The combination of singing and swimming (not simultaneously) made Esther Williams rich and famous in the 1940s and '50s. But the wholesome star of escapist musicals like Pagan Love Song and Skirts Ahoy hit rough seas offscreen. She had to contend with one husband who drank and gambled away her earnings and another, the emotionally abusive Fernando Lamas, who forced an estrangement between her and her children. At MGM she fended off randy moguls and stood up to feckless directors and pampered stars, and many of them receive a well-deserved dunking.
For sheer Hollywood gossip, The Million Dollar Mermaid is juicier than a citrus grove: A tipsy Joan Crawford begs to borrow Esther's director; Red Skelton bawls because he has to shave his chest; Marlene Dietrich has her hair done in the nude; Victor Mature snacks on cardboard with ketchup. Williams, now 78 and happily married, presents it all with clarity and humor. After describing the hackneyed plot of Easy to Love, she writes, "If you can't guess how this comes out, you' haven't been paying attention." (Simon & Schuster, $26)