Related Biography: Swimmer Annette Kellerman
If Esther Williams was the mother of synchronized swimming, Annette Kellerman was its grandmother. Williams was aware of this, and she had great respect for Kellerman, even titling her autobiography Million Dollar Mermaid after the movie she made about Kellerman's life.
Kellerman's career paralleled Williams's in many ways. Like Williams, Kellerman began as a swimmer, became a star of live water shows, and later became an actress.
Annette Marie Sarah Kellerman was born July 6, 1887 (some sources say 1888), in Sydney, Australia. As a child, she suffered from polio, which left her with weak, bowed legs, and she took up swimming to try to strengthen them. She was soon walking without leg braces, and by age ten she was a champion swimmer.
Kellerman excelled in distance swimming. After her family moved to England when she was fourteen, she swam the twenty-six mile length of the Thames River, from Putney to Blackwall, amid much media fanfare. It was unprecedented for anyone, let alone a teenage girl, to complete such a feat. Kellerman received many lucrative sponsorships for her long-distance swims, including her two failed attempts to become the first woman to swim the English Channel. Later, Kellerman parlayed this fame into a career in vaudeville, and she also made appearances at the London Hippodrome.
In 1907, Kellerman came to the United States, where she toured the country with a swimming and high-diving show. That summer, while performing in Boston, Kellerman achieved international notoriety by being arrested for indecent exposure. Her crime? She appeared on the city's Revere Beach wearing a unitard swimsuit which left her neck, all of her arms and much of her legs exposed. At that time, proper women "swam" as best they could in full, loose skirts and long-sleeve blouses.
Kellerman appeared in several silent films, starting in 1909 with three films in one year: The Bride of Lammermoor, Jepthah's Daughter: A Biblical Tragedy, and The Gift of Youth. She caused another moral scandal with the skinny-dipping scenes in her next film, Neptune's Daughter (1914), but she went on to star in several more movies, including Daughter of the Gods (1916), Queen of the Sea (1918) The Art of Diving and What Women Love, both 1920, and her final film, Venus of the South Seas, in 1924. After she married and retired from film, Kellerman opened a health food store in the Pacific Palisades.
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