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Aug. 8, 1921 – June 6, 2013

WASHINGTON – Esther Williams, a championship swimmer and lustrous beauty who became one of the world’s most popular movie stars in the 1940s and 1950s by appearing in aquatic musicals featuring daredevil plunges from pedestals, trapezes and even a helicopter, died Thursday at her home in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was 91.

Her longtime publicist, Harlan Boll, confirmed her death but did not cite a specific cause.

A California-born model who held a national record for the 100-meter freestyle, Williams was 19 when she was hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1941. She was the studio’s response to Sonja Henie, an Olympic gold medalist in figure skating who became a box office powerhouse at rival 20th Century Fox.

“Melt the ice, get a swimmer, make it pretty,” studio chief Louis B. Mayer commanded. The result was Williams.

Esther Jane Williams was born Aug. 8, 1921, in Los Angeles, and was the youngest of five children. In her memoir, she described a traumatic childhood that included the loss of a beloved older brother from a burst colon.

She found refuge in swimming at her community pool. By 15, she was invited to join the prestigious Los Angeles Athletic Club, and she established records in national women’s swimming competitions.

In 1961, she became the companion of her former “Dangerous When Wet” co-star Fernando Lamas, an Argentine-born actor with a dictatorial streak. She later married him.

In 1994, she married actor Edward Bell who survives her.

– Washington Post