Who was Annette Kellerman?

Annette Kellerman (1886 - 1975)

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Annette Marie Sarah Kellermann was born on 6 July 1886 at Marrickville. 

According to her birth certificate Kellerman was born on 5 July at 110 Victoria Street Sydney. Annette was the daughter of Frederick Kellerman, a violinist, and his French wife Alice Ellen nee Charbonett, pianist and music teacher.

From 1889 to 1892 the family lived in Silver Street Marrickville where Madame Charbonett Kellerman taught music.

Responding to the challenge

Kellerman was crippled with rickets at the age of two. She had to wear heavy leg braces until the age of seven. To strengthen her legs Annette took up swimming in Cavill's Baths at Lavender Bay. Her legs responded and were to become one of her greatest physical assets. At the age of 16 years Annette was the women's 100 metres world record holder.

In her mid teens the family moved to Melbourne. Kellerman gave exhibitions of swimming and diving at the main Melbourne baths, a mermaid act at an entertainment centre and did two shows a day swimming with fish in a glass a tank at the Exhibition Aquarium. Kellerman's career contained marathon swimming races coupled with her flair for vaudeville.

In 1902 Annette and her father went to England. Annette was the holder of all the world's records for ladies swimming and began giving demonstrations. She startled London by swimming 42 kilometres down the Thames in five hours. She went to France and on 10 September 1902 raced against 17 men down the Seine, finishing third. Annette was the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel. She tried 3 times but was unsuccessful, saying that she "...had the endurance but not the brute strength."

Kellerman was a sensation. In an era of restrictive corsets and long heavy dresses Annette paraded around in a one piece swim suit made by stitching black stockings into a boy's costume. Her legs above the knee could be clearly seen. Annette was arrested on a Boston beach for wearing her one piece costume. She was charged with public indecency. There was wide spread public support for her. Newspapers took up her cause. It sounded the death knell for Victorian attitudes towards women's swimwear.

Hollywood and the Australian Mermaid

After retiring from long distance swimming Kellerman toured theatres across Europe and the United States starring in a spectacular aquatic act as the Australian Mermaid and Diving Venus. Annette pioneered water ballet, now called synchronised swimming.
A Harvard academic released a study examining 1,000 different women's physiques. He declared Annette Kellerman the closest of any living women to physical perfection. From then on Annette marketed herself as The Perfect Woman.

It was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling. Kellerman's first film was Neptune's Daughter(1914) followed by Venus of the South Seas (1914), Daughter of the Gods (1916) and The Art of Diving(1920). Annette did her own stunts including diving 18 metres into a pool inhabited by crocodiles. Kellerman's own amazing life story would be filmed as Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), starring the competitive swimmer turned actress Esther Williams. Annette met the star during filming and lamented that an American was to play an Australian. Williams recounted how she told her, "I'm the only swimmer in the movies, Miss Kellerman." Annette simply replied, "I know." Williams was never sure if Annette approved of her casting.

Annette was a strong advocate of swimming for physical health, fitness and beauty. In 1918 she wrote a best seller titled Physical Beauty and How to Keep It. She travelled widely especially in America and Germany lecturing on health and fitness. Annette also ran a health food store for many years at Long Beach California. She was a teetotaller and a lifelong vegetarian.

Later life and death

During World War Two Annette lived in Queensland where she assisted Sister Elizabeth Kenny, known for her pioneering work with polio victims, entertained troops and worked for the Australian Red Cross.

Annette married a former manager, James Sullivan. In 1970 the couple returned to Australia to live permanently. They lived on the Gold Coast at Southport Queensland. Her husband predeceased her. They had no children

Annette continued to swim daily and, in true vaudeville style, could still do a high kick. In 1974 Annette was honoured by the International Swimming Hall of Fame at Fort Lauderdale Florida USA. Annette Kellerman's extraordinary life ended in 1974 at Southport. She was 89 years old.

Her legacy

Annette Kellerman was a larger than life figure, who made women's swimming popular and socially acceptable. Annette regarded her emancipation of women from the restrictive neck to knee costume as one of her greatest achievements. Kellerman bequeathed her collection of costumes and theatrical memorabilia to the Sydney Opera House.

Marrickville Council honoured their Marrickville Mermaid by naming the aquatic centre in Enmore Park after her. In March 1999 a play Dive Divas by Mary Haire was performed at the Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre. Dive Divas explored the lives of Annette Kellerman and another local swimstar Fanny Durack. Sydney actor Helen Scott played Annette Kellerman and Kris McQuade played Fanny Durack.

Annette Kellerman and Fanny Durack were Australia's first female super swimmers and both changed women's swimming and swim suits forever.

Prepared by Chrys Meader, Marrickville Historian

About the Facility

The Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre (AKAC) originally known as Enmore Park Swimming Pool was reopened as the AKAC on the 11th December 2010. We later opened the doors to our new Wellness Centre (gym) on the 26th Janurary 2011. The swimming centre was renamed the Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre in 1994 to honor the Marrickville born swimmer, aquatic performer and film actress, Annette Kellerman.

Cadigal Aboriginal Community

The Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre and Marrickville Council acknowledges the prior ownership of this area by the Cadigal and Wangal people who were dispossessed by European invasion more than two hundred years ago.

We celebrate the survival of Aboriginal people and their culture following the devastating impact of European invasion and support their right to determine their own future.

We recognise the right of Aboriginal people to live according to their values and culture. We accept our responsibility to develop an awareness and appreciation of Aboriginal history and society in our community and to preserve the environment and significant and sacred sites.

In doing so we acknowledge that Aboriginal culture continues to strengthen and enrich our community.

The Marrickville area is now occupied by people drawn from many area and the Marrickville Council has commissioned CyberDreaming along with many significant Aboriginal people to contribute to this broad set of commitments and encourage Aboriginal and non-aboriginal people to work to overcome their differences and continue to go forward together.

Today, Aboriginal communities in the Sydney City region are part of a thriving metropolitan area, forming an important part of Sydney's cultural and spiritual mosaic.

Cadigal country is a very different place to what it has ever been, and Cadigal people now share their land with Kooris from all over New South Wales and Australia who have made Sydney their home.

Australia is now recognised as one of the most multicultural nations in the world, and the Sydney City region has become home to a highly diverse community. Cadigal people share the streets with people from all over the world, old and new Australians alike.

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