estherwilliamsI’ve decided to start keeping track of–among other things–the books that I read.

While I was visiting my family back home in Kentucky for Christmas, my mom and I watched the last half of a movie that turned out to be Million Dollar Mermaid, starring Esther Williams. The way we came across it was pretty atypical: my dad, usually the arbiter of what old movie is playing in the background, went off to iron or walk the dogs (his two favorite activities), and my mom started flipping through the channels before settling on this one. I was reading a book I got for Christmas–How Sassy Changed My Life (I’m fascinated by how magazines work)–but eventually the movie won my full attention.

My mother doesn’t like to swim–at least not the part where you have to get your face wet. She made sure my sister and I swam well and as often as possible in Kentucky, but as for her, I can only remember a handful of times of her actually getting in the water. What I DO remember, though, is her always talking about Esther Williams, and one day, many years ago, we watched another Esther Williams movie, Easy To Love, set at the Weeki Watchee Springs.

 At the time, I was scornful of the cheesiness of the movie and its effects, and disappointed that she wasn’t wearing a mermaid tail. (Perhaps she was and I didn’t remember it; what I do remember is the fast-motion effects when Esther realizes she’s late for something and has to run.) I remember making fun of it, and I’m sure hurting my mom’s feelings.

So I was surprised by how much time had changed my opinion of Ms. Williams when I found myself not only engrossed in the movie and the aqua-spectacle, but also fascinated by the woman herself. When I got back to LA, I checked out Esther’s autobiography.

I found myself flipping through it, the way I do when I want to go right to the guts of a book instead of letting it wash over me slowly, but the difference was that I made myself start back at the beginning after reading a sizable chunk of the center.

 The story was engrossing and I was surprised by how candid and sassy Esther was, talking quite upfrontedly about erections, taking LSD, a cross-dressing boyfriend and her beliefs in various dimensions. (What was hard to read, though, was her 22-plus-year-long acceptance of Fernando Lamas’s domineering approach to marriage.) There’s also some fun, backstage-y stuff about Bette Davis, Clark Gable and especially Joan Crawford, and Esther herself sounds fun and feisty.

Reading the book made me curious to see more of her movies. For some reason, their glamour (however hokey it may have seemed to me years ago) appeals to me now, and I’d like to be able to share watching them with my mom. I’ve often felt that she and I were very much alike, and it’s a nice feeling to have a point of reference between us. (I can imagine her as a young girl, seeing those movies, and dreaming of being a glamorous mermaid herself.)

Reading anything about the Golden Age of Hollywood, and any biography, can really make you feel nostalgic for the past, so easily distilled by chapter, and you get a perspective for the different seasons of success in people’s lives. It all adds up to the feeling–real or not–of the past being so much more charming than the present.

Here’s a sweet clip of Esther with Tom & Jerry.