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...of swimming, naturally, but Esther Williams is a top businesswoman as well

The most unusual swimming pool on the 1959 scene was unveiled this week by the most unusual corporation president, in the U. S., Esther Williams of International Swimming Pool, For more on pretty President Williams, shown here in her working clothes, and her pretty portable pool, turn page.

This," said Esther Williams as she emerged from the azure waters of her latest Esther Williams Swimming Pool, "is the biggest thing that has ever happened in home pools. It is also," the dazzling president of the International Swimming Pool Corporation added, "the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me." Her words will very likely soon be echoed by nameless thousands for whom a backyard swimming pool is still an improbable dream, for the Penthouse Pool shown on the preceding pages, pilot model for the newest and most unusual addition to International's line of 24 different types of home and commercial swimming pools, could become as familiar a part of American family living as the second car. "We're planning to sell the 16-by-20-foot Penthouse Pool for under $3,000," Esther says. "At that price there's no reason why there shouldn't be a pool in every backyard big enough to hold one."

The Penthouse indeed appears to offer more for the money than any pool now on the market. Its low price is possible because of the pool's unique construction—the Penthouse is built above, rather than in, the ground, eliminating costly excavation problems. Moreover, the basic pool structure is California redwood, a radical departure and, according to Esther, a considerable improvement over the traditional poured concrete. Besides being less expensive than concrete, redwood withstands weather and water indefinitely, needs no special finish and, most important, can be prefabricated on an assembly-line basis.

The redwood structure also forms its own fence around the pool, with locking doors to keep out stray animals and stray people. Beneath the enclosed decking is more than 500 square feet of storage space, enough to handle the lawn mowers and deck chairs of practically the whole neighborhood. Of even greater interest, should an owner move and want to take his pool with him, the whole assembly can be dismantled and reassembled in a couple of days. By the same token, as the family grows, the standard-size Penthouse Pool can be enlarged from 16 by 20 feet to 16 by 32 feet simply by adding redwood panels to the original structure.

To Esther and to International, the new Penthouse Pool, which goes on the market this week, represents the gold medal at the end of a three-year swim to the top of one of the nation's fastest-growing industries (SI, April 29, 1957). A decade ago there were only an estimated 2,500 private swimming pools in the entire country, and most of these were in the backyards of millionaires and movie stars. Today this figure has grown to 87,500, and Esther Williams has built a large share of them, primarily in the backyards of average homes.

"And we've really only started," Esther says. "Although the average family no longer thinks of all swimming pools in terms of the very rich, until now a quality pool was still an expensive proposition. Aside from the cost of cement and steel, most pool companies had to buy materials from dozens of different manufacturers.

"With all these middlemen," Esther adds, "a good pool had to cost money for the builder to make any profit himself. As far as we were concerned, there was only one logical way around this—standardize swimming pools and then mass-produce all the parts ourselves."

At International's factories in Puerto Rico and New Jersey, pool parts are manufactured on an assembly-line basis, and every Esther Williams pool, regardless of where it is located, is installed to standard International specifications.

"We'll build you any shape pool you want," Esther says, borrowing a phrase from old Henry Ford, "as long as it's rectangular. This is the shape we've found most efficient and most practical to install, and it's the only kind we will install. We get lots of requests for other kinds. Jayne Mansfield wanted one in the shape of Mickey Hargitay's muscles and Liberace wanted a piano-shaped pool. They're fine, but we don't build them. Our goal at International has been the highest-quality pool at the lowest price—and this means standardization. We think the Penthouse is the answer."

At International's price, the Penthouse is certainly an amazing bargain; but then, International's president is an amazing woman. To most people, Esther Williams is primarily a beautiful face and a beautiful body—so beautiful, in fact, that the American public has paid some $86 million over the past 17 years to ogle her on movie screens. But added to her rather impressive 38-25-35 physical dimensions is an equally impressive mind. At the same time Esther was building an enviable bankroll for her studio she was also building one for herself in a dozen outside ventures, from a screen-door factory to a filling station. Her biggest and latest venture, International Swimming Pools, is a combination of her Hollywood role as an aquabeauty and her outside business experience.

"I've been lucky that my career in films has been successful so long," Esther admits honestly, "but I'd also be pretty foolish if I figured on lasting forever. Nobody does. Aside from being fascinated by everything about business—really, it's even a bigger challenge than the toughest swimming meet—I've always been convinced that I had to find a business which would go on long after I stopped making films. Swimming pools seemed to me the most exciting and promising of all. I guess it was inevitable that someday I'd start building them."

After 29 years of competitive and exhibition swimming (she began at 8), there isn't much Esther doesn't know about swimming pools. In the early '50s she started applying some of this specialized knowledge as a design consultant to friends who were building their own pools. By the time there were 10 Williams-designed pools in the ground Esther knew what a good family pool ought to be. Then all she needed was a company to build them.

"I started looking into pool-building companies on the West Coast," Esther recalls, "but in most cases the companies were either reluctant to go national or were only interested in my name and not my ideas. So I just kept on looking around and waiting for the right situation to come along."

In 1955 it did, in the person of a smart young entrepreneur named Don Pruess. At 35, Pruess had already accumulated a sizable bit of capital in the underwear business. With a lot of money in his pocket and a lot of ideas in his head, he took a year's sabbatical to figure out what business he wanted to enter next.

After poking into half a dozen fields he decided the most promising—and unexploited—was the swimming-pool business. His idea, like Esther's, was to mass-produce a quality swimming pool priced within the budget of the average homeowner. To sell such a product, Pruess needed a trade name which would be synonymous with swimming.


The obvious one was Esther Williams. But Esther was a Hollywood star and this, Pruess was afraid, might adversely influence the sale of a family product. To find out, he hired Motivational Research, Inc. to run a survey on Esther Williams. To his surprise she emerged the "plausible heroine," the star who in spite of her glamour was invariably identified in the minds of the public with someone's mother, sister, daughter, sweetheart or best friend.

That was enough for Pruess. Without bothering to announce himself, he called on Esther in Los Angeles. Before the afternoon was over, they were in business. They started out in November 1955 with an investment of $50,000. In three years that $50,000 partnership has grown into a $10 million-a-year business, with a future that looks even brighter than its past. "The company is growing so fast," Esther beams, "that I have trouble keeping up. Why, last month alone we more than doubled the volume we did a year ago."

Pruess, who holds controlling interest in the corporation, is chairman of the board and Esther is president. Beyond this, however, she is a super-salesman who could sell ice to the Eskimos—and has, as a matter of fact, sold one of her pools to a citizen of water-poor Hong Kong where it isn't legal to fill a bathtub, let alone a swimming pool.

Like all master salesmen, Esther has an amazing ability to make just about everyone she meets feel like the most fascinating person in the room. When she flashes her big green eyes at a male, his reaction is fairly easy to understand. But, surprisingly, she somehow achieves a similar hypnotic effect with women. During the past year Esther has had plenty of opportunity to practice her art. In the course of promoting her pools, she has visited more than 500 cities, covered some 60,000 miles and sold pools in such volume that one might almost suspect she went with the product.

On these barnstorming cross-country tours Esther has four distinct working costumes that she changes with the speed of a vaudeville magician. "I used to model in a department store," Esther says, "but those quick changes were nothing like the 30-second ones I have to make on the road."

The first is her movie-queen outfit. She generally wears this when she arrives in a new town. Resplendent even in early morning in full-length mink, yards of glittering jewelry, a low-cut dress and Hollywood's symbol, dark glasses, Esther has mastered just the right way to slink from an airplane or a Cadillac into the waiting arms and autograph books of local reporters and drooling adolescents. While her agents set up lunch with prospective business clients, Esther holds court in the most lavish hotel suite in town, alternately being interviewed, imitated, quoted and adored.

As soon as the fans can be dispersed, Esther switches to her next costume. She gets rid of the jewelry and dark glasses, substitutes a cloth coat for the mink, buttons up her dress, tones down the makeup, smooths back her hair and is ready to face the town's financial and civic leaders. At the end of two hours, during which she will explain the operation of International, discuss the cost and construction of her pools and enumerate the policies of her corporation, Esther usually manages to convince her audience that she is the smartest business woman they have met in years.

Her next outfit is her most familiar one. Sleek in a bathing suit, Esther will visit the local hospital, Red Cross, Boy Scout or YMCA headquarters to demonstrate the benefits of swimming as a sport and the advantages of everyone's owning his own pool.

With just enough time left for dinner at the home of a prospective International Swimming Pool client, Esther will then change into her final working costume. Again in high-buttoned collar, this time with a simple but chic touch of jewelry, Esther will play games with the prospective client's children, swap recipes with his wife, admire his high-school athletic awards, extravagantly praise the dinner and in general charm the entire family into feeling that what they really wanted all their lives was a swimming pool—an Esther Williams Swimming Pool, of course.

Esther, who has three children of her own—Benjie, 9, Kim, 8, and Susie, 5—knows what a family product should be. At home, her tastes run to Early American furniture, hooked rugs, Venetian glass and candles on the table at dinner. In fact, with two exceptions, her big, comfortable house in Mandeville Canyon near Beverly Hills is about as un-Hollywood as a Saturday-night taffy pull. In striking contrast, however, is a luxurious all-white bedroom with a 7-foot bed and knee-deep carpeting, and a pre-International kidney-shaped swimming pool.

There are also a tree hut, a doll's house, a full-size trampolin, a makeshift basketball court, uncountable vestiges of old toys, a German shepherd named Friskie and an outdoor gym which is the gathering place for most of the neighborhood children.


Esther seems to have as much fun in these children's sessions as the kids; and, besides, they fit in with another of her special projects—to interest more youngsters in outdoor sports, particularly in swimming, through what she calls a junior backyard Olympic program. "A great many children never get an opportunity to compete because they can't get to meets," Esther says. "I'd like to move the competition, at least in swimming, into their own backyards. This isn't as impossible as it sounds. Take, for instance, what I call 'telegraph meets.' In this kind of a meet, youngsters would compete locally against children their own ages on a given day, swimming standard distances under AAU regulations. Then all the local winning times would be telegraphed to a central headquarters where the over-all winners in each event would be determined. These winners would actually have competed nationally against the best of the country's young swimmers without ever having left home.

"The same principle would work with dozens of other sports," Esther concludes, "but, naturally, I'm prejudiced about swimming."

At home, Esther's telephone is constantly ringing, with calls involving everything from a high-level executive decision to a friendly chat with the wife of an International distributor. On one day, when this reporter happened to be present, Esther received calls from an ex-prizefighter turned distributor who wanted to prove to his friends that she would really speak with him ("With your background in sports," she told him, "I know you're going to be one of our most valuable men"); from a contractor in the Midwest who was having a labor problem; from half a dozen road-tour acquaintances who wanted her to revisit their towns ("I really can't wait to come back and see all you wonderful people again"); from a salesman in the Northwest who wanted her to attend his baby's christening ; from Pruess who needed her O.K. on several new sales campaigns; from a cub scout troop in California who wanted her to judge a swimming meet ("I'll be honored to be there. After all, my boys are cub scouts, too. And competition is so good for youngsters"); and from another distributor asking when he could start selling Penthouse Pools ("We're in production now and we'll be filling orders as fast as you can get them to us"). In between phone calls, Esther brightened the butcher's day with glowing approval of his lamb shanks, complimented the tailor on how well he'd altered a dress, convinced the TV repairman that he was the cleverest electrician since Marconi and assured a lady representative of a local charity that she'd be delighted to speak at their annual midwinter tea.

"These are the occasions I dread," she confided. "To begin with, there is always some inquisitive soul who insists on sniffing over my shoulder as though she suspected my tea was spiked. Then the ladies always expect you to wear a girdle. I'd almost rather lose a sale than put up with that torture."


Nevertheless, rather than offend the club ladies, Esther usually tries to give the girdle a go. When she does, it apparently is torture, as this reporter can verify after watching her fidget through a formal dinner recently. The moment she was able to escape, Esther dashed into the nearest ladies' room and dashed out again, grinning like a disobedient child. "I tried," she said, revealing the offending garment in her evening purse, "but life is really too short."

This attitude, perhaps, is the secret behind Esther's seemingly unlimited store of energy and enthusiasm, whether she is selling a Penthouse Pool or charming a group of elderly ladies. Certainly, after such a whirlwind day of calls and callers, most people would be ready for solitary confinement. But Esther, looking fresh and rested and—even sans girdle—as though she had been poured into a pair of black toreador pants, expertly mixed a couple of icy Martinis and insisted that the reporter stay a while. "You must be exhausted," she said with the concern of an old friend, "but we've had so little chance to talk, and I've been dying to ask you how you ever manage to pack everything into one suitcase for all your traveling. I just adore efficient people."



The penthouse, newest and most unusual Esther Williams Swimming Pool, is shown above in 16-by-32-foot model. Built above ground of steel-supported California redwood, the Penthouse Pool has 7½-foot-deep diving area surrounded by 12-inch safety ledge and uniform depth of 3½ feet throughout 16-by-13-foot shallow end. The entire swimming and diving area is lined with 20-gauge vinyl, needs no painting and is guaranteed for five years. In winter the Penthouse Pool can be used for ice skating or, by adding optional pool heater and solarium roof ($1,845 extra), for year-round swimming. The initial cost includes installation, a complete filter and drain system, a vinyl pool cover, a Fiberglas diving board, an underwater spotlight, stainless-steel ladder, safety buoys, life preserver, flag and flagpole and Esther Williams instruction manual on how to swim.