Esther Williams
Excerpts from her autobiography, including information about
her childhood, her ethnic background,
her family's Utah background,
and her brother: child star Stanton Williams

Famed synchronized swimming actress Esther Williams, the star of MGM's "aquamusicals" was born in Los Angeles, California on August 8, 1922. She was the youngest child in a family with five children. Her family had come to Los Angeles from Salt Lake City, where her older brother Stanton had been "discovered" and began an acting career. Stanton was born in Salt Lake City.

Although Esther Williams family came from Utah, they were not originally from Utah. From the material gleaned from her biography, it does not appear that Esther Williams or her family were ever members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (i.e., Mormons).

Esther Williams' brother, the child star Stanton Williams, was indeed a native Utahn. But Esther Williams was not a Utahn nor was she a Mormon.

Esther Williams' mother apparently was a Christian Scientist, or at least had some interest in Christian Science: she called for a Christian Science practitioner when Stanton became deathly ill.

Source: Esther Williams, with Digby Diehl. The Million Dollar Mermaid. New York: Simon & Schuster (1999).

Pg. 18:

Six years old and an actor both on the legitimate stage and in motion pictures--my brother had it all! He had made a decided hit in The Little Princess in which he appeared with Mary McAllister, another child actor. They called Stanton ". . . a wee bit of a youngster who hails from the state of Utah and now making his first traveling tour . . . a bright future for this little fellow."

Pg. 19:
Stanton had a charisma, a personal magic that from his earliest years charmed everyone from stage luminaries to Hollywood producers. The beginning of his career was classic, the stuff legends are made of.

In the summer of 1919, noted Broadway actress Marjorie Rambeau came to the Wilkes Theater in Salt Lake City with a touring company of the Eyes of Youth, the story of a young "dunce boy" who meets his fairy princess and is carried away on an iron steed to a fabled land of turreted castles, glittering tinsel, and bright lights. My father, Lou Williams, a sign painter, had a small studio adjacent to the theater where he painted theater lobby cards. My brother Stanton, fascinated with the theater, would sneak through the stage door, hide in the wings, or curl behind the plush velvet seats to watch rehearsals.

One afternoon Marjorie Rambeau and the young actor cast as the "dunce boy" were rehearsing a scene in which she tells the tragic story of the lost fair princess. Tears were to stream down the boy's face, but there was a problem--he wasn't crying.

In desperation, Rambeau called to the director, "I can't work with this child, I'm sorry. I'm playing this scene over and over, crying my eyes out and his eyes are glazed over. Nothing's happening! I need somebody who can give me a little emotion."

Then she caught Stanton's eye as he cowered behind the seats. Pointing a finger at him she turned to the director, "I'll bet even he can give me more than the kid you cast."

Rambeau obviously had intended to vent her anger and humiliate the director, but the poor guy, in desperation, asked Stanton to come on the stage and let Rambeau tell him the story of the lost fairy princess. Stanton's big, beautiful eyes--he was a glorious angelic child--opened wide, the tears came streaming down, and soon he was sobbing and Rambeau was sobbing. She turned to the director and said through her tears, "Oh my god, this child is so wonderful; I have to have him."

The director, intimidated by the power of the star, called my father from the lobby and quickly made the deal. For the rest of the play's run, Stanton cried every night and at every matinee.

Marjorie Rambeau adored Stanton. She pleaded with his parents [pg. 20:] Lou and Bula to let young Stanton join the Wilkes Theater stock company, and they agreed. Accompanied by Bula, he toured the circuit, including the Denham Theater in Denver; the Wilkes in Seattle, the Curran in San Francisco, and finally the Majestic in Los Angeles. Rambeau had more lines written for his part and insisted that he be cast in the movie version of the play. The Los Angeles Examiner wrote: "On the stage he's a dunce, but in real life, he's Stanton Williams, and far from being a dunce, he's negotiated a fine contract with Harry Garson, production manager of all the Equity pictures. Hollywood has a new star." Stanton played the role in the silent movie version of the play, but luckless Marjorie Rambeau was replaced by Clara Kimball Young.

Los Angeles was booming, and Stanton was put under contract to Garson Studios. My father found a tract development in the southwest area of town, where for one hundred dollars he purchased a small piece of land surrounded by truck farms. For another hundred dollars, he had the shell of a small house constructed on the tract. On August 8, 1922, I was born in the living room of that small house, where all of us slept until Daddy was able to add on bedrooms.

I'm an all-American girl whose grandmother and grandfather traveled west in Conestoga wagons. My mother never knew her first three siblings because she was the ninth child in the family, and they died before she was born. Being such a late child in that big family made it possible for grandmother to be in those wagons after the Civil War. She was a sixteen-year-old girl who had married a thirty-year-old Civil War hero... Samuel Gilpin, a Yankee, fought with the North, and shortly after he met beautiful Esther Ann Yarrington they were married and headed out for the prairies. Although I never met her, Esther Ann Gilpin seemed more like a great-grandmother to me. Because I was raised by my oldest sister Maurine, my other mother seemed like my grandmother...

My mother, Bula Myrtle Gilpin, was born on her father's fiftieth birthday, October 8, 1885. She was the ninth of twelve children and had nieces who were older than she was. While she was still a child, her father suffered inflammatory rheumatism as a result of a Civil [pg. 21:] War injury, and the family moved into the Soldier's Home in Fort Dodge, Kansas... She had to become a strong and determined and independent young woman at just seventeen.

Actually, those boys were wasting their time. Bula was already spoken for. Louis Stanton Williams, a boy from a neighboring farm, had met her while she was still living at the Soldier's Home, when they were both thirteen. He knew immediately that he wanted to marry her, and despite their parents objections, they carried on a faithful courtship for nine years, until they were both twenty-two. My father's parents still wanted him to stay and run the farm, and my grandmother, Esther Ann Gilpin, declared that she would rather die than see her daughter marry another farmer. Nonetheless, they eloped on June 1, 1908, and set out for California, but ran out of money in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was there that they settled until Stanton's sudden success as a child actor transformed the fortunes of my family.

This chubby, round-faced boy who made such a hit at the Wilkes Theater with Marjorie Rambeau and who caught the eye of Hollywood led the family to Los Angeles. The following season, as six-year-old Stanton became a fixture in the Hollywood movie studios, my mother traveled with him to California carrying new baby David. My father and Stanton's two sisters, June and Maurine, were soon to follow. Stanton's rise to stardom in the "picture business' was the family ticket to California.

By the time I was born, my mother had had enough of childbirth. [pg. 22:] She just wasn't ready for me, the fifth child. She handed me over to my sister Maurine, who was fourteen years old at the time, and said, "You raise this one. I want to get out and get in the world and see what's happening. I don't want to stay home and raise babies anymore."

...Bula took on a kind of grandmother role in my life, and Maurine played my mother...

Stanton died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of sixteen. From the chubby and cherubic youngster he grew into a frail and sensitive young man... The day he died... My mother came out of the house and said, "Be quiet. Stanton is very ill." We'd all had a late Sunday lunch and had eaten heartily, but he had complained of feeling funny. Mother suggested that he take a warm bath and get into bed. Later that evening, he told us that his stomach was numb. My father called the doctor. Bula called the Christian Science practitioner. In the process of normal digestion his intestine had developed a kink, and his colon had burst. The doctor never arrived; he got lost in a Lost Angeles fog; the practitioner was out of town; and even the fire department couldn't find our house. By 9:30 that night, Stanton, alive and happy only hours before, was dead.

Web page created 21 June 2002. Last modified 15 February 2005.