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Kellermann, Annette Marie Sarah (1886–1975)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Annette Marie Sarah Kellermann (1886-1975), by unknown photographer, 1902-12

Annette Marie Sarah Kellermann (1886-1975), by unknown photographer, 1902-12

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H88.18/135

Annette Marie Sarah Kellermann (1886-1975), swimmer, aquatic performer and film actress, was born on 6 July 1886 at Marrickville, Sydney, daughter of Australian-born Frederick William Kellermann, violinist, and his French wife Alice Ellen, née Charbonnet, pianist and music teacher. A weakness in Annette's legs necessitated the wearing of painful steel braces and at 6, to strengthen her legs, she learned to swim at Cavill's baths in Sydney. By 13 her legs were practically normal and by 15 she mastered all the swimming strokes, using F. Lane and Percy Cavill as her models for the trudgen and single overarm strokes, and won her first race. She also gave diving displays.

In 1902 Annette took up swimming in earnest and won the ladies' 100 yards and mile championships of New South Wales in the record times of 1 minute, 22 seconds and 33 minutes, 49 seconds. The family moved to Melbourne and while a pupil at Simpsons' School, Mentone, where her mother was music teacher, she was active in theatricals. As a schoolgirl she gave exhibitions of swimming and diving at the main Melbourne baths, performed a mermaid act at Princes Court entertainment centre and did two shows a day swimming with fish in a glass tank at the Exhibition Aquarium. In June-July 1903 she performed in the Coogee scene of Bland Holt's spectacular, The Breaking of the Drought, at the Theatre Royal.

In 1905 after a long-distance swim in the Yarra and exhibitions throughout Australia she and her father went to England where Annette, holder of all the world 'records' for ladies' swimming, began giving demonstrations. On 30 June she swam the Thames from Putney bridge to Blackwall pier (over thirteen miles (21 km)) in 3 hours, 54 minutes. The Daily Mirror sponsored her in an attempt to swim the English Channel and she made her first unsuccessful attempt on 24 August. In France, on 10 September Annette, the only woman competitor, was placed third in a seven-mile race down the Seine.

In June 1906 she beat Baroness Isa Cescu in a twenty-two mile (36 km) challenge race down the Danube and on 7 August made a second unsuccessful attempt on the Channel. On her third attempt she swam three-quarters of the distance and stayed in the water ten and a half hours. 'I had the endurance', she said, 'but not the brute strength'. Her one-piece swim suit made by stitching black stockings into a boy's costume and her epic and often risky swims made her a sensation and attracted attention in the United States of America.

After a few more races Kellermann retired from long-distance swimming and concentrated on the stage. Following a winter season at the London Hippodrome she went to U.S.A. in 1906 where she performed her vaudeville aquatic act at Chicago and Boston and then in New York where she earned $1250 a week. In 1907 she was arrested on a Boston beach for wearing a brief one-piece swimsuit: the publicity helped to relax laws relating to women's swimwear. She married her American-born manager, James Raymond Louis Sullivan, probably on 26 November 1912 at Danbury, Connecticut.

In a long career as a vaudeville headliner Annette Kellermann, the 'Australian Mermaid' and 'Diving Venus', played in the leading theatres in Europe, U.S.A. and Australia with a routine which, apart from aquatic feats, included ballet-dancing in front of mirrors, wire-walking, acrobatics, singing and male impersonations. In May 1912 she appeared in London in Undine, an 'idyll of forest and stream' and, returning to America, made films including the very successful Neptune's Daughter (1914), A Daughter of the Gods (1916), The Honor System (1916), Queen of the Sea (1918) and The Art of Diving (1920). She did her own stunts including diving from ninety-two feet (28 m) into the sea and sixty feet (18 m) into a pool inhabited by crocodiles! In New Zealand in 1924 she made Venus of the South Seas.

Judged the 'perfect woman' (though, as she quipped, only 'from the neck down') from 10,000 contestants in U.S.A., Kellermann was a strong advocate of swimming for physical health, fitness and beauty and in 1918 published Physical Beauty, and how to Keep It and the partly autobiographical How to Swim. She travelled widely, especially in America and Germany, lecturing on health and fitness. She visited Australia several times and during World War II lived in Queensland where she assisted Sister Elizabeth Kenny, worked for the Australian Red Cross Society and entertained troops. A teetotaller and lifelong vegetarian, she ran a health food store for some years at Long Beach, California. Golf, tennis and horse-riding were other interests and she published a book of children's stories Fairy Tales of the South Seas (London, 1926), illustrated by her sister Marcelle Wooster. A film of her life, Million Dollar Mermaid, starring Esther Williams, appeared in 1952.

In 1970 Annette and her husband returned to live in Australia. In 1974 she was honoured by the International Swimming Hall of Fame at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S.A. Predeceased by her husband, she died in hospital at Southport, Queensland, on 6 November 1975 and was cremated with Roman Catholic rites. She had no children.

Breezy, unaffected and full of vibrant energy (she could still do a high kick well into old age) Annette Kellermann did much to make women's swimming popular and socially acceptable; she regarded her part in emancipating women from the neck-to-knee costume as her greatest achievement. Her large collection of costumes and theatrical memorabilia was bequeathed to the Sydney Opera House.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Taylor, Schooldays with the Simpsons 1899-1906 (Tirau, NZ, 1964?)
  • People (Sydney), 23 May 1951
  • Times (London), 20 June, 27 July, 25 Aug, 11, 27 Sept 1905, 8 Aug 1906, 7 Nov 1975
  • Daily Mirror (London), 3, 20, 31 July, 1, 4, 12 Aug, 12 Sept 1905
  • Sportsman (London), 12, 20 June 1905
  • Sun (Sydney), 14 Jan 1913
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 9 Sept 1962
  • Age (Melbourne), Australian, 7 Nov 1975
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 7 Nov 1975.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Kellermann, Annette Marie Sarah (1886–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kellermann-annette-marie-sarah-6911/text11989, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 28 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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