THE MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID

By Esther Williams with Digby Diehl

Simon & Schuster. 416 pp. $24

Reviewed by Louis Bayard

Early in her MGM career, Esther Williams pleaded with a Russian acting coach to teach her Portia's speech from "The Merchant of Venice." His response was as wise as it was generous. "Anybody can do Portia," he said, "but I don't know anyone except you who can sing and swim at the same time."

Technically, he was a little off the mark -- Williams actually lip-synched to her pre-recorded vocals -- but he knew when to leave well enough alone. And his would-be pupil knew when to get wet . . . which, as her darkly entertaining memoir reminds us, made all the difference.

Only in a younger America, perhaps, could a killer backstroke, statuesque frame and unbendable smile translate so instantly to stardom. But if memory dissolves Williams into an aqueous Doris Day, repeat viewings confirm that she had a natural, affable presence all her own. And, of course, she was the centerpiece of some of the most spectacularly kitschy numbers ever committed to film. Take that climactic folly from "Bathing Beauty" (1943), with its . . . well, let Esther and co-writer Digby Diehl tell it: "With flames shooting up all over the pool, fountains blasting like a hundred fire hoses, the swimmers treading in unison, there I am, rising up out of the water . . . like Venus on the half shell, or a Chevy on the way to a celestial lube job."

To produce this brand of Technicolor spectacle, Williams had to be slathered from head to toe in thick cream makeup; her hair was smeared with warm baby oil and Vaseline until she was "as waterproof as a mallard." She was also her own stuntwoman and, in various movies, narrowly escaped being drowned, shredded by a coral reef and chewed by a boat propeller. Diving tiara-first from a six-story-high platform, she snapped three vertebrae in her neck and spent half a year in a body cast.

But Williams was nothing if not resilient. When she was only 8, her older brother -- a promising child actor -- died suddenly from a burst colon, leaving her the family mainstay. She soon transformed herself into a national swimming champion, and when the oily finger of show business came beckoning, she was ready: first a stint with Billy Rose's Aquacade, then a plum contract at "MGM University." Barely into her twenties, she had become one of the world's top 10 box-office attractions.

Along the way, she was pawed by some of the world's most determined lechers and eventually did some pawing back of her own: affairs with Victor Mature and Jeff Chandler plus the requisite parade of dysfunctional spouses. By far the book's most chilling portrait is of third husband Fernando Lamas, who first made his intentions known by offering his crotch as a hand warmer (suave!) and then coerced her into abandoning her career and children and spending the next 22 years tending his flame. Only by dying, she writes, did he give her back her life.

The subservience of Mrs. Lamas never does quite jibe with the sassy, smart-mouthed persona behind this book. But then, like many a star before her, Williams has some scores to settle, which makes her memoir a kind of extended report card on the famous. (Van Johnson: good. Lucille Ball: bad.) She is happy to blow the whistle on Gene Kelly's tyranny and Joan Crawford's Euripidean madness, and she stands equally ready to muss her own mermaid-next-door image. Thus, the very first chapter offers the unexpected sight of Esther Williams dropping acid. (For therapeutic purposes.) And the revelation that boyfriend Jeff Chandler was a cross-dresser spurs her on to the tartest of kissoffs: "Jeff, you're too big for polka dots."

That's a nicely written line, which is exactly how a lot of the dialogue in The Million Dollar Mermaid sounds: nicely written. Read enough of these moments, and you start to glimpse an author's heavy hand (whose you can't be sure) massaging reality into something more boffo. Was Williams always so damn quick with the quip? Did she really tell her second husband "Mr. Mayer does not want to see your size sixteen feet anymore"? Does she really think Deanna Durbin is "terminally perky"?

But if The Million Dollar Mermaid reads less like a life than the film treatment of a life, you could hardly expect less from a graduate of MGM University. So go ahead: play it out in the movie palace of your mind. You'll find it's not an Esther Williams picture, exactly -- the characters are a little too unstable for happy fadeouts -- but it exerts its own tidal pull.

Louis Bayard is the author of the novel `Fool's Errand.`