How the Million Dollar Mermaid costume almost killed Esther Williams

Esther Williams in “Million Dollar Mermaid” (1952) Click for source

“Designers Helen Rose and Walter Plunkett fitted me in an extraordinary swim costume—much like a diver’s body suit, only covered, including the soles of the feet, with gold sequins, fifty thousand of them—like chain mail. Atop a gold turban, which was wrapped around my head, they perched a gold crown. And it was the crown that held the dagger. . .”

“I took my position on the disk and the hydraulic lift started rising. Up…up…up I went, the pool, the crew dropping away. The lift finally jolted to a stop. I was perched on the height of a six-story rooftop. Acrophobia! Dizziness! My equilibrium was gone because my inner ear had never fully recovered from the seven broken eardrums I’d suffered through years of living underwater. I suddenly couldn’t tell if I was leaning or standing straight, and my mind—as well as my body—must’ve frozen up there. ‘We’re waiting, Esther!’ Busby barked. ‘Jump!’

I forced a smile for the camera and swan-dived from that tiny platform. Hurtling down, I muttered a silent, ‘Oh, shit.’ I suddenly realized what was going to happen next. The gold crown on my head. Instead of being made with something pliable like cardboard, it was lightweight aluminum, a lot stronger and less flexible than my neck.

I hit the water with tremendous force. The impact snapped my head back. I heard something pop in my neck. I knew instantly that I was in big trouble.

Totally unaware, Mervyn called out, “Great. . . Time for lunch.’ (219) Magic words. You only had to say it once. Everyone—Mervyn , Busby, the crew—trooped across the soundstage and within seconds vanished. Only Flossie Hackett, my wardrobe lady, remained, and only because it was her job to get my costume off for later shooting.

I could kick my legs, so I desperately treaded water; but my arms and shoulders were virtually paralyzed. The back of my neck was in screaming pain. In my mind’s eye I saw the headlines: ‘Esther Williams Drowns in MGM Studio Pool.’ I cried out, ‘Flossie, you’ve got to get some help for me.’

She thought I was joking. ‘C’mon, Esther, you’re such a kidder. I want to go to lunch. I’m hungry.’

Flossie, I’m really in trouble,’ I gasped. “Find two guys who can lift me out of the pool.’

Finally she believed I was serious. She ran to the big soundstange door and shouted, ‘I think Esther Williams is dead. She can’t get out of the pool.’

Some men came running in, quickly stripped off their shoes and shirts, and jumped in to pull me out. I was crying by that time, because the pain was so intense. They carried me to my dressing room. While we were waiting for the ambulance, Flossie carefully removed my gold fishnet bodysuit, rolling it down my body like pantyhose, and those fifty thousand tiny metal sequins were like little knives, nicking and cutting me. (Flossie was supposed to keep my costumes in good repair, so I’m sure the absurdity of peeling off the suit, instead of swiftly cutting it off, never crossed her mind.)

At the hospital, I blacked out from the pain. The X-rays showed that I had broken three vertebrae in the back of my neck. I’d come as close to snapping my spinal cord and becoming a paraplegic as you could without actually succeeding.”

-Esther Williams (with Digby Diehl). The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999 (219-220).


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1 Comment

  1. My goodness how could they have designed the costume without considering the effects. I would think it was also heavy and would be very hard to swin in. The studio should have been held accountable for that.

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