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This Week's Give!Guide Heroine

Meet Annette Kellerman (1888–1975),

Early Aquatic "Wonder Woman"


Annette Kellerman attained many firsts at the turn of the last century. During the week starting Thursday, December 8, the League of Women Voters of Napa County is featuring this “CanDo” woman’s aquatic adventures and other accomplishments as part of its Give!Guide campaign. (Shown here c.1910, age 23.) Swimming and Diving Career. Australian Annette Kellerman (aka Kellermann) first achieved international fame as a professional swimmer. This feat was particularly remarkable because by age six she wore steel braces due to weakness in both legs. Her parents enrolled her in swimming classes and by age 15 Annette won her first 100-yard swim race! She did not stop there. While attending the equivalent of high school, she gave swimming and diving exhibitions, played a mermaid at an entertainment center, swam with fish in a public aquarium, and performed sensational high dives during a theater spectacular that featured water nymphs. Her aquatic exploits extended abroad. At age 20, she was among the swimmers who performed the first synchronized water ballet in a glass tank at the New York Hippodrome. The following year she appeared as the star of a Broadway “aquacade,” accompanied by a musical featuring Al Jolson. Line of Swimwear. These aquatic escapades required a more flexible bathing costume than the traditional woolen dress and pantaloons. To address this problem, she designed a one-piece, close-fitting outfit to complement “hydrodynamic” movement. Women noticed, resulting in a line of women’s swimwear, the “Annette Kellermans” (see photo above). The resulting outcry and controversy popularized her suits. As they got skimpier, they became the genesis of modern women’s swimwear. Film Career. From 1901 to 1924 (ages 22–37), Annette starred in 11 films, most of which highlighted her swimming, diving, and synchronized swimming skills. She performed her own stunts, including diving into a pool of crocodiles! She was the first movie star to appear as a mermaid; the costumes she designed are still mimicked today. In A Daughter of the Gods (1916), she was the first star to appear nude in a Hollywood film. (The photo to the right is from that film.) Nine documentaries, some of them shorts, were made by Annette Kellerman about herself. Capitalizing on her former career, she wrote a series of children’s books in 1926 called Fairy Tales of the South Seas, perhaps capitalizing on her last film, Venus of the South Seas (1924). Two other films were made about her: Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), starring Esther Williams, and The Original Mermaid (2002), an Australian documentary about her life. (Shown is a poster for her last film, Venus of the South Seas.) Personal Life. Annette remained a lifelong advocate of swimming, exercise, and natural beauty. She published a book called How to Swim (1918), followed by Physical Beauty: How to Keep It (1919). As a vegetarian, she once owned a health-food store in Long Beach. Annette married her American-born manager, James Sullivan, in 1912. They moved to Australia in 1970, where she died five years later at age 88. Her huge collection of costumes, memorabilia, and papers are housed in Australia. Olivia Brion’s “Taquine” White Blend (2021). In old French, “taquine” means someone who is mischievous, flirtatious, vexing, and a tease. This white blend is aptly named in honor of Annette Kellerman, an exceptional, “herstorical” aquatic artist and entrepreneur. Thanks to Olivia Brion Wines, the League’s Give!Guide sponsor, Taquine is one of a special four-bottle package that donors have a chance to receive by contributing to the League of Women Voters through the Give!Guide. To make your gift online, click here to go to the Give!Guide website and follow the directions. To send a check to the Give!Guide, please click here to download the form.

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