A History of Celebrity Swimming Pools

A Look at Glamorous Pools of the Past

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Actress Colleen Moore with her backyard pool, ca 1932. Getty Images

While swimming pools have been around since the days before the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, in modern history, private backyard pools really started to make a big splash after World War II. And guess who owned the very first private pools in Southern California, posed for photos in and near them, and sparked the trend that continues a century later? Celebrities—as in "swimming pools, movie stars".

Part of the appeal of relocating the growing film industry from the East Coast to Los Angeles in the early 1900s was the sunny climate—outdoor filming could occur throughout the year. Studio executives and stars had glamorous homes built by notable architects, and these desirable pads featured lush landscaping along with the ultimate Southern California status symbol—a private swimming pool.

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    Jayne Mansfield in Her Pink Palace Pool

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    Jayne Mansfield's heart-shaped pool.

    Philip Ramey Photography, LLC/Getty Images

     

    If a public or country club pool was desirable, a private swimming pool was even better. While wealthy studio execs and actors actually had pools built in their backyards, it was the fan magazines and newsreels (shown in movie theaters) that depicted these new popular stars relaxing at home, often by or in their own swimming pool. For the general public, pool ownership was an unattainable luxury. But it became increasingly popular for entertainment and shelter magazines to show supposedly candid views of stars engaged in everyday activities—something with which people could identify. Southern California became a potentially obtainable dream for everyone—and thousands flocked to the land of milk, honey, sunshine, movie stars, and swimming pools. And if you weren't a celebrity yourself, you could live next door to one (or so the studios' publicity staffs led many to believe).

    A Nostalgic Look at Early Celebrity Swimming Pools

    These old photos—however contrived they may have been—serve as a cultural and design reference for modern swimming pool history. It was the beginning of a voyeuristic and envious culture, allowing readers and fans to get past the front doors of the rich, famous and beautiful. In our current over-sharing age of Facebook and Instagram—it now seems somewhat innocent.

    Join us for a nostalgic tour of movie stars' homes and swimming pools.

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    George Bancroft's Santa Monica Pool

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    Actor George Bancroft poses beside his Santa Monica pool in 1922. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

    Actor George Bancroft (1882 - 1956 ) is shown beside his in-ground swimming pool at his house, which backed up to the beach in Santa Monica. Bancroft was born in Philadelphia in 1882 and graduated from the United States Naval Academy, but left for a show biz career. He performed on Broadway before transitioning into silent films such as The Journey's End (1921) and The Pony Express (1925). Bancroft was nominated for a best actor Oscar for his role in the 1929 film, Thunderbolt. The actor's masculine, sometimes intimidating voice translated well to "talkies," and he is remembered for his performances in Scandal Sheet, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Angels With Dirty Faces.

    Many film executives and stars lived in the Gold Coast area of Santa Monica, including Bancroft. Notable architect John Byers designed a house for Bancroft and his family in 1929 in the area—presumably not this one, since the photo is dated in the early 1920s. While Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks' pool at their Pickfair Manor is believed to be Los Angeles' first in-ground swimming pool, this photo indicates that Bancroft might have beaten them to it. A house with a pool on the beach was and still is nearly everyone's idea of a dream home.

    Friends and co-workers reported that Bancroft became egotistical and difficult to work with; by 1942 he left the movie industry to become a rancher.

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    Postcard-Perfect Pickfair

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    Getty Images

    The finest estate in all of early Hollywood was Pickfair Manor, owned by Hollywood power couple Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who built it and moved in after marrying in 1920. The Beverly Hills mansion was a popular party place where Hollywood's elite could roam: it boasted four stories, 25 rooms, stables, and tennis courts. The estate's famous pool was supposedly the first in-ground pool to be built for a private residence. However, judging by this 1922 photo of actor George Bancroft next to his Santa Monica pool, others in the film industry probably built backyard pools during the 1920s. Measuring 55 x 100 feet, Pickfair's pool had its own sandy beach and nearby ponds.

    In this popular photo sold as a postcard, Pickford and Fairbanks paddle a canoe in their famous pool. When the house was demolished years later (by actress/singer Pia Zadora and her mogul husband, Meshulam Riklis), the pool and pool house supposedly were spared, along with a two-bedroom guest wing. While termites were given as the reason for the demo, Zadora later revealed on a reality show that she believed the house was haunted and that tearing it down was the best solution.

    Back in its heyday, the Pickfair grounds, house and pool entertained actors, studio executives, society folks, and international dignitaries. Pickford commissioned architect Wallace Neff to design two new wings to the estate, making the room count approximately 42. As Hollywood couples do, Fairbanks and Pickford divorced, and Pickford stayed at the estate with her new husband, actor Charles "Buddy" Rogers. In her later years she reportedly became a recluse, visiting with guests by telephone from her upstairs bedroom.

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    Jean Harlow's Hollywood Pool

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    Jean Harlow poses near her swimming pool.

    Grimes Archives/Getty Images

    Before Marilyn Monroe, there was Jean Harlow, Hollywood's original blonde bombshell. California sunshine and swimming pools were the perfect environment to show off toned actors and actresses in body-revealing swimsuits, even by 1930s standards. Harlow was athletic—she played golf, tennis, and rode horses. She enjoyed swimming but rarely used her pool, supposedly because the sun was too harsh for her fair skin.

    Harlow was married twice—the first time at age 16. She was engaged to actor (and fellow pool owner) William Powell, but while filming Saratoga in 1937, she was hospitalized with uremic poisoning and kidney failure, possibly from the scarlet fever she had suffered during childhood. Harlow died on June 7, 1937.

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  • 05 of 13

    Bing Crosby's Rancho Santa Fe Spread

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    Singer and actor Bing Crosby (1904-1977) and his first wife, singer Dixie Lee, lean on a diving board in front of their swimming pool at their home in Rancho Santa Fe, in San Diego County. Bing supposedly signed his name in the concrete in the pool pump house.

    Crosby, Lee, and their four sons bought the ranch house as part of a 17-acre spread that was originally deeded by the Mexican government in 1845 to Juan Osuna, San Diego's first mayor. A two-bedroom ranch house on the property was Rancho Santa Fe's oldest home. Crosby considered the area a vacation home, and liked its proximity to the Del Mar Race Track, of which he was part owner.

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    Luci and Desi and Their Big, Big Pool

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    A decade before they became TV actors and pioneers, B-movie actress Lucille Ball and her Cuban bandleader husband, Desi Arnaz, bought a five-acre ranch in the then-rural Chatsworth area of the San Fernando Valley. They called it "Desilu," which later became the name of their production company. On weekends, the couple hosted lavish pool parties with conga lines and movie stars. Note the rustic, rock-edged pool and naturalistic, free-form shape -- innovative for its time.

    Lucy and Desi lived at the Chatsworth ranch when their first child, daughter Lucie, was born in 1951. When their son, Desi Jr., arrived, they sold the ranch and moved to Beverly Hills in 1954.

    The Arnazes also had a weekend home in Palm Springs. That house, on a lot Desi reputedly won in a poker game, was designed by architect Paul R. Williams. It was located near the 17th fairway of the Thunderbird Country Club, and was the first residence completed in the club's development. The 4,400-square-foot residence had six bedrooms, a swimming pool, and a lanai-type space that combined and expanded the use of interior and exterior areas.

  • 07 of 13

    Meet the Beatles

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    From left: Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison and Paul McCartney.

    Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images

    When The Beatles invaded Los Angeles in August of 1964 for a show at the Hollywood Bowl, they caused so much fan frenzy that Burbank Airport would not permit the plane to land there, nor could they stay at the famed Ambassador Hotel. British actor Reginald Owen stepped in and offered the pop stars use of his Bel Air home, where they were photographed "clowning around" on the diving board of Owen's private pool.

    After the concert at the Bowl, a limousine whisked the Fab Four back to the Bel Air pad, where they hung out for a few days. On the Sunday after their concert, Capitol Records executive Alan Livingston held an exclusive party at his home two miles away from the Owen pad for "show business personalities" and their families to meet the singers and have their pictures taken with them.

    Bel Air Hideaway

    Fans got word of where The Beatles were staying in Bel Air, and an unprecedented crowd in the hundreds gathered at the junction of Sunset Boulevard and Bel Air Road after the 10 p.m. curfew. Fans reportedly caused more than $5,000 damage to landscaping in the neighborhood and several residents turned on their sprinkler systems in attempts to deter them.

    On another day off, the group went to actor Burt Lancaster's house, designed by architect Harold Levitt, to screen Peter Sellers' film, A Shot in the Dark. Ringo Starr recalls in Anthology:

    "I loved meeting Burt Lancaster, too. He was great. The first time in LA, we'd rented a huge house and I turned into a cowboy. I had a poncho and two toy guns and was invited over to Burt Lancaster's, and that was how I went. I was all, 'Hold it up there now, Burt, this town ain't big enough for both of us,' and he said, 'What have you got there? Kids' stuff.' Later, he sent me two real guns, and a real holster: he didn't like me playing with kids' guns. I just wanted to be a cowboy. He had an amazing house. It had a pool outside, but you could swim into the living room if you went under the glass. L.A. was a mind-blower."
  • 08 of 13

    Marilyn Monroe, Poolside

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    The actress strikes a distinctly "Marilyn" pose next to a Hollywood swimming pool. Getty

    In characteristic fashion, actress Marilyn Monroe reclines in a tight-fitting swimsuit near a swimming pool as she does her stuff for the camera. Monroe was frequently photographed next to swimming pools—the two icons seemed made for each other. Her most famous pool photos were for the partially nude swimming scene in the ill-fated film, Something's Got to Give,—which Monroe consented to do in order to reportedly "push Liz Taylor off the magazine covers." After Monroe's death, the film was remade without the original cast and with a new title, Move Over, Darling.

    One of Monroe's early influences was blonde bombshell and fellow pool owner Jean Harlow.

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  • 09 of 13

    A Pool for Powell

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    Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

    Film actor William Powell dons a light-colored smoking jacket as he poses near his private swimming pool. Powell was nominated for an Oscar for his role in the film, Life With Father in 1947, but was probably better known for his series of films The Thin Man.

    Powell was enjoying the prime of his life, both professionally and personally, until June of 1937, when his fiancee, blonde bombshell Jean Harlow, died age 26. Shortly after her death, Powell was diagnosed with cancer and stopped making films for the next two years to focus on his health.

    Powell (known as The Dapper One) returned to work in 1939 (the year this photo was taken, probably to show how healthy and rested he was) with Another Thin Man. In 1940, Powell married actress Diana Lewis and retired to Palm Springs in the 1950s. He died in 1982 at age 91.

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    Esther Williams: The Swimming Sensation

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    Swimmer and actress Esther Williams was the "it" girl of swimming-themed films —kind of an odd concept that somehow worked. The athletic Williams made it OK to wear a swimsuit on film and made 26 swimming movies during her career. She was frequently photographed in or near a swimming pool, in a form-fitting swimsuit, of course.

    In this photo, Williams sheds her pin-up image to assume Mom duty as she hosts a pool party for her children and their friends. Williams endorsed swimwear for Cole of California and had a line of above-ground pools, which went out of business around 2006.

    "I always felt that if I made a movie, it would be one movie," Williams once said. "I didn't see how they could make 26 swimming movies." All in all, Williams believed she was "just a swimmer who got lucky."

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    Kirk Douglas and Sons

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    Actor Kirk Douglas lifts weights with his sons by their backyard swimming pool, circa 1955. Getty Images

    Muscular actor Kirk Douglas shows off his physique while lifting his two older sons, Joel, left, and Michael, right, with a long pole (presumably for pool cleaning).

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    Debbie Reynolds Frolics in Her Pool

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    Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

    Before she married Eddie Fisher, young MGM starlet Debbie Reynolds bought a house with a backyard pool, where she was photographed with friends, splashing and having fun.

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  • 13 of 13

    Mary Tyler Moore on the Diving Board

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    Looking lean and leggy in a one-piece, actress Mary Tyler Moore poses on the diving board of her backyard swimming pool in 1965 as her second husband, studio executive Grant Tinker, looks on admiringly. Moore charmed television audiences with her portrayal of housewife Laura Petrie in the sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show, which aired from 1961 to 1966. Moore went on to star in her own sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

    About her relationship with Tinker, Moore wrote in her 1995 autobiography, After All: "We both hated parties and attended them only if they were work-related. Most weekends found us at the pool or at our beach house in Malibu lying in the sun, Grant surrounded by stacks of scripts."