Annette Kellerman

Born July 6, 1886, in Sydney, Australia, Annette Kellerman was diagnosed with rickets as a young child and had to wear braces on her legs. A doctor eventually suggested swimming as a treatment, and after reluctantly taking swimming lessons, it soon became Annette's passion. Swimming was a very popular sport in Australia, and, unlike other countries, women's bathing suits did not cover their legs. She began going to a swimming club, Cavill's, where she she received instruction from world class swimmers. That is also where she met Snowy Baker who taught her to dive from a high dive. She also took ballet lessons at this time which contributed much to her "balletic" performances in the water. When she was a teenager, her father's health began to fail and the family's fortunes declined. Her father was convinced by some of the people who had trained her at the baths, that he should take her to England to swim the English Channel and make her fortune. After a time of being near broke, Annette decided to swim 24 miles down the Thames River and she was son in all the newspapers, England first newspaper whose popularity was based on publishing photographs, the Daily Mirror, hired her to swim a number of miles each day down the beaches. Finally, she was asked to perform at the country's most prestigious baths which was frequented by royalty, the Bath Club, but was told her bare legs could not be shown there. This resulted in her signature "tights" bathing suit that displayed her form well and contributed to her popularity. Unfortunately, three attempts to do what no woman had ever done, swim the English Channel - failed. However, her popularity was spreading throughout Europe, and winning a race down the Seine solidified her fandom in Paris followed by an easy win of a 22-mile race down the Danube made her fame in Austria. All Europe knew of this "Australian Mermaid" as she was dubbed by the press in England. In 1907 her popularity had reached America. She received a telegram inviting her to appear at the new White City Amusement Park in Chicago, IL. This is where she met Jimmie Sullavan, a program seller at the park, who soon became her manager to help out because of her father's failing health. She was an immediate success, and later that year went to Boston to work at the Wonderland Amusement Park. It was here that she said goodbye to her father who returned to Paris to join her mother. Her father died a few months after reuniting with his wife. Jimmie continued to manage her, and after a short time she was hired by the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit and made her first appearance at Keith and Proctor's Fifth Avenue Theatre in November 1908 and was an instant success. Kellerman's success in the teens was such that she was looked to for health advice - and her advice was sometimes radical for the times such as maligning corsets as damaging to the body in "Physical Beauty: How to Keep It." She also self-published a book entitled "The Body Beautiful" on achieving physical fitness. In addition to writing, she was also in demand as a lecturer. Of course, her most memorable contribution to the culture of the time was the one-piece bathing suit. Another highlight of her life from this time was her marriage to her manager, Jimmy Sullivan in 1912, a marriage that lasted until his death in 1972. Tiring of the vaudeville circuit, it was actually Kellerman who wanted to do a motion picture of an underwater fairy tale. Turned down flatly by Harry Aitken of Mutual Films, through a friend she was able to approach Carl Laemmle of Universal Pictures who reluctantly agreed. Opening in July 1914, "Neptune's Daughter" turned out to be a huge success. Deciding to get away for awhile, Kellerman went to Paris to be with her family with the intent of grooming herself to be a musical comedy star. The visit was marred by the death of her mother in 1915, and, when she returned to America, William Fox was ready to invest in a big budget film - "A Daughter of the Gods." This, too, proved to be a great success - and a controversial one, too, with claims that Kellerman had appeared nude, while she claimed she had worn a body suit. For her next feature, "Queen of the Sea" (1918), Kellerman taught herself to walk a tightrope which she did for 150 feet between two lighthouses over shallow water and treacherous rocks. However, a horseriding accident during the filming (not in connection with the film) proved to be the greatest threat to her career. She fell on a rock injuring her spine, and doctors said she'd never walk again. It took a year, but through her determination, she worked to rehabilitate herself and was back filming once again. Without director Herbert Brenon who had directed her first two features, "Queen of the Sea" wasn't the satisfying experience films had provided her previously. With director Lois Weber for most of the project, she did enjoy her next film, "What Women Love" (1920), but even with a five-picture deal offered her by Fox, she decided she would rather go back to her first love, vaudeville. It was obvious that vaudeville was declining due to the movies, so Kellerman went back to Australia, the first time in 17 years. After a successful tour of the country, she came back to the U.S. and opened a health food store in San Diego in 1923. Vaudeville called again, though, so in 1925, she went to Europe where it was still alive and well. In the early 1930's she returned to Australia, and she, her husband and sister, Mipps, spent quite a bit of time camping at the Great Barrier Reef. She and Jimmie kept busy for the rest of their lives in various activities. They returned to the U.S. In 1937 and staged a large water show for the Elk's Club in Florida which was attended by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During World War II, they staged many shows in Australia for the troops at their own expense. Kellerman's name was back in the spotlight in 1952 when MGM made her life story into a movie, "Million Dollar Mermaid," starring Esther Williams. Kellerman ran a health food store for awhile, but she and husband Jimmie basically enjoyed retired life on Australia's beautiful Gold Coast until 1970 when Jimmie passed away. She did receive some television exposure about her career in the next few years - not forgotten by her country - and lived with her sister until she passed away in 1975 at 89 years of age.

Selected films of this star available for viewing:

Venus of the South Seas (1924)

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