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Original Issue


Seduced by the sparkle of those turquoise waters, America has fallen head over heels in love with the swimming pool

I cover the waterfront.

Kidney-shaped, chlorinated, gin clear—it's all in the note-hook. Artesian spring, hot sulfur spring—water is my beat. Filtered, heated, treated, water turquoised to within an inch of its life, you read about it here first. Water covers three quarters of the earth's surface and all of my brain. This is the swimsuit issue. These are the swimming pools. I am the pool boy.

Edgeless pools, endless pools, infinity pools—I have the pruned skin, the blue lips. Natural pools, fake natural pools, football pools, car pools, secretarial pools, Ed Kranepool. I have been there. I have swum. I wear my goggles tight.

I am here to blow the lid off the Jacuzzi. Do you want to talk about the difference between a spa and a Jacuzzi? A Jacuzzi and a hot tub? Get a life. You press a button, you get bubbles. There is no difference. The pool boy knows these things.

Just as dog owners often look like their pets, most pool people have a shallow end and a deep end. To them, there is a spiritual connection between the walled-off, $100,000 chlorinated hole in their backyard and our last big kick turn in the evolutionary gene pool. "We're all born from water," points out Hollywood's most famous swimmer, Esther Williams, in her foreword to Kelly Klein's 1992 book, Pools. "What could be more natural than to swim all your life in that wonderful weightless medium." The pool boy would like to know how many birthday parties for sticky, Kool-Aid-engorged six-year-olds Esther Williams ever floated through in "that wonderful weightless medium."

To Williams, we are all tadpoles who have just wriggled out of the primordial soup, searching for a chaise longue that is facing the sun. Sixty-five percent of the human body is made up of water (5% is suntan lotion, and the remaining 30% is believed to be licorice and nachos), which may account for why we enjoy pools so much. We're in our own element, after all.

The idea of a swimming pool in every yard was simply a postwar refinement of Herbert Hoover's 1928 campaign promise of a chicken in every pot, though the pool construction boom that took place in the 1950s would have been unthinkable without the introduction of inexpensive, sprayable concrete. "Then it became socially correct to have a pool, and everybody had to do it; a house was not fully potentialized unless there was a pool," says Bob Easton, a Santa Barbara. Calif., architect. "If you didn't have one, it meant you weren't with it. But on a deeper level the boom happened because people have always instinctively wanted to live next to water."

Hotel pools, motel pools, we go down to the sea but never leave the swimming pool. The beach is too sandy, too equipment-intensive, there's too damn much salt in the water and not enough on the margaritas. ("Oh, pool boy. More margaritas!")

YMCA, YWCA, why, oh, why are swimming pools almost always hidden away in people's backyards? What's going on back there that they don't want us to see? "Being in the water is a great moment of privacy," explains Janice Bagdasarian, a writer-producer who has a 65-foot "natural" pool in her yard. "If you have to wave at passing buses, that's lost." The electronic gate that seals off the Bagdasarians' eight-acre mountainview estate near Santa Barbara tends to hold the bus traffic down to, well, none. And still they put their pool in the backyard.

From the air, the slanting rays of Southern California's winter sun seem to race from one backyard to the next, the light collecting in the swimming pools in a series of small explosions, like flashbulbs popping. The turquoise kidneys and the blue-green hearts form a kind of magnetic resonance image of Los Angeles: a many-chambered nautilus of pools in the prosperous precincts of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, while in South Central L.A.—where municipal pools must often close for lack of funds—the organs appear blackened and necrotic.

There are nearly a million swimming pools in California, almost as many pools as there are people in the entire adjoining state of Nevada. "A lot of people who moved here from the East would trick their kids into coming out by promising to buy them a swimming pool," says pool builder Bob Winship. (Winship once built a pool in the shape of a heart for a cardiologist in Palos Verdes, then went charging over the top by driving an arrow through it.)

The swimming pool has been a central part of Hollywood mythology since the dawn of silent pictures, a truth observed and then turned upside down in the opening scene of the film classic Sunset Boulevard. In what is almost certainly the most famous swimming pool in the history of the movies, a screenwriter named Joe Gillis is seen floating facedown in the water. As the camera observes him from below, a surprised look still on his face, a voice that turns out to be Gillis's own explains how he got there. "The poor dope." Gillis says ruefully. "He always wanted a pool."

Billy Wilder, the movie's director, explains why he chose that image to open the film. "Back in those days a pool signified opulence and importance. It was a medal of success. Now everybody has one, even the apartment buildings," Wilder says, sounding faintly appalled. "A swimming pool wouldn't work now. If I wanted to remake the picture, which I certainly do not, I would have to use something else."

He almost had to use something else back then because the underwater shot of actor William Holden was so badly distorted by the refraction of light and water. "We found out that if you are trying to shoot anything in the water above you from the bottom of a swimming pool, it's indecipherable," says Wilder. "So at the bottom of the pool we put a mirror, and then we shot it from above."

The pool itself was built especially for the movie behind a house that was actually on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A. "One of the former wives of Paul Getty was having a dance school or an acting school there," Wilder says. "She told us we could put in a pool but we must not use any pipes or plumbing, and as soon as we were finished, we had to fill it in. It was very curious because she could have had a functioning pool for nothing, but she said no, after the shooting is over, you have to unpool it."

Another famous Hollywood pool that has been filled in and paved over was on Sunset Boulevard, at the old Garden of Allah resort. The Garden had been owned at one time by Russian actress Alla Nazimova, who had the pool built in the shape of the Black Sea to remind her of home. Legend has it that during a party at the hotel one night, the renowned American humorist Robert Benchley toppled headfirst into the swimming pool. After being dragged out, Benchley summoned up what remained of his dignity and said, "Get me out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini."

The anonymity of hotel pools often seems to incite extravagant behavior among the guests. A few years ago, superdupermodel Elle Macpherson was staying at the Sunset Marquis Hotel and was poolside with a fellow supermodel. The two women took up adjacent chaises at the hotel swimming pool, which is next to a popular outdoor cafe. "I don't know which of them took off her top first," says a desk clerk, "but it became kind of a competition between the two of them to see who could attract the most attention." (And to think, in certain parts of the world they will try to tell you that America has lost its edge, that we have become a third-rate power. And they will be wrong. For as long as there are supermodels willing to come to this country and put it all on the line, to compete, to strive, to embody so much about what is right in us as Americans, then we will always be No. 1. U-S-A! U-S-A! I am pool boy, hear me roar.)

No swimming pool occupies a more important position in the watery firmament of pools around which stars arrange their orbits in an effort to see and be seen than the Beverly Hills Hotel pool. The hotel, which was closed last year for renovations and will not reopen until 1995, is being completely made over, but the hotel's management has already reassured the public that the pool will remain much as it was before.

There has always been an abundant supply of movie stars at the pool. Katharine Hepburn would often drop by after her tennis match, stride onto the diving board and execute a neat backward somersault into the pool. Fully clothed. Then she would shove her hairpins back into place and strike off again for home. Hepburn's opposite when it came to fashion consciousness was English actor Rex Harrison, according to Svend Petersen, who for 30 years was the pool manager at the Beverly Hills Hotel. (Petersen's leathery brown skin and snappy towel presentation made him such a fixture that he was mentioned by name in three Jacqueline Susann novels.) Harrison often stayed in a private cabana at the hotel while making movies in America, and when sunbathing, "he never believed in bathing suits," Petersen told the Chicago Tribune. "He just put his privates under a handkerchief, and every day it was a different color."

The week before the Academy Awards ceremony, the starlets were often stacked up around the pool like 747s circling the airport. "There have been a few times when I had to escort a lady out," Petersen said. "One was on the high board with a see-through bathing suit. I think she might have been trying to be discovered."

Director Alfred Hitchcock once declared that "all actors are cattle." and in its heyday the Beverly Hills Hotel pool became their sylvan salt lick. Esther Williams had a clause written into her MGM contract granting her a guest pass to the pool so she could swim laps there every day. But for an exclusive weekend getaway, there was no place quite like the stately pleasure dome that publisher William Randolph Hearst shared with actress Marion Davies at San Simeon.

The Hearst Castle and its two sumptuous formal pools—the Neptune Pool outdoors for daytime and the Roman Pool indoors for the nights, each the most beautiful pool of its kind in the country—were designed by Julia Morgan, who is widely considered to have been America's first great woman architect.

Hearst was a notorious prig and would stand for no debauchery, but it was all but impossible for him to keep track of everything that was going on in the 345,000-gallon Neptune Pool. When English actor Leslie Howard, one of the stars of Gone With the Wind, visited with his wife, Ruth, anything could happen. "Leslie was like a naughty boy, and his wife would yell at him," wrote Davies, Hearst's longtime mistress, in her memoirs. "Ruth was forty and rather fat, and she treated him like a child. She would say, 'Now, don't go in the swimming pool. You might catch cold.' Just to tease her, he would jump in the pool and lose his trunks."

The Neptune Pool is surrounded by an actual temple facade, massive semicircular marble colonnades from the third and fourth centuries A.D. Nearby is a pool house with 17 dressing rooms for Hearst's intimate little pool parties. The Roman Pool is in a grotto beneath the castle's two tennis courts. Its deck tile is blue and gold—real gold leaf—as are the walls, the ceiling and the pool itself. The bottom is 10 feet deep from end to end. although an optical illusion created by the refraction of light makes it appear that the depth changes as you walk beside the pool. But it has been years since anyone swam in them or even lost his trunks in them to torment an overbearing wife.

The formality of pools like Hearst's eventually led to the design of pools that attempts to recreate—and in some cases improve upon—nature. Film-score composer Barry DeVorzon built a "natural" pool in his yard, and it was such a hit in the Santa Barbara music community that there is now a virtual subdivision thereof painstakingly planned, multimillion-dollar improvisations on Eden. DeVorzon walked his property for nine years before he decided where to put the swimming pool, then called in the cranes to open the earth for it in 1980. "When I saw the size of that hole, I almost killed myself." he says. He spent months scavenging for the boulders that now sit at the water's edge on steel-reinforced shelves, to prevent leakage.

Ross and Janice Bagdasarian also have meticulously strewn boulders around their fake natural pool. Says Janice, "I didn't want to feel like we were in Disneyland with those rocks that are, like, airbrushed in."

The Bagdasarians are the voices of the Chipmunks, the helium-voiced rodents made famous in the '50s by Ross's father, whose stage name was David Seville. Having made their fortune as singing chipmunks, the Bagdasarians might have considered using their pool as a way to pay tribute to their furry little benefactors. "We stayed at the Spence Manor Suites in Nashville when we were making a country album once, and they had a pool in the shape of a guitar," Janice says. "Any thought we might have had of doing our pool in the shape of a chipmunk ended there."

Making sure the water stays heated and properly filtered in such pools is the job of the professional pool man, who wields his telescoping leaf rake with practiced ease. "We've spent years learning how to open and close gates quietly, hoping just once we'll come around the corner and find a voluptuous woman lying there naked." Ventura. Calif., pool man Terry Cowles confessed to the Los Angeles limes last year.

Most companies instruct their pool cleaners to enter a client's property whistling or singing loudly. But there are times when warnings are of little effect. Jim Burkhalter used to service a pool at the home of the owner of a nude bar in Long Beach who regularly invited his dancers over to sunbathe their tan lines away. Says Burkhalter, "I'd go in, do the job, then go to the next place and jump in the water to calm down."

In 1953, MGM built a pool in the shape of the state of Florida for an Esther Williams musical called Easy To Love. The movie was set in Cypress Gardens, where the blue-tiled monstrosity still stands—one of about 700,000 swimming pools in Florida, and not even necessarily the ugliest.

More reliant on the winter tourist season than is California, Florida did not often trouble itself with subtlety in pool design or in the application of color. Hotels like the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc built enormous, extravagant pools to contain the million-footed beast blown down from the north.

"Almost every old Miami Beach postcard will show you a pool." says architect Laurinda Spear, whose firm designed the new International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale. "And every postcard showed the building very small and the pool very big, because they felt they had to seduce you."

Bigger was always better in Florida, and biggest of all was the L-shaped pool of the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. At 240 feet long and 150 feet wide it was for many years the largest hotel swimming pool in the world. Built in 1926, the Biltmore pool eclipsed even the nearby Venetian, a mammoth 820,000-gallon hole left by the excavation of the coral rock quarry from which many of the original homes in Coral Gables were built.

Alexander Ott's Water Follies had run for two years at the Venetian Pool before settling in at the Biltmore in 1929 for what became a 13-year run at the height of the Depression. The show often drew crowds of 3,000 people on Sunday afternoons, and it was to follow the exploits of Alexander Ott's son, Jackie Ott, the Aqua Tot, that many of them came.

Jackie was the world's most beautiful child, winner of six baby beauty contests. "My mother would curl my hair and put lipstick and eyeliner on me, and I was hard to beat in those baby contests," he says. He became friends with headliners such as Olympic skater Sonja Henie, the Flying Wallendas and magician Harry Houdini. The great Houdini had himself shackled and locked inside a trunk, then lowered into the Biltmore pool, a watery grave from which he escaped by the narrowest of margins.

Jackie Ott later became friends with Johnny Weissmuller, who was a regular in Alexander Ott's show at the Biltmore pool long before he went to Hollywood and became Tarzan. Weissmuller supposedly never drank anything stronger than milk, but that didn't stop him from behaving strangely. "He was seen running up and down the halls of the hotel one night with no clothes on, chasing this girl," Ott says. "Johnny was like a big kid, always pulling fire alarms, having the time of his life."

In John Cheever's short story The Swimmer, the protagonist, Neddy Merrill, decides to swim home through suburban Connecticut via his neighbors' backyard pools. It is a story of loss, but one that begins with much promise. Water is neither wonderful nor weightless in Merrill's world; it has specific gravity.

He took off a sweater that was hung over his shoulders and dove in. He had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools.... The day was lovely, and that he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence. His heart was high and he ran across the grass. Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny, and he knew that he would find friends all along the way....

And if not friends, well, at least when they carted him off to the loony bin he would be in shape. The pool boy, his muscular prose rippling with the upper body strength of 10 novelists, has an inexplicable contempt for men who do not hurl themselves into the literary whirlpool. I swim the water-containment beat—bottled water, mottled water, hot-water bottle. I am the treader of water, treater of words, here to remove the scum of the earth from your filter.



California pools (clockwise from top left) have symbolized many notions, including love (Mickey Hargitay and his wife, Jayne Mansfield); conformity (in the San Fernando Valley); grandeur (at the Hearst Castle); and glamour (Esther Williams from the movie "Bathing Beauty").



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Thanks to a well-placed pool, apartment dwellers in this Chicago building are never left high and dry.



Pooling their talents in Hollywood (top to bottom): Holden did the dead man's float in "Sunset Boulevard"; Burt Lancaster stroked through the suburbs in "The Swimmer"; and divers went up in smoke in "Million Dollar Mermaid."



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In the '30s, crowds flocked to the prodigious pool at the Biltmore to see the aquatics of Jackie Ott the Aqua Tot (right, with his father, Alexander).



A Florida homeowner makes a musical splash with a backyard banjo, while a pool in Maryland allows its owner to duck out of the heat.