She made a few other films for MGM, ending with "Jupiter's Darling" in 1955, which she wryly called "a great hair picture" in which she was outfitted with "a parade of braids and chignons." But the picture lost money, and MGM was ready to toss her overboard. In all, Williams said she had swum more than a thousand miles through two dozen films.

Williams left MGM and, after a few non-swimming movies for other studios, exited the business altogether, pursuing a private life as the wife of Fernando Lamas, the handsome Argentine actor.

Although the marriage, her third, was not an easy one, the two remained together until his death from cancer at 67 in 1982.

In the 1980s, Williams' films enjoyed renewed popularity when Ted Turner purchased MGM's film library and began showing some of her most popular movies on cable television.

She also began work on her autobiography, "The Million Dollar Mermaid," written with Digby Diehl and released in 1999. Though Diehl said in an interview with The Times that Williams did not "tell all," she told enough about her own and her fellow Hollywood stars' racy carryings-on that the book created more than a few waves.

Her most sensational story involved heartthrob actor Jeff Chandler, whom she dated for a couple of years and considered marrying. That is, until he showed up one night at her bedroom door wearing "a red wig, a flowing chiffon dress, expensive high-heeled shoes and lots of makeup." She realized with horror that he was a cross-dresser.

Williams left the relationship with one parting bit of advice for Chandler: "Jeff, you are too big for polka dots."

"Million Dollar Mermaid" also shared the grit and danger behind the glossy films she made in her 20s and 30s.

Among other injuries, she broke three neck vertebrae in a dive; suffered several broken eardrums; nearly drowned when she couldn't detect the trapdoor designed to give her a way out; was almost mutilated when an outrigger went out of control on black coral; and was nearly overcome by waves created by a camera boat that came within inches of her water skis.

The latter scene was shot by Berkeley in Cypress Gardens, Fla., while Williams was pregnant with her third child.

"My life was of no importance to him at all," Williams said of Berkeley in an interview with the Washington Post in 1984. "The shot was the thing."

But never one to feel sorry for herself, Williams repeatedly returned to an axiom her no-nonsense mother taught her: "Esther, what part of the problem are you?" She realized she was the only one who could make sure she was safe.

The last of five children, Esther Jane Williams was born in Los Angeles on Aug. 8, 1921. It was no secret in the family that Esther's mother, Bula, a teacher who later became a psychologist, had tried "to get rid of me" while pregnant by going horseback riding and jumping off a chest of drawers.

Esther's oldest sister, Maurine, was more of a mother to her. Their brother, Stanton, was their parents' adored son who inspired the family to move from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles so that he could appear in films.

Hopes for his stardom were dashed when Stanton, at age 16, died of an intestinal disorder. Watching her parents' devastation, Esther decided that she was the only one who "could replace Stanton as the rock on which the family stood." She was 8.

"If my shoulders weren't strong enough as yet, then I would make them strong," she later wrote.

PHOTOS: Esther Williams | 1921-2013

Not long after, at her mother's urging and with Maurine as a coach, Esther began swimming, first in the ocean and then in a public swimming pool near the family's home. Her athletic talent eventually won her a spot on the prestigious Los Angeles Athletic Club swim team and then a chance to be on the U.S. swim team at the 1940 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, that were suspended because of the war.

After she left films, Williams helped launch synchronized swimming as a competitive sport and enjoyed a career in swimsuit design, swimming pools and fitness.

Yet she still left behind an Olympic legacy. Synchronized swimming made its debut at the 1984 Summer Games in her hometown, and Williams the movie star had helped pave the way.

Williams' fourth husband, Edward Bell, survives her as do her children Benjamin Gage and Susan Beardslee; stepchildren Lorenzo Lamas, Tima Alexander Bell and Anthony Bell; three grandchildren; and eight step-grandchildren. Her son, Kim Gage, died in 2008.

Luther is a former Times staff writer.

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