It's a sad day for classic movie buffs. Hollywood actress and synchronized swimmer Esther Williams, a.k.a. "America's Mermaid," has died at the age of 91, publicist Harlan Boll says. She passed away "peacefully in her sleep" on Thursday, June 6, in Beverly Hills.
Born and raised in Southern California, Williams swam to fame in Hollywood after World War II led to the cancellation of the 1940 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland, where she had hoped to compete. Performing instead at the San Francisco World's Fair in the Aquacade Review -- a "Broadway musical in swimsuits," starring Olympian Johnny Weismuller -- she was spotted by MGM talent scouts, who signed her to a contract in 1941. A year later, she made her debut opposite Mickey Rooney in Andy Hardy's Double Life.
That movie was followed by roles in more than 20 other movies through the 1950s, including Bathing Beauty, Neptune's Daughter, and Million Dollar Mermaid. Those films, and others, helped popularize synchronized swimming, a sport that was eventually featured in the 1984 Olympic Games in L.A., where Williams offered commentary on TV.
Williams was married four times, to Leonard Kovner from 1940 to 1944; to Ben Gage from 1945 to 1959; to Fernando Lamas from 1969 to 1982; and to Edward Bell from 1994 until her death. She is survived by Bell, kids Benjamin and Susan, three grandchildren, three stepchildren, and eight step-grandchildren.