'Mermaid' recounts opulence, decadence of Hollywood
'The Million Dollar Mermaid'
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(CNN) -- There are few stars like Esther Williams. Her films are a perfect expression of Hollywood's excessive style -- opulent, extravagant, lavish and magnificent. She was the Million Dollar Mermaid. In her shimmering swimsuits, Esther Williams claimed the spotlight in MGM's opulent 'Aqua Musicals.' She was groomed to be a star in the Dream Factory and thrived in cinematic spectaculars. In "Million Dollar Mermaid, An Autobiography," Esther Williams shares her stories of glory in the limelight as well as the gossip and scandals that made her life a Hollywood legend.
Chapter One: Esther Williams, Cary Grant, and LSD
Which Esther Williams do you want to hear about? As I look back through the filing cabinet of my life while writing this book, I realize that there are many of us. I love that sweet little child who grew up in the depression and, being the fifth child, felt the need to try so hard to please her family. I'm still rooting for that determined teenage swimmer who kicked and stroked her way through hundreds of miles of training in the water to a national championship. I'm awed by the kid with no theatrical training who walked onto the stage of Billy Rose's Aquacade at the San Francisco Exposition and became a media darling overnight. Of course, I have to chuckle as that same kid walks through the gates of MGM a year later and swims her way to movie stardom. That long-legged GI pinup was me!
Sometimes I think that there must have been three different women who became Mrs. Leonard Kovner, Mrs. Ben Gage, and Mrs. Fernando Lamas. Sitting here today as the happy Mrs. Edward Bell, my heart goes out to all of them for the naive expectations, the misplaced trust, the passionate love, and the need for a safe haven. The world remembers me as a movie star, but most of my life I have thought about myself in various family roles -- as daughter, sister, wife, and, above all, mother. The press portrayed me as a kind of post-World War II version of Martha Stewart -- "the Mermaid Tycoon," as I was dubbed on the cover of Life; the perfect homemaker; the Hollywood glamour queen; and a sex symbol in a bathing suit -- all rolled into one. Meanwhile, for most of that time I was working twelve-hour days in that huge pool at MGM, creating movie fantasies, and then coming home each night to a personal life that seemed to repeatedly unravel.
Never was I more "unraveled" than in 1959, when being Esther Williams became an exercise in schizophrenia. On the surface, everything looked rosy. The gossip columnists couldn't stop buzzing about my supposedly fabulous love life since I had divorced Ben Gage. My last movie, Raw Wind in Eden, had come out the previous year. During the location shoot in Italy, I'd begun a relationship, with my costar Jeff Chandler, which was still continuing. I was also considering the possibility of jumping into television. NBC was courting me to shoot a special called Esther Williams at Cypress Gardens. But it was all a Hollywood PR fantasy. Behind that public facade was a woman in deep emotional pain.
I remember, in late August of that year, boarding an American Airlines flight from New York and being in a state of exhaustion. It was one of those hot, humid times in New York, when brownout was a constant fear, air conditioners labored to no effect, and the air felt too thick to draw into your lungs. I prayed that my seatmate on the plane would not want to talk, which mercifully was the case. As we rose through the clouds, I stared out of the airplane window and indulged in the fantasy that this white and blue landscape was a vast undersea world in which I could float and swim effortlessly. In my mind, I drifted out the window, trying to escape the realities of my life. But tears soon welled up in my eyes. My chest tightened as I tried to breathe naturally. I was surprised by my own reaction. Ordinarily I loved flying, and I loved the idea that the blue sky reminded me of the blue water that was my second home. Now, however, I was fighting off panic -- the same kind of panic you feel underwater when you're out of air. My terror was only beaten back when the stewardess handed me a vodka on the rocks, which I gulped gratefully and sat back.
That episode was a shot across the bow, a warning that I was in trouble on all levels of my being. During the years when I was making movies one after the other in rapid succession, so much was happening at such a pace that there was no time to think clearly about my life. But in that summer of 1959, I had a sense of gathering crisis. My divorce from Ben Gage had become final that spring, but I was just beginning to be hit with the fallout from that marriage. Ben had made my personal life a constant turmoil for years with his out-of-control, erratic, alcoholic behavior. I had three young children I loved and worried about constantly. Between Ben's drinking and the demands of a movie career, I saw them as fragile victims who needed a lot more of my help. Over the years I'd always shielded the children from seeing Ben at his worst -- passed out drunk in the car in the driveway, or staggering around the house. As a result, they never fully understood how hard he was to live with, or why I'd finally left him. Now there was a new man, Jeff Chandler, in my life, which brought a new set of emotional baggage to three kids who already felt as if they didn't get enough of my attention.
And then I found out I was broke. Ben had literally thrown away money as fast as I could make it -- no -- in fact, faster than I could make it. In a series of disastrous investments, he managed to lose nearly $10 million. And what he didn't lose that way, he gambled away at the track.
Worse yet, he had hidden all of this from me and from the Internal Revenue Service. After the divorce I was left with three wonderful children and memories of happier times. But the IRS wanted cash. By their estimate, I owed three quarters of a million dollars in unpaid back taxes. Suddenly, I was without resources. To make matters worse, all of Hollywood was reeling from the rapid onslaught of television. My beloved MGM had all but crumbled after the departure of studio chief L.B. Mayer and the ensuing damage inflicted by Dore Schary. Nobody was going to make multimillion-dollar aqua-musicals ever again. I was thirty-seven years old. I was still working, but I knew that there was not much mileage left in my movie career.
I had tried to ignore all of that while I was in Italy filming Raw Wind in Eden. I knew that my marriage to Ben was over and that my life was collapsing, so I plunged into la dolce vita. My affections ricocheted between a charming Italian businessman with a fast Lancia and my ruggedly handsome costar Jeff Chandler, whose own marriage was disintegrating. Once I was back in the United States, however, the bleak realities were impossible to avoid, and I was forced to spend months focused on dealing with the wreckage of my finances and the needs of my children. Jeff kept asking me to marry him, but somehow it didn't seem right.
At that point, I really didn't know who I was. Was I that glamorous femme fatale tearing up Tuscany? Was I just another broken-down divorcée whose husband left her with all the bills and three kids? Had I spent so many years reading the fantasy press releases that Howard Strickling and his publicity team at MGM pumped out that I actually had come to believe them? Had I lost touch with that fearless young swimmer or that devoted mother I once had been?
Listlessly, I picked up a magazine. It was the September 1959 issue of Look, with Cary Grant's startling confession that he had taken a drug called LSD under a doctor's supervision and that it had changed his life. It seems he hadn't known who he was either! The drug had made possible an incredible recovery from psychological problems he was having, and he wanted to share his discovery with others. Hungrily, I read Cary's words over and over: "I am through with sadness. At last, I am close to happiness. After all those years, I'm rid of guilt complexes and fears."
This sounded too good to be true, yet there he was, declaring himself a new man: "I've asked myself what do I want out of Life? Beautiful women? Fantastic houses? No, I'm finding courage to live in the truth, as I want to live, not to impress other people. Possessions don't make you happy. I take my sunny and foggy days with me....All my life I've been searching for peace of mind. I'd explored yoga and hypnotism and made attempts at mysticism. Nothing really seemed to give me what I wanted until this LSD treatment."
In the article, Cary's therapist, Dr. Mortimer Hartman, described LSD as "...a psychic energizer which empties the subconscious and intensifies emotion and memory a hundred times."
Cary added, "I know that, all my life, I've been going around in a fog. You're just a bunch of molecules until you know who you are. You spend your time getting to be a big Hollywood actor. But then what? You've reached a comfortable plateau, and you want to stay on it; you resist change. One day, after many weeks of LSD, my last defense crumbled. To my delight, I found I had a tough inner core of strength. In my youth, I was very dependent upon older men and women. Now people come to me for help!"
That day, I resolved that I would be one of those people.
Cary and I had known each other for years, having spent time together at many parties and public events, although we never had been close friends. But movie stars all belong to a sort of secret society; we share a special understanding of the burdens and comforts of celebrity. There is a shorthand we can use when we meet, and we empathize in ways other people cannot comprehend if they haven't stood in the spotlight. He came to the telephone immediately when I gave my name to his secretary. When I said, "Cary, I've got to see you right away about something," he invited me to come to his office at Universal the next morning.
"Cary, I'm at the end of my rope," I told him the following day. "I'm deeply troubled about my life, and when I read what you said about how LSD had changed your life, I wondered if it might help me."
"Esther, it takes a lot of courage to take this drug," he warned me. "You may not want to do it when I tell you what it's like, because it's a tremendous jolt to your mind, to your ego. Some people don't react well to it at all."
"But it was so successful with you."
"Yes it was," he admitted, with a flash of his glittering "Cary Grant" smile. "But it's only being used on an experimental basis. You'd have to be as desperate as I was to try it."
I smiled back my own "Esther Williams" smile. "But I am as desperate, Cary," I said as calmly as I could. "I need to find some answers, fast. Would you call your doctor and make an appointment for me?"
This conversation took place long before LSD became the recreational drug of the 1960s that Tom Wolfe wrote about in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and the Beatles sang about in "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." The newspaper articles were always about the young people who misused it, and that is what most people remember today about LSD. We seldom heard about the benefits that people such as Cary and I experienced. All I knew was that my life was falling apart and I needed some answers. If LSD was the key, then I wanted it.
The Psychiatric Institute of Beverly Hills was tucked away on one of those quiet back streets where no one noticed comings and goings. Dr. Hartman, a radiologist and internist who had undergone five years of classical Freudian analysis in New York, and his partner, Dr. Arthur Chandler, were the directors of the institute. They had been conducting psychotherapy experiments with the hallucinogenic drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25), which was virtually unknown in the United States. After a cursory interview and explaining the procedure to me, Dr. Hartman asked, "Are you ready?" I answered with a fervent "Yes!"
He led me to a small room in the back. It was darkened with blackout drapes and had a traditional psychiatrist's couch in one corner. He gave me five little blue pills with a glass of water and told me to lie down and close my eyes. "Now I'm leaving you alone for two hours. Let it take you wherever you want it to take you. Don't be afraid." Then he closed the door behind him. I was about to take the most amazing journey of my life.
LSD seemed like instant psychoanalysis. With my eyes closed, I felt my tension and resistance ease away as the hallucinogen swept through me. Then, without warning, I went right to the place where the pain lay in my psyche. The first thing I saw was my father's face the day my brother Stanton died. My brother had been just sixteen when it happened; I was only eight. I saw my father's face as a ceramic plate. Almost instantly it splintered into a million tiny pieces, like a windshield when a rock goes through it. The shards fell to the floor. He was left faceless. Then I looked at my mother. All the emotion had drained out of her, and her soft, kindly features had hardened.
I began to relive the devastation to my two parents over the death of this wonderful, handsome boy. Stanton was their oldest son, and his good looks and acting talent had brought the Williams family to California, the place my parents had dreamed of when they left Dodge City, Kansas. My brother was going to be a star -- everyone said that. They had pinned so much hope and expectation on him that his sudden death left them without a reason to live.
I lay there in the darkened room, spinning back in time, swirling through a host of unanswered questions. Why did my mother take me, the youngest, with her on the night of the viewing at the mortuary? Why did she take eight-year-old Esther, instead of sisters Maurine or June, or my brother David? Why did she take me to watch her absolute nervous collapse as she threw herself across Stanton's coffin, sobbing, "Why did you leave me? Let me go with you"?
I stood back in the shadows in that place of death, watching my parents fall apart. And I was a woman again, observing it from a distance as if I were acting in or watching a movie. Suddenly, with that double vision, a revelation hit me, and I knew what my life was all about. Everything that happened to me after Stanton's death came to me with a new maturity that had not been mine prior to his loss. I remembered that after returning home from that harrowing trip to the mortuary, I had, at the age of eight, come to the realization and a decision: Stanton had been our pride, our hope, our golden prince. His talent, his good looks, his ambition had been our only chance to break out of poverty; he had given us courage and kept us all together. Now that he was gone, somebody had to take his place or we would all be lost. My brother David was frail and asthmatic. My sister Maurine suffered from emotional problems that I couldn't understand at my age, but which made her sadly overweight from compulsive eating; my other sister, June, was a malcontent. My mother took refuge in her spirituality while my poor father was barely able to bring home enough money to keep food on the table (this was during the depression). So I looked about me and realized that if none of them could replace Stanton as the rock on which the family stood, then I would have to be that rock myself. My mission in life was as clear and simple as that.
I made that decision at the age of eight, and I made it without feelings of doubt, fear, or nobility. If my shoulders weren't strong enough as yet, then I would make them strong. I would become my family's hope; I would be the one to take care of them. Once I made that decision, I no longer felt eight years old. I said farewell to childhood, and virtually overnight I felt as though I was at least sixteen, Stanton's age. Suddenly this little girl was in a race against time to be an adult.
At the end of the session, Dr. Hartman gave me another drug to bring me gradually out from under the LSD. He warned, however, that some afterglow would stay with me, and that it wouldn't be until the next day that the drug would be out of my system.
This LSD trip, which explained so much about my life's script, and which was such a breakthrough for me, had a bizarre epilogue. I returned from the doctor's office to my home on Mandeville Canyon to have dinner there with my parents, something I did about once a month. In a way, true to my mission, I had taken care of them since Stanton's death, first struggling to fill the emotional void, then, after becoming a movie star, making sure they lived comfortably. I put them on a payroll so they had no financial worries, and eventually they could collect decent Social Security. I paid for their trips to Europe, and -- the biggest treat of all for them -- I got them invitations to glittering movie premieres, especially to mine, where they could watch their youngest daughter on a screen forty feet high.
At last, the LSD experience gave me insight into why I had taken on the role of the firstborn son. As I sat and looked at my parents at the dining room table, I saw into their souls. I saw my mother's angry, self-involved countenance that had sealed out all expression of feelings after my brother died. I looked at my father's sad, empty expression, the facade that was left after his real face shattered like a glass plate. I understood them that night in a profound way, and while I sympathized, I was also sickened by their weakness and their resignation. I saw that they both simply had given up, which, no matter what life had in store for me, was something I could never and would never do. At least, so I thought, so I hoped.
After dinner, I gently ushered my parents into the guest house for the night. Then I rushed back to my bedroom and locked the door. I needed to be alone. I went into the bathroom and looked at my face in the mirror. I couldn't see myself clearly. I scrubbed away all of my makeup. I splashed water on my hair and slicked it back because I couldn't stand to have anything soft around my face. I stripped off my clothes. When I looked in the mirror again, I was startled by a split image: One half of my face, the right half, was me; the other half was the face of a sixteen-year-old boy. The left side of my upper body was flat and muscular, like the chest of a boy. I reached up with my boy's large, clumsy hand to touch my right breast and felt my penis stirring. It was a hermaphroditic phantasm that held me entranced as I discovered my divided body. I don't know how long I stood there touching and exploring, but I was not afraid. Finally, I understood perfectly: when Stanton had died, I had taken him into my life so completely that he became a part of me.
Copyright © 1999 by Esther Williams
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