Entertainment & Arts

Esther Williams, actress and swimming star, dies at 91

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Media captionArchive footage shows Williams starring in Bathing Beauty and Jupiter's Darling, as well as being interviewed about her home life

US swimming champion-turned-movie star Esther Williams has died in Los Angeles aged 91.

Her spokesman said she died peacefully in her sleep. She had been in declining health due to old age.

A national swimming champion by the time she was 16, her success led to a career in Hollywood "aqua-musicals" designed just for her, in the 1940s.

She became known as Hollywood's Mermaid, starring in films including Dangerous When Wet and Easy to Wed.

Williams became one of cinema's biggest box-office stars in the 1940s and 1950s, famously appearing in spectacular swimsuits that capitalised on her physical beauty.

Her films were typically lavish song-and-dance affairs, following the same formula of romance, music and comedy - held together by a lightweight plot that provided infinite excuses for the actress to get into the water.

Finales usually featured Williams diving into a pool or lagoon and surfacing to a crescendo of music, with water glistening on her beaming face.

Her string of successful films included Thrill of a Romance, Fiesta, On an Island With You and Duchess of Idaho.

Co-stars included Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton, Ricardo Montalban and Howard Keel.

"I look at that girl and I like her," she said on watching her films decades later, Reuters reports.

"I can see why she became popular with audiences. There was an unassuming quality about her. She was certainly wholesome," she said.

Image caption Esther Williams appeared on the BBC's Parkinson show in 2000.

In the 1950s she attempted to branch out into non-swimming roles, but met with little success.

"I guess what MGM found was that my audience wanted that bathing suit," she said, when her autobiography was released in 1999.

"And you know, when Cinemascope came in and you've got that water all wrapped around you and they'd do big close-ups of me... I think it had too much pleasure connected with it for them to change it."

She retired from the movies in 1962, following her marriage to her third husband, Hollywood playboy Fernando Lamas.

In her later years she hosted swimming events for ABC-TV's coverage of the 1984 Olympic Games and turned her attention to business, launching her own line of swimwear.

Williams was married to Mr Lamas for 20 years until his death in 1982. She and her last husband Edward Bell lived in Los Angeles' Beverly Hills.

Her autobiography also told of many romances, including one with actor Jeff Chandler.

According to Williams, she discovered he was a cross-dresser and walked out, explaining: "Jeff, you're too big for polka dots." Several of Mr Chandler's colleagues denied Williams' claims when the book was published.