THE California fantasy of a Hollywoodland sparkling with deep blue pools and glamorous starlets draped around them was all true, at least in the case of the Cole family. And not just any star would do for Fred Cole, a silent-screen actor turned swimwear revolutionary, when his father forced him to get a real job and he founded Cole of California in 1925.
"Esther Williams was the face of swim for Hollywood, and so naturally Dad put her under contract with Cole," Anne Cole recalls today of the bathing beauty's official link with the company between 1948 and 1952. "She used to come to the house quite a bit to swim, but it was during market week that the showman in Dad really came out."
Market week is when the fashion editors and store buyers come to town to preview the next season's collection, and for the teenage Anne this meant a backyard show in high Tinseltown style at their Beverly Hills manse. Tall blue- and green-striped canvas curtains were drawn up at one end of the pool to hide the makeshift backstage. Grandstands were built right there on the manicured emerald grass to seat the 70 or so VIP guests from around the country. And the family's industry friends, such as director Bob Lee, got involved in productions that featured young synchronized swimmers or models in the latest suits and platform sandals taking a "surprise" splash into the pool.
"We once even built a bridge of glass so it would look like Esther could walk on water," chuckles Cole, who long before launching her own line at the company -- where she still clocks in at age 80 -- acted as a page girl to the show producers as well as a kind of lady-in-waiting to Williams.
Even without the spectacle, Cole of California was a force. It was the first swimwear maker to introduce the boy-cut bottom, the tank suit, the overskirt and styles without straps or backs. The brand was such a pioneer that Paris superstar Christian Dior turned to Cole when he made his only excursion into swimwear.
At the backyard parties, as they were called, press photographers got their chance to snap the newest looks, as in this case where a model mugs with all the trappings of a 1950 glamazon -- stretched out on a real tiger skin and pointing the longest of telescopic cigarette holders into the cloudless sky.
Not that the young Cole didn't know firsthand the dangers of lighting up. "We were all backstage once getting ready for a presentation and I went to light up somebody's cigarette. The next thing we knew, those great big curtains were aflame. We had to rip down what was left before everyone arrived. As far as Dad was concerned, the show had to go on."
-- Rose Apodaca