Santa Clara Valley Lives: Esther Williams, movie star and swimmer, married long ago in Los Altos

Courtesy of Robin Chapman
Swimmer and actress Esther Williams, shown in a vintage postcard circa 1952, eloped at 18 years old and married in Los Altos.

Esther Williams was a long-legged swimming champion, and so beautiful that MGM Studios signed her to a contract without even a screen test. In Hollywood, she became a star, swimming to fame in improbable movies MGM called “aquamusicals.”

Williams qualified for the 1940 Summer Olympics, but the games were canceled by the outbreak of World War II. In 1941, she signed with MGM Studios.

June 27, 1940, the 18-year-old sneaked away from her job in San Francisco and married in Los Altos. This little-known footnote to Williams’ life is recorded in her book, “The Million Dollar Mermaid,” and confirmed by county records.

Williams was working in Billy Rose’s “Aquacade” at Treasure Island that June. The job brought her attention, but not all of it welcome. First, Rose tried to seduce her, and then she faced constant harassment from co-star Johnny Weissmuller, an Olympic swimmer best known for his movie role as Tarzan. Weissmuller, married and 20 years older, repeatedly tried to force himself on her. When Williams’ boyfriend, Leonard Kovner, a student at Los Angeles City College, came to visit, the couple decided to elope.

“This marriage would protect me,” Williams wrote, “from those busy men with grasping hands.”

California privacy laws keep certified copies of marriage certificates out of the hands of nonrelatives – even for a marriage nearly 80 years in the past. But an informational copy from the county (which redacts some details) confirms the couple’s wedding at Christ Episcopal Church in Los Altos. In 1940, Christ Episcopal sat at 461 Orange Ave., where Foothills Congregational Church now stands.

Why the couple came to Los Altos to wed, Williams doesn’t say. Neither Kovner nor Williams had a car, so it is likely they took the train that day and the church was just steps from the Los Altos depot. They honeymooned that weekend, and then the groom returned to Los Angeles and the bride went back to work.

Within a year, Williams had signed her movie contract and separated from Kovner. She married three more times, eventually having a long marriage to actor Fernando Lamas, who died in 1982. She made her last film in 1963 and in the 1980s worked as an Olympic swimming commentator for ABC Sports. She died in 2013 at the age of 91, leaving behind husband No. 4.

Briefly, her life touched Los Altos. Here, for a few days, she found romance and a respite in the sunshine, before her rise to fame began.

Robin Chapman is a longtime Los Altos resident and the author of “Historic Bay Area Visionaries” (The History Press, 2018).

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