P. Esther Williams!