Annette Kellerman 1886-1975

Annette Kellerman

Annette Kellerman

The world’s greatest aquatic performer, Annette Marie Sarah Kellerman, was born on 6 July 1886 at Marrickville, Sydney.

In 1902 Kellerman began breaking swimming records.

She also performed a mermaid act at Princes Court, the pleasure gardens on the site of today’s Victorian Arts Centre.

Neptune’s Daughter

Hollywood swimming star Esther Williams, who portrayed Annette Kellerman in the 1952 film
Million Dollar Mermaid, recalls meeting her on the MGM lot: ‘Although she was 65 there wasn’t a wrinkle on her face. She looked around the set and nodded her approval. “This is very accurate,” she said. “This is what backstage at the Hippodrome was like.” The two of us posed for a picture and then I asked, “How do you feel about me playing your life?” There was an awkward silence. “Do you have a problem with that question?” I asked. “It’s not that,” she finally answered in a pronounced Down Under accent. “It’s just that I wish you were Australian.” “I’m the only swimmer in the movies, Miss Kellerman. I’m all you’ve got.” “I know, I know,” she said. I wasn’t sure she ever approved. She stayed and watched the shooting a bit, and then left. I thought maybe she’d come to the premiere, but I never saw her again.’

The world’s greatest aquatic performer, Annette Marie Sarah Kellerman, was born on 6 July 1886 at Marrickville, Sydney. Her father, Frederick, was a violinist, and her mother, the former Alice Charbonnet, was a pianist and music teacher. The little girl’s legs were so weakened from rickets that she had to wear painful steel braces. By the time she was 13, regular swimming had corrected most of her problems, and two years later she won her first race.

In 1902 Kellerman began breaking swimming records. The family moved to Melbourne where she participated in school theatricals and gave exhibitions of swimming and diving at various Melbourne baths. She also performed a mermaid act at Princes Court, the pleasure gardens on the site of today’s Victorian Arts Centre, and swam with the fish in a glass tank at the Aquarium in the Exhibition Buildings. In June 1903 she appeared in the beach scene of Bland Holt’s melodrama The Breaking of the Drought at the Theatre Royal.

In 1905, after a highly publicised ten-mile swim in the Yarra, Kellerman went to England with her father. Her daring long distance swims continually made headlines, but a successful Channel crossing eluded her. ‘I had the endurance,’ she said, ‘but not the brute strength.’ She swam the Thames, the Seine, the Rhine and the Danube. For an appearance before members of the royal family at London’s Bath Club, she was forbidden to show any bare leg. Her solution was to buy a long pair of black stockings and sew them onto a boy’s short racing costume – thus introducing the women’s one-piece bathing suit.

Media Gallery

Photograph courtesy State Library of Victoria. PCVPCA112

Biographical references

De Witt Bodeen and Larry L. Holland: ‘Neptune’s Daughters’, in Films in Review, February 1979
Victoria Chance: ‘Annette Kellermann’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Anthony Slide: The Vaudevillians, Arlington House, 1981
G.P. Walsh: ‘Annette Kellermann’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 9
Esther Williams: The Million Dollar Mermaid, Simon and Schuster, 1999