Annette Kellerman 1886-1975

Annette Kellerman

Annette Kellerman

She opened a health food store in San Diego, California, and for much of the 1930s toured the United States, lecturing to ‘modern’ women on health matters.

Kellerman spent her last years living with her sister in relatively poor circumstances.

Annette Kellerman died on 6 November 1975. She was 89.

Kellerman and her company went on to New Zealand, where she shot her last feature film,
Venus of the South Seas
, which her husband directed. Kellerman played the beautiful Shona Royale, marooned with her pearl diving father on an exotic island in the south Pacific. Her children’s book Fairy Tales of the South Seas was published in 1925. That year she played the New York Hippodrome again and went on to appear in revue in Los Angeles, at the Coliseum in London, and on the continent.

Always acutely heath conscious, Kellerman had written two books on swimming and one called Physical Beauty: How to Keep It in 1918. She opened a health food store in San Diego, California, and for much of the 1930s toured the United States, lecturing to ‘modern’ women on health matters. She and her husband spent some time in Australia, exploring the Great Barrier Reef. They returned in 1939, living in seclusion on Newry Island. When war broke out Kellerman set up the Red Cross Theatrical Unit in Sydney. She wrote, directed and appeared in its shows, which were performed for Australian and American servicemen up and down the east coat, and in New Guinea. Her efforts were recognised in ‘The Annette Kellerman Wing’ in Sydney’s new King George Hospital.

When she returned to the United States, Kellerman was engaged as technical advisor on Million Dollar Mermaid, the 1952 film of her life that M-G-M had conceived as a showcase for their highest paid star, Esther Williams. Not unexpectedly, the screenplay had little to do with Kellerman’s real life, but it thrust her back in front of a public that had largely forgotten her. She opened more health food shops but decided to return permanently to Australia in 1956. Prime Minister Menzies introduced her to the crowds at the Melbourne Olympics, and she joined Dawn Fraser in the training pool. Kellerman settled into a quiet retirement on the Gold Coast, where she swam in the Chevron pool every day. After her husband’s death in 1972, Kellerman spent her last years living with her sister in relatively poor circumstances. In 1974 she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Annette Kellerman died on 6 November the following year. She was 89. She had no children. Her brother, Maurice, was a Hollywood cinematographer.

Sadly, of Kellerman’s five feature films, only Venus of the South Seas has survived complete. In 2003 Michael Cordell wove tantalising fragments of her screen legacy into a TV documentary, The Original Mermaid. This in turn inspired the publication of a short biography. A large collection of Kellerman’s stage costumes and accessories is preserved in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.

Frank Van Straten, 2007

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