The modern world of Aquatics has produced some incredible personalities during the past 125+ years. Annette Kellerman may perhaps be the least known today and yet most famous in her day that ’swimming’ has ever produced.
Matthew Webb and Paul Boyton’s exploits are legendary in the open waters of the world. Duke Kahanamoku and Johnney Weissmuller took their pool accomplishments respectfully to spreading the spirit and style of surfing to the world and to bring the cinematic characters like Tarzan and Jungle Jim alive to millions of ardent fans through the years.
Gertrude Ederle became the first woman (and fastest to date) to swim the English Channel in 1926 and went on to appear in the Billy Rose Aquacade in New York. Eleanor Holm, the 1932 Olympic Gold Medal Backstroker went on to star in the 1937 and ‘39-40 Billy Rose Aquacade. In 1940 the same show was produced at the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco where the lovely and very talented Esther Williams took on the starring female lead alongside Johnney Weissmuller.
Esther Williams then went on to have a tremendous career in Hollywood becoming the biggest female box office attraction of the 1950’s. One of her best films (in my opinion) is the 1952 Busby Berkeley classic ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’ starring Esther as Annette Kellerman. For many years viewing this film was the best way to be introduced to the stunning career of Annette Kellerman. And (yet again my opinion) still a fantastic well told story via its 1995 VHS release.
Gibson & Firth’s book finally brought the pieces of Kellerman’s life together to share the entirety of her most remarkable life. Firth was the coordinator of the Sydney Opera House’s Theatrical Memorabilia in the 1970’s when she first met Annette and her sister Mipps and then subsequently became Annette’s official biographer.
Annette Kellerman was born in the suburbs of Sydney in 1886 to very musically talented parents. Through overcoming childhood illnesses she began to swim for health and its competitiveness. When times got financially difficult in Australia her family moved to London where Annette swam over 20 miles in the Thames River to gain attention (and $$). She also made three attempts to swim the English Channel during these years.
From the rivers to the stage, Kellerman began performing a swimming/water ballet/diving act at the Palladium. An invitation to appear in the White City Amusement Park in Chicago prompted Annette’s move to the United States. Vaudeville stages such as New York’s Hippodrome theater beckoned and then applauded her arrival.
After a 25 year search for the woman who most closely matched the proportions of the Venus de Milo, Dr. Dudley Sargent, of Harvard University, named Annette the Perfect Women in 1908.
Kellerman's box office clout went through the roof! In 1912 she pitched a film idea to the major production studios who were still then in New York a few years before relocating to Hollywood. Though she only made a handfull of films, 'A Daughter of the Gods' was the first movie in history to cost $1,000,000.
Annette lectured to women about health and fitness and beauty and fashion and on and on long before today's modern day experts. She had a mail order booklet that professed these teachings and wrote two full texts, 'Physical Beauty-How to Keep It' and 'How to Swim' both published in 1918.
Though she, nor her sister, ever had children, Annette married her manager Jimmie Sullivan and they were married over 60 wonderful years. Even in retirement Annette's career did not ever really end. In 1974 she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale. She remained very active physically until she died peacefully in her sleep November 6th, 1975 at age 89.
Annette Kellerman, a swimming/diving exhibitionist, a stage and film actress, an author and a primary promoter of health, beauty and fitness for women. A true aquatic pioneer!