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Race and the Modern Exotic: Three ‘Australian’ Women on Global Display

Chapter 1

Annette Kellerman

Mermaids and South Sea Islanders

Annette Kellerman was a swimmer, diver, vaudeville performer, lecturer, writer and a silent-film star.1 The central motif of Kellerman’s performances was a blend of the mermaid, the water nymph and the South Sea Islander, a modernist pastiche of the primitive and the exotic. Kellerman’s significance now includes the ways she reflects both the modernity of the early twentieth century and contemporary understanding of Australia’s geopolitical identity – its location in ‘the South Seas’. She provides us with insight into cultural conceptions that underpinned Australia’s emergence as a regional imperial power, not least Australians’ stereotyping of Pacific Islanders as unsophisticated creatures of nature available for colonial purposes. From the turn of the twentieth century until the 1920s and later, Annette Kellerman’s glamorous and much-publicised career placed Australian culture in the international spotlight, through an amalgam of the fit modern female body, her stamina and daring, and a shrewd use of the possibilities of the mass entertainment industry. Kellerman realised the potential of her swimming and diving performances as spectacle, and adapted them to the media of vaudeville and film, which complemented each other in these decades, even as film superseded vaudeville. Her career exemplified the transnationalism of vaudeville and film: an Australian performer whose success depended upon the national and international entertainment circuits, and in particular on London and New York as global capitals.

Annette Kellerman diving in a sheer swimsuit of silver scales

Source: Annette Kellerman, How to Swim (London: William Heinemann, 1918).

Kellerman’s global celebrity (extending to American and Japanese literature) fused Australianness with a feminine modernity that had a bold edge, even as it was exoticised in a quasi-racial way. Her story gives us insight into the profound ways in which cultural understanding of the modern centred on the dramatic and embodied changes in women’s behaviour – women’s physical strengthening through sport and exercise, and their gradual discarding of restrictive and voluminous clothing, as well as their sexualisation and bodily display. But it also shows how cultural modernity was at once steeped in racialised imagery and thinking. This chapter traces Kellerman’s life and career, before interpreting her contemporary significance and that of her iconic mermaids and exotic ingénues.

Annette Kellerman was born in Sydney on 6 July 1886, to parents who were both musicians: her mother Alice Charbonnet Kellerman was a pianist and ran a music school, and her father Frederick Kellerman taught harmony and played the violin. As an infant, Kellerman was crippled, probably due to rickets, a deficiency of calcium in the bones which can be caused by lack of dietary calcium or vitamin D, or lack of sunshine to produce vitamin D. Kellerman herself in later life blamed her parents: ‘when I was a girl I was a cripple from calcium deficiency. So little was known about diet that my parents didn’t think it was important to make me drink milk’.2 Braces helped to straighten her bent legs, and based on that improvement, her doctor recommended swimming to develop further strength.3 It was this recommendation that would lead to one of the most dramatic aquatic careers of the twentieth century. ‘When I was a little Tot about six years old’, she later wrote, ‘Dad took me to Cavill’s Baths, in Sydney, Australia, to learn to swim. Each day we walked with my brother and sister through the beautiful Botanical Gardens, with its wondrous view of the most famous harbour in the world, to our swimming lesson. I was awfully scared and did not learn quickly, but Mr. Percy Cavill, who was my teacher, never frightened me, so I soon lost all fear … Before I was thirteen years old I was like a fish in the water … Later, in Melbourne, I was the first girl to swim – two, five and ten miles’.4 By age fifteen, she would report, she had ‘caught the mermaid fever’.5

Her first swimming training at Cavill’s baths at Farm Cove in Sydney was indirectly connected to the Islander themes she would employ. Frederick Cavill was an English long-distance swimmer in the 1860s and 1870s who migrated to Australia in 1879, and pioneered the teaching of swimming with ‘natatoriums’ in several parts of Sydney Harbour. Frederick’s six sons all participated in competitive swimming, variously in the United States and England as well as Australia, and it was they who introduced the ‘Australian crawl’ internationally.6 Bathing in the harbour was integral to Sydney’s cultural practices both before and after the arrival of the First Fleet. By the early 1830s, a particular spot in the harbour at the Domain was a favoured public swimming place with some special amenities, while soldiers had their own bathing-house in Darling Harbour.7 Evidence shows that Anglo-Australian swimming strokes themselves were not purely imported from England but made critical advances through lessons from Indigenous swimmers. In 1854 an Aboriginal swimmer taught George Wallis the sidestroke, and the following year Wallis performed it in England. The ‘trudgeon’ stroke, which overtook the sidestroke in local popularity and was a forerunner of the butterfly, reputedly drew from ‘the swimming style of the East Indies natives’. In the 1890s the trudgeon was superseded by what became known as ‘the crawl’, which some accounts claim was introduced to Sydney by brothers Harry and Alick Wickham, who were of mixed-race parentage from the Solomon Islands and presumably learnt it there. Sydney, Arthur and Dick Cavill all played a role in developing the crawl and introducing it to the United States. Syd Cavill recalled that his observations of a woman swimmer in Samoa, on his way to America in 1898, were crucial to his version of the stroke.8

Annette Kellerman posing at the beach

Source: Papers of Annette Kellerman, MLMSS 6270, with permission of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Accounts vary as to the relative importance of the Cavill brothers and Alick Wickham in ‘inventing’ the crawl stroke, yet all concur on the participation of both parties in its rise, and on the influence of Pacific Islands swimming practices.9 It is unclear how much detail of the genesis of Australian swimming strokes Kellerman knew, though she credited the Cavills with starting the crawl.10 She herself apparently continued to favour the trudgeon in her early years of long-distance swimming; later, she preferred what she called her ‘six beat crawl’.11 But there is evidence that she knew Alick Wickham: in February 1905 she swam five miles down the Yarra River, in a successful public event officiated at by swimming authorities from around Australia, including Wickham ‘and other champion swimmers’.12 In one of her books, Kellerman compares other ‘savages’ who only regard swimming as ‘a utility’ rather than ‘a matter of recreation and pleasure’ with ‘the more highly developed sea folk of the South Pacific’.13

Perhaps even more significant to what would become her mermaid and islander performances was the pervasive turn-of-the-century Australian fascination with Islanders, and assumptions of their aquatic abilities; these assumptions were represented in the myth of the swimming ‘nimble savage’ which, according to Gary Osmond and Murray G. Phillips, led to the ‘exotic island images and stereotypes’ that appeared at swimming and surf carnivals.14 Tellingly, in Kellerman’s 1926 children’s book Fairy Tales of the South Seas, the Scandinavian-born princess who lives on one of the Tongan islands is taught to swim and dive by ‘the good native Vanu’ who ‘had been patient, never frightening her’.15 This fictional allusion echoes a biographical fragment that The Los Angeles Times reported (presumably from her) in 1919: that in her childhood Kellerman had learnt swimming and diving ‘[u]nder the tuition of a Samoan pearl diver’.16 Kellerman had a familial connection to the Pacific Islands as well. Her mother spent part of her childhood in New Caledonia, where her father (Annette’s grandfather) Amable Charbonnet served as ‘French Chief Justice of Overseas Possessions’ in a position that took him around French colonies, including Algeria and French Indochina.17 Whether or not she developed a liking for the water during her years in New Caledonia, Kellerman’s mother claimed to have swum frequently, including the day that Annette was born.18

The small musical academy run in Sydney by Alice Charbonnet Kellerman and Frederick Kellerman apparently suffered financial strains due to the economic downturn of the 1890s. In 1901 Alice Charbonnet Kellerman moved to Melbourne, to take up a teaching position at Mentone High School run by the Misses Simpson (now called Mentone Girls’ Grammar School). Annette stayed in Sydney with her father, while her younger sister Marcelle moved with her mother. In 1903 Annette and the rest of the family moved to Melbourne, where she began attending the school. Unlike her sister, who was dux of the school in 1903 and 1904, Annette apparently was uninterested in academic subjects, and even skipped examinations – becoming known as the ‘rebel’ of the school.19 Instead Annette focused on her swimming, with family support and involvement. If family interest in Annette’s swimming was first due to her health, the motivation shifted towards her competitive success, and then to her capacity to augment the family coffers. In her autobiographical account, Kellerman asserts that she had wanted to be an actress and dancer, but her father asked her to take up swimming and diving professionally to support the family – despite her mother’s objection that it was not a respectable career.20 At least one of her performances, in 1903 at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne, was billed as a family event, a ‘diving exhibition’ by ‘the famous Kellerman family’ as they had previously performed at Sydney’s Coogee Baths.21 Her father was an organiser of the first New South Wales Ladies’ State Championship Swimming Carnival, held in 1901–02 at the St. George Baths in Redfern. This was an inaugural event for women’s competitive swimming in Australia. Annette won two of the races, the one-hundred yards and the mile freestyle.22 Such successes enabled her to build a career of competitive and performative swimming and diving in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and elsewhere. In Melbourne, she performed at the Exhibition building Aquarium, giving two shows a day ‘in what was then the largest glass tank in the world – sixty feet – with fish swimming all about me’.23 She also gave diving displays at Prince’s Court, near Prince’s Bridge on the Yarra River, and in April 1905 undertook a ten-mile swim down the river, a feat only accomplished twenty years previously by a man.24

Annette Kellerman called ‘Coo-ee’ during performances in an assertion of her Australian identity

Source: Papers of Annette Kellerman, MLMSS 6270, with permission of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Kellerman’s career was helped partly by the fact that swimming was just becoming a popular competitive sport, and partly by its underrepresentation of women – though other women swimmers competed against and followed her. Australian women became internationally recognised in the sport, particularly through Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie’s medal wins at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm – the first Olympic games to include women swimmers. Women swimmers, both at the beach and in competition, faced the dilemmas posed by modesty versus practicality in their attire. Kellerman would exploit these tensions, essentially by throwing Victorian notions of feminine modesty to the winds. To some extent, Kellerman’s preparedness to appear in brief costumes may have been due to the customs of Australian women’s early competitive swimming, where women wore costumes not too dissimilar to men’s. Yet even there women were required to wear cloaks over their costumes before and after their races, for reasons of modesty; and from 1906 onwards male spectators were banned from the women’s events, due not least to prominent feminist Rose Scott who insisted on segregation.25 By then, Annette had left Australia, which was perhaps just as well because she did not shy away from male spectators.

In April 1905, with her father as her manager, she left for London, the imperial metropole.26 At her departure she was considered Australia’s ‘best lady swimmer’, who had won ‘world-wide fame’ through breaking records in Australia.27 Kellerman’s European career began with long-distance swimming. Her twenty-six mile swim down the Thames from Putney to Blackwall soon after they arrived in 1905 was a stunt her father suggested, as a way to grab publicity – and it worked. She swam for three and a half hours through what she remembered as oily water, amid tugboats and barges, but when she reached the Blackwall docks journalists, alerted ahead of time by her father, were there. Because of that swim, The Daily Mirror contracted Kellerman for eight weeks to swim five days a week from one seaside resort to another, between Dover and Margate, a total of about forty-five miles a week, as preparation for an attempt at the Channel – for eight guineas a week. Perhaps not surprisingly with that kind of training, she did well in a twenty-four mile race that summer from Dover to Ramsgate.28 From England, she made trips to the Continent where she drew attention with long-distance swims, firstly in the Seine, and later the Rhine, and a 28-mile swim down the Danube. In the race down the Seine, in which she competed against seventeen men, she came third.29 Kellerman made two attempts to swim the English Channel in July and August 1905.30 Although she failed both times, due to bad weather and seasickness, she garnered international press attention as the first woman to attempt it.31 It was not until 1926 that a woman (American Gertrude Ederle) successfully swam the channel.

The publicity from Kellerman’s long-distance swims launched her into a vaudeville career, at first based on aquatic feats and acrobatics, later incorporating ballet, acting, lecturing, singing, cross-dressing and even high-wire walking. In London, she drew on performance strategies she had developed in Australia, but she was always refining and changing her routine. She performed at the London Hippodrome in the winter season of 1905–1906, as well as being invited to do special events, such as her performance at the elite Bath Club before the Duke and Duchess of Connaught. It was for this performance, under strictures from the club not to reveal her legs, that she sewed black stockings onto a boy’s swimsuit, and first produced what would become her famous one-piece bathing suit. In 2006 the centenary of the one-piece swimsuit was celebrated, based on the story of Kellerman’s first having worn it in a performance for King Edward VII in 1906; in fact the king himself was not at the Bath Club, though she was presented to Queen Alexandria at the Hippodrome.32 Although Kellerman would enjoy huge success in films and would augment her performative career with lecturing, teaching and publishing books, the staple of her career from around 1905 to the 1930s was vaudeville – that vast, democratic circus tent that dominated live theatre in cities and towns from the 1890s. Indeed, in 1910, one American commentator reportedly dubbed her ‘The Queen of Modern Vaudeville’.33 At the end of her life Kellerman herself told a script-writer that ‘I always hoped from early years to become a first class Vaudeville entertainer and for upward of 40 yrs [sic] I held my place in Vaudeville as top liner [sic] in all the big cities of the world’.34 Her success was partly historically contingent: her career took off when vaudeville was at its height, and may have been helped by vaudeville’s relative accessibility to women, both performers and audience.35

Annette Kellerman performing in an on-stage tank

Source: Papers of Annette Kellerman, MLMSS 6270, with permission of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

In 1906 she sailed from England to the United States to work in amusement parks, first in Chicago at White City Park where she performed multiple swimming and diving shows each day on one of the lots. She later recalled that Buffalo Bill had performed nearby on another lot.36 From Chicago, she moved on to Wonderland amusement park in Boston at Revere Beach. During these early days while she was single and not yet a celebrity, she remembered, she spent ‘many happy hours with friends – in “Back stage life”’.37 Indeed, in 1909 she was named in a divorce suit. While working at Wonderland, she boarded with another worker there and his mother. Two years later, his wife, suing for divorce, explained that when Kellerman boarded with Herbert Pattee and his mother, she and Pattee ‘would sit for hours in the kitchen, drinking beer and eating crackers and cheese’. Pattee later asked his wife to allow Kellerman to live with her. It is unclear whether Mrs Pattee was alleging sexual involvement.38 In 1907, records suggest, she performed in both Boston and Chicago: the Chicago Daily Tribune shows her at White City Park in the summer, from June to October.39 In May 1907 White City’s advertisement in the Tribune listed ‘Annette Kellerman (The Water Nymph)’ along with its other acts, including the ‘Educated Flea Circus’ and ‘Mundy’s Trained Wild Animal Arena’.40 In July the paper advised its readers that: ‘None should fail to see Miss Kellerman, as she is not only an expert swimmer but a beautiful woman, who is at her best in her bathing suit’.41 In Boston Kellerman was approached by B.F. Keith, an impresario who ran a vaudeville circuit, and moved from amusement parks to vaudeville theatres: he offered her three hundred dollars a week for two shows a day.42

In 1907 she made headlines when she was arrested on Revere Beach itself (not the amusement park) for a swimming costume considered improper, again demonstrating her facility for gaining publicity to promote her career. Kellerman’s version of events is that she planned to go for a three-mile swim, and walked down Revere Beach towards the water in her usual one-piece boy’s racing suit. Others on the beach gathered around her with mixed reactions, and a policeman soon arrested her for indecent exposure. The following day Kellerman explained to the judge the impossibility of long-distance swimming in the cumbersome customary women’s swimwear. The judge was sympathetic, but ruled that she must wear a beach robe over her swimsuit until she reached the water and entered it (not unlike the swimming carnivals in Australia). The story was covered in the press around the United States. Kellerman then designed what would become known in America and later in Britain as the ‘Annette Kellerman suit’: she wore a tight-fitting knitted stockingette tunic over the top of the boy’s racing suit; according to Kellerman, other women immediately wanted the same thing.43

Mark Herlihy, in his study of the cultural contests staged over time at Boston’s well-known Revere Beach, suggests that the incident occurred partly because Kellerman was already famous. Moreover, Revere Beach was historically a site of official attempts to regulate popular morality and behaviour.44 It is unclear whether Kellerman knew this when she was arrested there. Kellerman made the most of the swimsuit’s sensational and erotic dimensions. Certainly her Boston arrest and the trial that followed attracted national and international publicity that helped to make her a household name. In her own defence, she repeatedly stated in public that it was a purely practical matter of wearing a bathing costume that enabled long-distance swimming; and she viewed Boston morality regarding women’s beachwear as more conservative than in England. Over the years of Kellerman’s career, women’s bathing suits became more streamlined and revealing, a change to which she contributed though there were many other social and cultural factors. Kellerman became a byword for feminine daring and immodesty, in dress and behaviour. For example, in 1915 the Ohio State Journal expressed its relieved conviction that Ohio young women were exhibiting a return to relative conservatism in dress, and that they ‘aren’t going to go on an Annette Kellermann basis for a while yet’.45

Kellerman’s argument to the judge about the practicality of swimsuits for long-distance swimming was grounded in her career plans; in both Chicago and Boston in these years she staged several such public feats. In Chicago, she ‘created a new record from the government pier in Lake Michigan to Hyde Park crib, a distance of six miles’, as well as doing a 72-foot dive from the topmast of a steamship. In Boston harbour she swam twelve miles ‘from Charlestown bridge to Boston light’, breaking ‘all records for this course by a good half hour’.46

By November 1908, her fame in America was such that The Boston Post published a poem comparing her to the turn-of-the-century American icon of New Womanhood, the ‘Gibson Girl’:

No more the Gibson bathing girl

Shall grace the Newport summer whirl.

Annette declares her garment’s wrong,

At both ends too extremely long.

The Gibson girl may be a peach,

As she perambulates the beach,

But now if in the ‘swim’ she’d be

She must with sweet Annette agree.

Her heavy skirt she must replace

With filmy raiment for the race.

Think you she will consent to dress

In such approach to nothingness?47

By 1911, the term ‘Annette Kellermann suit’ had entered American speech as the name for a style of swimsuit, a relatively form-fitting but kneelength one-piece tunic top worn with tights or shorter leggings.48 In the 1920s, they were still called ‘Kellermann suits’ though they had become considerably more abbreviated, due to the iconoclastic ways of the flapper. In 1930, in a crackdown on the moral behaviour of bathers of both sexes, Coney Island barred ‘bathing suits of the Annette Kellermann type’, meaning those without skirts.49 A 1934 piece on the history of women’s sports attire saw Kellerman’s role as pivotal in changing swimsuit fashions. Mildred Adams put it succinctly: ‘When, in 1907 [sic], Annette Kellermann came over from Australia and played mermaid in the vaudeville houses from New York to San Francisco they found her free and careless grace exciting, though slightly shocking, and some of them went so far as to adopt her swimming suit … [though] most of her devotees put skirts over the “cheap, ordinary stockinette [sic] suit” until a good deal later’.50

Annette Kellerman used the fame she garnered from her swimming feats and swimsuit scandals to promote her vaudeville career of aquatic spectacle. Her recorded achievements as a swimmer and diver enabled marketing herself as a ‘mermaid’, which had the right kind of fanciful appeal for vaudeville. While others had preceded Kellerman in combining physical culture and vaudeville in a successful international career, such as the German-born strongman Eugen Sandow,51 she was one of the first women to attain such celebrity. Surviving film footage helps explain Kellerman’s success: her inventive underwater ballet, the visual appeal of her trim and fit body in minuscule costumes, her extraordinary ability to stay underwater for minutes at a time, her athleticism and daring as a swimmer and diver were a powerful combination.52

From January 1909, advertisements began appearing in the New York daily press for Kellerman’s vaudeville performances there, beginning in early January in the Keith and Proctor house on 125th Street near Lexington Avenue. The first such advertisement billed Kellerman as a ‘Peerless Performer with Form Divine’, a ‘Champion Woman Swimmer, in Daring Dives Into a Huge Tank’.53 By late January, she was engaged at the Colonial Theatre, where she was billed as ‘The Diving Venus’, an epithet she used throughout her career.54 It was a demanding and indubitably exhausting line of work; she later commented that many stars of her day had had a ‘[h]ard vaudeville background’.55 At first her contracts were short term – just for two or three weeks. By late February, she had moved on to the Alhambra, and by late March, the American Music Hall on West 42nd Street.56

Her popularity was quickly apparent, however, evidenced by competing contractual claims on her, and the fact that by March 28th she was getting headline billing, even if in a small display advertisement.57 The American Music Hall began to describe her as its ‘star attraction’ ‘the Australian mermaid’, with a ‘lagoon stage setting’ specially built for her.58 By late April, she was back at Keith and Proctor’s, this time heading the bill at their Fifth Avenue Theatre, and it was reported in the press in May that they were paying her $1,500 a week.59 The press also reported some of the drama surrounding the legal proceedings resulting from the conflicting contracts she had signed with different managers, such as the ‘exciting automobile chase down Broadway’ on May 3rd when Kellerman sought to elude a clerk from the US Circuit Court trying to deliver an injunction on her.60 It is unclear whether Kellerman and her manager James Sullivan (whom she would marry in 1912) were being avaricious or careless in signing conflicting contracts. It seems that her reputation was slightly sullied through this episode, with a judge proclaiming that neither she nor Sullivan ‘has the slightest regard for business honor’, but it did not hurt her popularity.61

Kellerman was a hit with the sizeable New York vaudeville audiences, a fact that was demonstrated in April 1909 when she was voted ‘Queen of the Automobile Carnival’. This event, to be held on May Day, was designed as a celebration and promotion of cars, and the King and Queen of the Automobile Carnival were elected by popular vote. The election drew a large crowd of ‘motor enthusiasts’ to carnival headquarters on Broadway on the day of the final vote but, unlike the more closely contested race for the King, Kellerman was so much the front-runner for Queen – with more than 50,000 votes – that her victory was assured.62 On the eve of the parade day, she and the King were given box seats at the Majestic Theatre for the special carnival performance of the Imperial Opera Company.63 The parade itself, delayed a couple of days by the spring weather, included 310 cars, and was watched by around 200,000 people despite being held on a Monday afternoon.

Kellerman rode in a Buick that was built into ‘an enormous float, surmounted by the dolphin and a large sea shell, with a playing fountain in the foreground’.64 Her ‘gown of shimmering green silk’ and being seated on her sea-shell throne reflect the extent to which Kellerman’s image as the mermaid and the diving Venus seems to have shaped her presentation even for the Automobile Carnival.65 Buick presented Kellerman with ‘a beautiful Cream coloured’ car, because of which she learned to drive, and to match which she bought herself a white fur coat.66 Apparently, she took this car with her on her tours: in August 1910 in Long Beach, California, she was reported as driving ‘her own car, a dumpy, tan-colored little Buick’ to and from her hotel.67 Whether or not because of its modern symbolism and speed, at this point in her life Kellerman exhibited an affinity for the car. Beside her being Queen of the Automobile Carnival, and being witnessed in a car chase down Broadway to avoid the law once, in July 1909 Sullivan was arrested for speeding down Flatbush Avenue, while Kellerman, his passenger, pleaded that she was late for work.68 That her physical prowess was considered akin to modern technology is also suggested by her being likened to the ‘20th Century Limited’, the fast train that ran between New York and Chicago, and the fact that her 1925 flight from Cleveland to New York in a ‘Martin bomber’ was reported in the press.69

In the summer of 1909, Hammerstein’s Roof Garden was completely renovated: instead of its previous farm theme, it was transformed into a recreation of ‘the bathing beach at Atlantic City’ and the ‘lake which in former years has been filled with ducks and other water fowl [was] made larger and deeper to represent the Atlantic Ocean’. A wave generator was installed to provide the illusion of surf, and Annette Kellerman was billed as a special attraction each evening.70 By early 1910 Gertrude Hoffmann, another vaudeville performer who had a successful routine of imitating well-known performers, included an imitation of Kellerman in her act, with the assistance of ‘a dozen beautiful girls’. Kellerman herself increasingly relied on a troupe of other women performers to augment her own act; she came to call them ‘the Kellerman Girls’.71 Hoffmann’s ‘attempt at appearing as Miss Kellermann is made a rough and laughable burlesque, in which some remarkable diving is done with the aid of not at all invisible wires. This particular part of the act ends with a riot of merriment by the girls, who, in black tights, dive from a springboard and slide down an inclined plane into a pool of water.’72 It is unclear whether Maud and Gladys Finney who performed underwater as diving ‘Mermaids’ in a Keith’s Theatre program in Columbus, Ohio, in February 1910 were members of Kellerman’s troupe, inspired by her, or perhaps competitors – but a program for their tour carried an advertisement for Kellerman’s correspondence course on women’s health.73 Kellerman later complained that around this time she was ‘being copied all over the country’.74

Annette Kellerman, ‘The Perfect Woman’

Source: NLA.PIC-AN22948275, David Elliott Postcard Collection, with permission of the National Library of Australia.

In 1910 Kellerman herself toured the United States, performing in places from Chicago to the west coast.75

An event in 1910 helped to promote her career, in a way that she would slightly exaggerate for the rest of her life. Dr. Dudley Allen Sargent, the Director of the Harvard University Gymnasium, undertook a study of the figure of the ‘modern woman’. He studied the ‘physical proportions’ of ten thousand women students, in order to address what was perhaps a contemporary anxiety, the question whether women were becoming more masculine. He allayed this concern, concluding that while women’s proportions had indeed changed over a period of twenty years or so (presumably as a result of their increased physical exercise), it was a change for the better. Having seen Kellerman perform, he invited her to Harvard in order to measure her in detail, and also to display her to women students as a model of the benefits of exercise.76 ‘The American woman of to-day is becoming more like the Greek ideal of the beautiful’, he declared. ‘She substitutes harmonious curves and symmetry for exaggeration of the distinctly feminine characteristics’. The New York Times reported that, while Dr. Sargent had not found any one man or woman to have what he claimed to have calculated as the perfect proportions and figure, Annette Kellerman was ‘nearest to a perfectly proportioned woman’. The paper printed details of his measurements of Kellerman including, for example, her weight of 137 pounds, her standing height of 64.5 inches, and the ‘girth’ measurements of everything from her head and neck, to her chest, ribs, waist, and even her thighs, knees, calves, ankles and instep.77

For Kellerman, this was invaluable advertising material. Her self-promotions for decades to follow would include references to her having been ‘scientifically’ shown to be ‘the perfect woman’. Moreover, the publicity sparked by the Harvard study spurred competitors. In one instance, in 1913, Mrs G. E. Magee, a ‘professor of physical culture’ at the University of California, Berkeley, proclaimed that Miss Yarlock Lowe, a Chinese-American student and ‘the only person of her race in the College of Law’, was ‘the most perfect specimen of young womanhood that has entered the university for a number of years’.

Frontispiece from Physical Beauty and How to Keep It

Source: Annette Kellerman, Physical Beauty and How to Keep It (London: William Heinemann, 1919).

Frontispiece from Physical Beauty and How to Keep It (continued)

Source: Annette Kellerman, Physical Beauty and How to Keep It (London: William Heinemann, 1919).

Mrs Magee used detailed measurements of Annette Kellerman’s body to compare Miss Lowe’s, all of which were published in the Los Angeles Times report, with the conclusion that Lowe’s proportions were ‘just as exquisite’.78

Kellerman published books on fitness and beauty for women, presenting herself as an expert on as well as exemplar of the healthy, modern female body. Soon after her American vaudeville career was launched, she published an article on ‘Swimming as a Sport for Women’ in the August 1909 issue of the magazine Recreation.79 Over the years, her instructions to novices on how to swim would appear in various newspapers. In 1910 a book by Edwin Tenney Brewster, published by Houghton, Mifflin, and titled Swimming, aimed to be an advanced instruction manual for amateur swimmers. Its frontispiece was a photograph of Kellerman diving. Later, she would publish not only more articles but her own books, such as The Body Beautiful in 1912, and How To Swim and Physical Beauty – How to Keep It both in 1918. Not a feminist in political terms, Kellerman cast her advice as how women could improve their health, become freer and happier, and thus more equal to men.

As early as 1909 if not before, some of Kellerman’s public performances included lectures on fitness, health and beauty. In August 1909, at the Brighton Beach Theatre, she lectured on ‘How to Swim’ and ‘How to Keep in Condition’.80 At least some of these lectures were restricted to women audiences, such as that in San Francisco in mid-1910, because, according to Kellerman, ‘I had to rip my gown to pieces to show [the women] that I was not padded’.81 By early 1910 she was advertising her correspondence course on women’s health.82 Public lectures on health later merged with a part-time career as private instructor. In November 1912, Kellerman began advertising private tuition for anyone seeking to ‘Reduce or Increase Your Weight – Improve Your Health – Perfect Your Figure’.83 Perhaps she hoped that giving private lessons (an early form of what we would call ‘personal training’) would generate a sufficient income stream to allow her to reduce her vaudeville routine, which must have been taxing. Her advertisement united fitness and beauty, promising:

Become my pupil and I will make you my friend. Devote but fifteen minutes daily to my system and you can weigh what Nature intended. You can reduce any part of your figure burdened with superfluous flesh or build up any part that is undeveloped … My system stimulates, reorganises and regenerates your entire body. My latest book, “The Body Beautiful”, should be read by every woman, and I will send it to you free. It explodes the fallacy that lack of beauty or health cannot be avoided. In it I explain how every woman can be vigorous, healthy and attractive.84

Much the same advertisement, always with an image of her svelte form in profile, appeared regularly for at least three years, with an address on West 31st Street.

There is no record of how great a response or how many pupils she received, though she would later boast that ‘over forty thousand women have been benefited by her system of exercise and diet’.85 In her story of her life, she claimed: ‘I have lectured to over half million women [sic] in the world (In five different languages)’; apparently fluent in French because of her mother, she learned only enough of the other languages to perform.86 In 1912 The New York Times reported, with a humorous undertone, that a prominent Tammany Hall politician Richard Croker was ‘undergoing a course in physical culture’ prescribed by Kellerman, a key part of which was vegetarianism.87 By August 1914, Kellerman had an arrangement with Gimbels department store on Broadway, under which they used her name for a line of sweaters, and a young woman from the ‘Annette Kellermann School of Physical Culture’ modelled current fashions.88

As Kellerman’s reputation developed, she sought both more control of her acts and more elaborate vehicles for them. In late 1911 at the Winter Garden on Broadway, she first introduced ‘Undine’, a one-act pantomime set in twelfth-century England – a medieval setting that reflected Kellerman’s ability to use traditional imagery for her modernist turns. As would be true of her films, the plot was selected because it enabled her to perform her feats in the water; this time in ‘a fanciful idyll of forest and stream’.89 In this case, though the sketch was written by someone else, the story had an autobiographical element: it revolved around an aristocratic daughter with an unknown illness, the noble father offering a reward for a cure, and ‘Undine’ the ‘water nymph’ effecting it.90 But there were new dimensions: the act was set to music, and it included ballet, with several dancers. Kellerman herself ‘in white fleshings … did a toe dance with considerable skill’ prior to her diving act.91 When the show had been running over two months, Kellerman added a song to her own part of the act.92 Presumably, her musician parents had nurtured some musical ability, and she had had music, elocution and ballet lessons as a child; to these she added ballet lessons from the ballet master at the Metropolitan Opera House.93 Critical opinion was that the show had ‘caught the popular favor and seem[ed] to be assured of a long run’.94 Indeed, it ran in New York for at least three months, then she took it on a national tour.

In the summer of 1912 Kellerman took ‘Undine’ to the Oxford Theatre (and later the Palace Theatre) in London. The British Australasian reported that, ‘supported by an attractive company of [thirty] girls’, Kellerman ‘gives a very pretty dancing scene’, followed by ‘a wonderfully graceful exhibition of fancy diving into a large tank’, and a lecture on ‘Health, Beauty and Happiness’ at the end of the performance.95 Part of the favourable comment Kellerman drew in London focused on ‘the skin-tight bathing suit that clothes her graceful form’, a constant element of her act that perhaps seemed less novel by then in New York.96 In the autumn of 1912 she took ‘Undine’ back to New York, as part of an agreement between the London Palace and the New York Fifth Avenue Theatre for exclusive exchanges, prior to a tour of American cities.97 By August 1913, ‘Undine’ had evolved into ‘Annette Kellerman, The Perfect Woman, And her Dancing Girls, in “The Wood Nymph” A Classical Aquatic Entertainment’.98

By November 1913 Kellerman announced that she had decided to turn to the more legitimate theatre, and to give up vaudeville – but instead of the theatre, her new medium became film.99 Kellerman’s vaudeville success lent her the profile and credibility for a foray into the early film industry. In fact she appeared in at least three minor films as early as 1909.100 Her first major film was Neptune’s Daughter, made by the Universal Film Company, with a script based on Kellerman’s own idea though written by a seasoned professional. It was filmed in Bermuda in late 1913 and early 1914, and released as soon as May that year. It was reported that ‘the Bermuda colony’ was excited by the arrival of the film company, because the rumour had spread that when the ship docked Kellerman would ‘make an unconventional landing by diving from the stern of the liner’, but to their disappointment she simply walked down the gangplank.101 An early press report said Kellerman would play ‘the role of the wife of Neptune, wantoning with a United States naval officer on the hot coast of a South Sea island’, though the plot shifted.102 Kellerman plays a mermaid who becomes a human being to avenge her sister’s death, then falls in love with the island’s king and becomes embroiled in politics and intrigues. Like all her films, the plot was a secondary consideration. The primary purpose was for her to perform as many stunning feats of diving and underwater swimming as possible. A brief critical comment in the press noted that ‘Miss Kellermann [being] hurled from a sixty-five foot cliff into the water bound hand and foot is one of the stirring scenes’.103

Neptune’s Daughter screened in New York for months, but by December 1914 she was back on the vaudeville stage there, now earning $2,500 per week.104 The film was shown around the world: by March 1915 it was being screened in Sydney, where it was described as ‘A Spectacular Photo Play’ and ‘A Marvellous Fantasy of the Sea’.105 In Chicago, when the film opened in May 1914, ‘several thousand people congregated in front of that playhouse [the Fine Arts theatre] and tried to get in’; the waiting crowd ‘extended in a double row north far past the Chicago club’. Not only did Michigan Avenue have ‘a carnival aspect’ but police were called in, while some of the crowd waited for hours.106

Annette Kellerman in mermaid costume

Source: Papers of Annette Kellerman, MLMSS 6270, with permission of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Central to Neptune’s Daughter was Kellerman’s blatant bodily display. Apparently at one point, where Kellerman’s mermaid character has taken on human shape, she ‘is seen in the woods undressing, and later flitting white and nymphlike among the trees en route to the ocean for a swim’.107 Because of the nudity, failed attempts were made to ban the film in places ranging from Ontario, California (by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union),108 to the Australian bush. The film’s distributor in western New South Wales later recorded an incident in one bush town where he took the film on its travelling roadshow. Although ‘the whole township turned out’ for the film on its first night, someone in the audience complained to the police constable. The police sergeant, however, was on duty at a neighbouring town. The constable ‘sent a tracker out to tell the sergeant that we were displaying a lady clad only in a fish tail’. The sergeant rode back into town, looked at the posters advertising the film, then took a seat in the front row, but let the film run. The nervous distributor finally approached the sergeant, to ask what he intended to do. The sergeant replied that he intended to come back the next night to watch the film from the beginning. It turned out that his daughter had gone to school with Kellerman in Sydney and even swum with her.109

That first silent film was followed by several more, confirming Kellerman’s status as an international star, particularly with the box-office success of the 1916 A Daughter of the Gods. Produced by the William Fox Company and written and directed by Herbert Brenon (who had directed Neptune’s Daughter), A Daughter of the Gods made news even before it was released, because of its million-dollar costs, a vast budget in 1916. Filmed in Jamaica from August 1915 to April 1916, it incorporated the spectacular on several levels. Reports of it during filming included the note that ten camels had been shipped from Connecticut, where they were in winter rest from the circus, down to Kingston, Jamaica, to be used on the set.110 It was claimed that ‘the largest stage in the world’ had been constructed for the set, and that it was ‘equipped with dressing rooms for 2,000 players’.111 A ‘gnome village’ was built around a waterfall constructed by changing the local topography, and ‘native children’ were used to play the gnomes.112 Another report was that twenty thousand people had been used in one scene, and that a Moorish city had been built of steel and concrete for one background, then set on fire as part of the film’s drama.113 Moreover, it was credited with the first nude scene to be made on film, though in at least some scenes Kellerman actually wore a flesh-coloured body-suit designed to look as though nude.114 Late in life, Kellerman rated A Daughter of the Gods as the ‘best thing’ she ever did, because she ‘did many hair raising stunts & was never doubled – including doing a 72 ft dive from a tower – being thrown to the crocodiles’.115

Annette Kellerman dives from a tower in A Daughter of the Gods (1916)

Source: Annette Kellerman, How to Swim (London: William Heinemann, 1918).

While the film was large on spectacle, its plot reportedly came adrift, and as a result it took extensive editing which delayed its release. Even when completed, the plot seems to have been rather vague: a loose Orientalist fantasy involving a sultan, a sheik, a prince, a harem, a witch, a land of gnomes, and Kellerman as ‘Anitia’ who dances before the sultan and escapes capture by her dive from the tower into the sea. The reviews were not unqualified. One described it as ‘a fanciful thing in which fairies, gnomes, and mythological characters appear’.116 At least one reviewer disapproved of the nudity, describing the film as: ‘a photoplay carefully calculated to shock the late Anthony Comstock and certain to please many others. There are long passages when Miss Kellermann wanders disconsolately through the film all undressed and nowhere to go … This business is carried rather far in the life in the palace of the Sultan where the picture suffers so from overexposure that you can scarcely say “A Daughter of the Gods” is merely released. It is positively abandoned’.117 However, most reviews raved in superlatives about the film’s spectacular effects (if not the plot) and described it as not to be missed. It was given substantial promotion. One advertisement, invoking the Harvard study, compared Kellerman’s statistics with those of Cleopatra and Venus de Milo, proclaiming Kellerman the ‘Most Perfect Woman in World’s History’ and as ‘a model for all the world’ before whom ‘criticism is dumb’.118

A Daughter of the Gods played in Australia, as elsewhere around the world, largely to positive reviews – though one jaundiced critic claimed that several of the young women competitors at the January 1917 New South Wales Ladies’ Swimming Association competition at the Domain Baths ‘far surpassed’ the one being hyped as ‘the most perfect woman in the world’.119 The film was such a phenomenon that The Green Room, which called itself Australia’s Greatest Stage Magazine, ran features on it for months ahead of its arrival. The first was in August 1916, a three-page spread with five photographs, including one of the seemingly nude scenes, understatedly captioned ‘A Striking Study of Annette Kellermann’. The article began with a list of ‘Facts About the Film’, including its unprecedented million-dollar cost, Kellerman listed as the ‘star of the greatest motion picture spectacle ever seen’, its elaborate infrastructure (‘a city of more than 20,000 employees grew where a few hours earlier there had been nothing but tropical undergrowth’), and the fact that the 223,000 feet of film shot had been edited down to 12,000 feet for the picture.120 The magazine reminded readers (as if they needed it) that the star was ‘the well-known Australian’, and lauded her as ‘the greatest woman swimmer in the world, a graceful, creative genius’ whose work ‘in this new spectacular film will leave behind for all time a wonderful record of her daring attainments’.121 The magazine sought to encapsulate the plot (for which readers may have been grateful), mentioning its mermaids and ocean scenes.122

Annette Kellerman in A Daughter of the Gods (1916)

Source: Annette Kellerman, Physical Beauty and How to Keep It (London: William Heinemann, 1919).

Consecutive issues carried more stills from the film. One article focused on William Fox, the producer, and his summary of his ambitions for the film: ‘I will make a picture so gigantic, so immense in its scope, that not in the next ten years will there be a man – manufacturer, or financier – who will dare to expend so vast an amount of money on a single picture. All my life I have dreamed of doing something big … I have dreamed of doing something that perhaps cannot even be paralleled in the future. The realisation of my dream is found in “A Daughter of the Gods”’.123 After the film was finally screened in Australia in January 1917, the magazine gave it overwhelming praise. Not only did ‘Annette Kellermann, the swimming Venus’ add ‘thrill to thrill’, in one scene she seemed ‘to achieve the impossible’. In sum, The Green Room judged:

Anyone who misses seeing “A Daughter of the Gods” misses one of the greatest events that has ever happened in Australia. From the far-away sphere of the Unknown we are immediately borne, by this film, to a land of enchantment. Something of the wonder of the Arabian Nights, of the glory of the East, of our own war, of fairyland, of womanly power and eternal beauty, is manifested to us by this masterpiece of cinematography.124

Again, Kellerman soon returned to vaudeville, though the success of A Daughter of the Gods enabled her to demand large and expensive sets, modelled on the film. To accommodate their new top bill, who was to replace the star dancer Anna Pavlova (with whom Kellerman became friends), the New York Hippodrome built an eight-foot high steel tank in four sections, with a front of plate glass.125 Kellerman called this production her ‘big mermaid spectacle’.126 Dressed in what would become perhaps her most iconic outfit, a sheer and near-transparent full-length swimsuit of silver scales, Kellerman’s act was augmented by a setting like ‘a veritable Niagara in cloth, canvas and electric lights’ studded with ‘wood nymphs, alligators, crocodiles, frogs’ and mermaids in ‘translucent pools’.127 Although it is unclear whether she or her employer paid the expenses, another indicator of Kellerman’s status that New York winter was that she rented a large iceskating rink for her exclusive use for a session each day, in order to develop her skating skills.128

Annette Kellerman and other actresses in mermaid costume

Annette Kellerman, How to Swim (London: William Heinemann, 1918).

Her next films were The Honor System (1917) and Queen of the Sea (1918), which was also made by Fox. Queen of the Sea was shot in 1917 on a smaller budget than Daughter of the Gods. Kellerman herself was observed scouting the public swimming pool at Palisades Park in New York for potential mermaid talent.129 The filming locations included the US this time, at Bar Harbour in Maine. It was reported that watching ‘Miss Kellermann and her school of mermaids disport themselves in the ocean’ had become a daily local activity with more than ‘200 automobiles of every size and power from the lowly flivver to the costliest custom built machine’ parked along the beach, and that ‘the spectators are not women’.130 The film included the usual aquatic feats, and some scenes were filmed in various parts of the Caribbean. As in Neptune’s Daughter, Kellerman plays a mermaid who takes on mortal form and eventually marries her prince, and again the plot involves a tower, though this time her enemy is the ‘king of the storms’.131

Kellerman tried to inject some excitement, particularly in one scene where she dived from a wire sixty feet up into the sea – an astonishing feat considering she did not employ stuntmen for her acts. But, despite some praise for the cinematography and a few positive reviews such as one in London in 1920,132 in the US the film was compared negatively to Daughter of the Gods and seemed to suffer from aquatic spectacle fatigue. One reviewer commented that Daughter of the Gods ‘exhausted Miss Kellermann’s film possibilities, and the present picture can do little more than duplicate the tricks of the other’.133 Yet again, once the film was made, she returned to the vaudeville stage, in New York and around the US; in 1917 and 1918 she also participated in patriotic concerts to raise funds for the American Red Cross and the war effort. One such event at the Metropolitan Opera House was the occasion of a performance that she rated as one of her lifetime best achievements: her ballet tribute to Pavlova’s dying swan, conducted by Toscanini.134 In 1920 she released two films, What Women Love, a comedy which poked fun at beachwear moralisers and was an attempt to break away from aquatic spectacles though it included swimming and diving, and one billed as ‘educational’, a slow-motion film called The Art of Diving, apparently intended as one of a series aimed to instruct women in health and exercise.135 In 1924 she released her last proper film Venus of the South Seas. Her film career ended with the rise of talkies, to which she failed to make a transition, despite at least one attempt.

Following her 1920–21 tour of the United States on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit, Kellerman made a highly successful, long vaudeville tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1921 and 1922, when vaudeville was still popular, prior to being eclipsed by cinema.136 It was her first return home to Australia since her departure for England in 1905, a lengthy absence due in part to the fact that her family had since moved to Paris. Australians were very proud of their international star, her films (especially A Daughter of the Gods) were successful locally, and her career was tracked and narrated in the Australian media. Kellerman’s Australasian tour was handled by J.C. Williamson, an experienced theatrical impresario. But Kellerman’s needs presented the Williamson company with a challenge. They had planned to stage her Sydney show as the first act at the new Theatre Royal, but her cast was so numerous and her swimming tank so large that ‘although relays of men were kept working night and day’ it became impossible to finish enough of the building. On short notice, they had to contract with another impresario Harry Musgrove for her to perform at the Tivoli Theatre.137

The program reflects the meshing of vaudeville and cinema that preceded cinema’s dominance and vaudeville’s demise. Musgrove advertised that there would be ‘photoplay novelties’ along with Annette Kellerman’s ‘Big Show of Vaudeville de Luxe’. Kellerman’s routine had become quite diversified. There was ‘The Kellerman Ballet’ with ten women dancers; Kellerman’s dance solo ‘The Sea Nymph’; the ‘Kellerman Girls’ in ‘Breakaway Dance Specialty’; Kellerman herself in ‘A Little Chat and the Bounding Wire Dance’; and ‘The Little Tin Soldier’ sung by Kellerman and others, which all preceded Kellerman in her famed ‘Aquatic Specialty’.138 The Sydney Mail’s review was enthusiastic: ‘Her dancing is an important feature of the entertainment; she is a raconteur; she does exciting things on a wire rope; she is a clever impersonator; and her crystal tank display is quite unique, including some sensational diving from a high springboard’.139 Kellerman’s sister, Marcelle Wooster, recalled that while she was in Sydney, Kellerman rented a house at Point Piper; from Sydney, the company toured to Melbourne, Adelaide, Hobart, Auckland, Rotorua (where Annette was warmly received by Maoris), Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Invercargill and Nelson. Kellerman included physical culture elements in her shows on this tour, Wooster recalled, and ‘she had the Antipodes women and girls doing ups and downs’.140

For Australians, Kellerman’s appeal would have included their pride in her international stardom. Her exemplification of swimming and the ocean also resonated with the growth of beach culture in Australia, an identifiable phenomenon from the beginning of the twentieth century. As Australians embraced their urbanness, they also embraced the seaside settings of their cities. Swimming and sunbathing at the beach were considered celebrations of Australia’s environmental riches, and emblems of Australian health and vigour, for both women and men. Kellerman was therefore something of a cultural ambassador, showing one of Australia’s great resources to the world. In 1919 an Australian commentator suggested that American debates about appropriate swimwear for women, such as had occurred when several actresses in beach attire were arrested at Coney Island, would not happen in Australia, where beach behaviour was more casual and more about the pleasures of the sea. The American ‘good folk who occupy beach chairs and mayoral offices would be overcome at sight of the Australian surf girl plunging in unshod, unstockinged, and wearing the mythical neck-to-knee’.141

Kellerman attained such iconic cultural status that as early as 1913 she became a figure used in literature – and would appear even in Japanese literature. American writers F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack London both deployed her. In his 1920 novel This Side of Paradise, Scott Fitzgerald referred to her in passing to set the stage for a beachside incident in which a modern young woman dares a man to do a high dive just as she does. Kellerman and the female character together represent the audacity and challenge of modern women.142

Jack London used her in two different works, The Valley of the Moon (1913) and The Little Lady of the Big House (1916). As in Scott Fitzgerald, Kellerman represents the modern woman who combines fitness, beauty and accomplishment. In the 1913 work London has one of his characters, in a long romantic speech to his lover, tell her she’s even more beautiful than Kellerman: ‘Say, d’ye know you’ve got some figure? Well, you have. Talk about Annette Kellerman. You can give her cards and spades. She’s Australian, an’ you’re American, only your figure ain’t. You’re different.’143 London’s serious interest in Kellerman is more apparent in the 1916 novel, where the female protagonist Paula Forrest is overtly like Kellerman. London’s heroine is a swimmer and diver of extraordinary ability, whom other characters compare with Kellerman, and like Kellerman she wears a revealing swimsuit. Andrew Furer argues that London created a series of ‘New Women’ heroines, of whom Paula Forrest is the third, all of whom represented remarkable physical fitness and daring, a physical liberation that was matched by their intellectual abilities and demands for social and economic, though not sexual, freedoms.144

Perhaps the most intriguing literary invocation of Kellerman is in the 1924 novel Naomi by Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki.145 Tanizaki, who is sometimes cited as one of Japan’s most important twentieth-century novelists, used Kellerman to represent the ideal modern female body. In September 1919 Kellerman announced plans to travel to Japan as part of a world tour. On the tour, she would make films on the subject of exercise for women, and show those she had already made. She wanted to go to Japan in particular because ‘Japanese women … she says, are constantly writing her regarding health exercises’, but it is not clear if in fact she went.146

Annette Kellerman being officially welcomed in Atlantic City, New Jersey

Source: Papers of Annette Kellerman, MLMSS 6270, with permission of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Naomi, apparently semi-autobiographical, is the story of a ‘modern’ couple in 1920s Japan, and their engagements with Western culture; it was considered both sensational and influential in Japan. The narrator details his relationship with the younger Naomi (he was 28 and she 14 when they met), to whom he is attracted because he thinks she is vaguely Western looking and he likes to shape her in Western ways. His shaping of her includes encouraging her to wear Western clothing, makeup and hair styles, teaching her to speak English, and also to dance. But the modern was very much about her physical posture, and its sexual connotations:

We’d seen a movie called Neptune’s Daughter, about a mermaid, starring the famous swimmer Annette Kellerman. ‘Naomi’, I said, ‘let me see you imitate Kellerman’. She stood up with her arms straight over her head and showed me her ‘diving’ pose. As she stood with her thighs together, her legs, so straight there was no space between them, formed a long triangle from her hips to her ankles.

In another scene, shortly after this one, the narrator describes going to the theatre in the evening with Naomi, in a dramatic satin kimono and matching jacket, in contrasting reddish brown and light blue:

She wore this outfit most often when we went to the theatre in the evening. Everyone turned to look as she walked through the lobby of the Yurakuza or the Imperial Theater in that glistening fabric.

‘I wonder who she is?’

‘An actress, maybe?’

‘A Eurasian?’

Hearing the whispers, we’d move proudly toward them.147

For Tanizaki, both Kellerman and Eurasian women represented visual spectacles of female modernity. Kellerman’s modernity, in his view, was cosmopolitan.

Women were at the centre of the Japanese conundrum of whether modernity was necessarily Western. As Kendall H. Brown has put it, ‘the modern girl. sporting pumps, short dress, bobbed hair, and conspicuous in such modern spaces as cafes and urban streets – represented, at the least, an enchantment with the material surface of Western modernity. She also held the promise or threat of cultural and sexual liberation’.148 Vera Mackie has recently studied the ‘moga’, the Japanese version of the ‘Modern Girl’ in the 1920s. ‘Moga’ was the term for young women who represented modernity, both as consumers – of clothes, cosmetics, cigarettes and films – and as spectacles to be consumed. Such young women wore clothes that were fusions of East and West, and they were linked to the erotic. They were Japanese women with a Western flavour, which meant that, like Naomi, they could be considered racially ambiguous.149 Thus, in 1920s Japan, Kellerman represented the archetypal modern Western woman, yet she could also be linked to racial uncertainty. Such linking was at least partly the product of Kellerman’s own playing with racial categories, as well as her trading on the erotic dimensions of her acts, despite her chaste personal behaviour.

Racism, racial hierarchies and ethnic stereotyping were staples of popular culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – in literature, on stage, and in the early film industry. Vaudeville relied on racist stereotypes for much of its humour and entertainment, and it included performers from a range of cultures and countries. In New York in 1910, for example, one vaudeville act included ‘a troupe of Hindus and Cingalese’, most likely men.150 Orientalism saturated most cultural forms in this period, with representations promiscuously drawn from places ranging from Egypt to Japan, and along with many other performers Kellerman availed herself of the range in both her live and film productions. Kellerman’s films drew on racial imagery, but loosely. A Daughter of the Gods included scenes representing Rome, ‘an Eastern kingdom’, and a ‘Sultan and his harem of Oriental beauties’, yet employed local Jamaican people for all of its extras and crowd scenes.151 Perhaps because of this use of racialised imagery, she was herself described as possessing ‘exotic beauty’.152

In particular, Kellerman, in repeatedly casting herself as a mermaid in order to feature her aquatic performances on film, played with the identity of South Sea Islander. Mermaids and Polynesian women were at times used to represent each other in early twentieth-century cinema.153 While Kellerman never took the role of an indigenous Polynesian or Melanesian woman, in several films she cast herself as outside Western civilisation, as having been born and brought up in the south Pacific, and as being a better swimmer and diver than the islanders themselves, particularly the men. Following all of her mermaid and exotic ingénue films of the 1910s, in the early 1920s she planned to shoot a series of films on location in the South Seas.154 It seems that the only one to eventuate was her 1924 film Venus of the South Seas, which was directed by her husband James Sullivan and presumably written by the two of them. Kellerman plays an innocent island girl who has no knowledge of proper European culture and its ways. Nevertheless, she charms a visiting wealthy young yacht-owner by her innocence as well as her physical prowess. Her innocence is epitomised by the scene which comes closest to the sexual, in which he chases her through the woods after she has swum ashore from the yacht, and is hence scantily clad and dripping wet. These film roles combined the ingénue, the primitive and the erotic in quintessentially modern figures that played with racial boundaries through drawing on long-established tropes of sexually available South Sea Island beauties.

A central element of Kellerman’s modernity was gender transgression. Her fitness, strength and bravery were all masculine traits that she allied with her very obviously feminine sexual appeal. Her early fame rested on the strength and stamina required for long-distance swimming. Her diving had always excited audiences by its daring and grace as well as the other physical risks that she took. Her films carried the Kellerman trademark of aquatic feats requiring bravery and endurance – from long swims underwater, to wrestling with villains in the water, beating others to the underwater treasure, and trouncing the foes of her romantic lead, as well as her iconic dives from high towers, or wires (she had learnt high-wire walking), or into alligator-infested water. Jennifer M. Bean suggests that Kellerman was one of a cohort of female stars in film’s formative years in the 1910s whose ‘heroic personhood’ was created through their being ‘[a]gile and dauntless, ready to swim, race, fly, dangle, and fall for the sake of the screen’. In silent films including ‘mystery-crime films, western adventures, slapstick comedies, jungle safaris, [and] deep-sea spectacles’ women stars took risks, narrowly avoided (and sometimes met with) danger, and displayed a range of athletic abilities. The high dramas and extravagant sets favoured in these years sought to create a realism that would distinguish film from live theatre, and according to Bean, the risks taken by stars were all the more exciting when it was a supposedly more vulnerable female star’s body in the way of harm.155 Silent film’s drive for plots with disorder and danger, then, was another historically contingent reason for Kellerman’s success: her singular fame as a swimmer and her stamina and willingness to perform perilous feats were key ingredients in her rise to fame.

Annette Kellerman cross-dressing as ‘the English Johnny’ in a vaudeville routine

Source: Papers of Annette Kellerman, MLMSS 6270, with permission of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Kellerman had occasional accidents, news of which added to her reputation for bravery. In England early in her vaudeville career, she dived into an onstage tank with which she was unfamiliar and shallower than she expected, hitting her head, and rising to the top with a severe gash that required stitches. On location for her first film, when she was hurled into the water, she hit her head, surfaced unconscious and had to be rescued. Also during the filming of Neptune’s Daughter, in February 1914, the glass side of the tank in which she was performing ruptured, and she was washed out through the broken glass; both she and director Herbert Brenon were seriously injured.156

In July 1916, when there were several fatal shark attacks on New Jersey beaches, The Washington Post commissioned Kellerman to write a major article on the dangers of shark attacks, the behaviour of sharks, and what to do if one saw a shark in the water. Her authority as an expert on sharks included not only being ‘the leading woman swimmer in the world’, and familiar with ‘the shark-proof inclosures of the Australian bathing beaches’, but also having seen sharks and other dangerous fish up close on her film locations.157 If brave feats and risks were traits identified as masculine even while she wore her famously brief costumes, from around 1920 she played overtly with gender boundaries. She developed a new item in her vaudeville routine, in which she cross-dressed as an elegant top-hatted and monocled gentleman, called ‘the English Johnny’; it was a particular hit at her 1936 performances in Winnipeg, Canada, where as elsewhere she was compared to the renowned vaudeville cross-dresser Vesta Tilley.

Kellerman was one actor in an early-twentieth century performance genre that combined spectacle, physical feats and the exotic, both live and on film. With their success related to the huge transnational interest of the time in physical culture, performers included body builders like Eugen Sandow, the highly successful stuntman Houdini (with whom Kellerman sometimes shared a program), and the series of actors who played Tarzan, not least the swimmer Johnny Weismuller. Even lesser-known performers combined fitness and stunts, such as Arthur Cavill, one of the swimming Cavill family who had launched Kellerman’s career. Arthur Cavill left Australia and moved to the US as a swimming coach. But he also, for example, swam across the bay at Tillamouk, Oregon, with his hands and feet tied, and had himself lowered from a bridge in Pittsburgh tied in a bag. He died attempting to swim across Seattle Harbour in very cold weather.158 And Alick Wickham, who participated in developing the Australian crawl around 1900, later had a performance career with events such as his ‘Exhibition of Trick Swimming by a South Seas Islander’.159

Locating both exoticism and eroticism in the Pacific was, of course, a practice with long cultural roots in Australia and elsewhere, and the primitive was a central trope of high modernism. South Sea myths were revived in Western culture both prior to and then because of Gauguin’s powerful influence in the late nineteenth century.160 In the 1910s and 1920s, the ‘South Sea Islands’ were a favoured setting and theme for film-makers. In 1921 Arthur Shirley, for example, made a film called ‘The Throwback’ which was billed as ‘a story of the South Sea Islands’; one publicity photo showed Shirley’s ‘leading lady’ and three-year-old son dressed in recognisably Pacific accoutrements of grass skirt, beads and floral emblems.161 Another 1921 film titled Under Crimson Skies was advertised as a ‘red-blooded drama of the South Seas’ that allowed the viewer to ‘feel the sting of the salt sea spray against your face’.162 From 1907 onwards, journalist and novelist Beatrice Grimshaw’s prodigious works did much globally to popularise romantic representations of the South Seas, such as her 1922 novel Conn of the Coral Seas that was made into the 1928 film The Adorable Outcast. As they had in European culture since the eighteenth century, in these films the South Seas represented both escape and being marooned, the possibilities of paradise and damnation, beauty and treachery, and nature untouched by civilisation, in melodramatic plots.

Kellerman contributed directly to the cultural preoccupation with ‘the South Seas’, primarily from 1914 onwards through her island and water-themed films, but also with her writing. The stories in her 1926 children’s book Fairy Tales of the South Seas and Other Stories had titles such as ‘The Beachcomber and the Princess’, ‘The Sirens of the South Seas’, ‘The Vampire of the Coral Seas’, ‘Under the Southern Cross’, ‘The Enchanted Pearls’ and ‘Shipwreck Island’. Protagonists of the tales ranged from ‘Gunta the Beachcomber’ to ‘Valeur the Pearl Dealer’, ‘three young brothers’ from Cooktown, Queensland, a ‘cannibal chieftain’ on an island off New Guinea, Christine the ship captain’s daughter, Hina the ‘native’ girl, a mermaid, Margot the stowaway, and King Neptune. In another book Kellerman fantasised about her hope one day to see a real mermaid ‘sitting on a damp grey rock combing her long green hair’.163 Kellerman’s playing with the category of South Sea Islander extended to including Australianness within it. For example, in Fairy Tales of the South Seas, the map showing ‘the South Sea Islands’ includes Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Samoa, the Cook Islands and Tahiti.164

The South Seas theme was a direct connection between Jack London and Kellerman, and probably one of the reasons for his interest in her. He too was one of the main producers of the contemporary South Seas cultural genre. London was a Californian political radical and writer, who based much of his writing on his own explorations and adventures – to both Alaska and the south Pacific. London’s 1906–09 voyage to Hawaii, the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, Fiji, New Zealand and elsewhere became the basis for his 1911 memoir The Cruise of the Snark, a significant body of short stories such as the 1911 collection South Sea Tales, and three novels including Jerry of the Islands (1917). London’s travels in the ‘South Seas’ also inspired other works, such as his wife Charmian’s 1915 The Log of the Snark, and Martin Johnson’s Through the South Seas with Jack London (1913).165 Martin Johnson became well known himself as an ‘explorer’ and film-maker of the ‘South Seas’. A crew member on Jack London’s South Pacific voyage, Johnson’s first film was the 1912 documentary Jack London’s Adventures in the South Seas. A later film was titled Among the Cannibals of the South Seas.

In 1919, Johnson was described in the Australian press as the ‘world-famed explorer, scientist, who daily risks his life for the films’. He was in Sydney preparing for a journey to Papua, the New Hebrides and the Solomon Islands, the point of which was to ‘film the unexposed mysteries of the jungle man-eating savages’, and which was described as ‘perpetuating the work that Jack London began’. He told the reporter that he was setting off on this three-year expedition because ‘I am anxious to go to the South Sea Islands because it is the nearest place to paradise on God’s earth’.166 Johnson’s juxtaposition of cannibalism, savagery and paradise reflected the metaphorical extremes united in contemporary representations of the Pacific. Rod Edmond contends that Jack London’s representations of the Pacific foreground disease and violence, which he uses to condemn colonialism, racism and exploitation of the islanders by Westerners.167

In the first decades of the twentieth century these early films (as well as the books) thus promoted a transnational cultural understanding of the ‘South Sea Islands’ as a remote place, where primitive ‘savages’ lived in jungles and on islands, close to nature and amidst both wildness and beauty. The ‘South Seas’ also represented a place where Westerners could be dominant ‘explorers’, ‘scientists’ and ‘film-makers’. Kellerman added to this repertoire of images with her diving and swimming ingénues and mermaids, a mix of innocence and sexuality, romance and exoticism, and aquatic feats. Australians were as much a part of this transnational imaginary construction of the ‘South Sea Islands’ as vaudeville and film audiences elsewhere, despite their geographical proximity. Yet their imaginations, and those of other film audiences, also conceived other locations in terms of wildness and exoticism. In 1919, for example, Australian cinema audiences could also watch locally made and racially charged dramas of the bush, with titles such as ‘Through Australian Wilds’ and ‘A Romance of the Burke and Wills Expedition’.168

Throughout her life and career, Kellerman identified herself as Australian, such as by using the Australian bush call ‘Coo-ee’ in her performances, as well as a method of locating another Australian in a crowd.169 Reportedly, Kellerman also maintained an Australian accent. Esther Williams observed that Kellerman’s only hesitation about Williams representing her in Million Dollar Mermaid was that she was not Australian.170 Kellerman saw herself as a natural product of Australia, because ‘Australia occupies first place in the development of swimmers. There is no other country in the world that can boast of a greater number of good swimmers in proportion to size and population’.171 Australians returned the affection. In 1916 a magazine editor proclaimed: ‘This beautiful girl, who has done as much to advertise Australia, as all the information bureaus combined, is Australian through and through, and always will be, no matter how many the years which separate her from the land of her nativity’.172 In 1919 an enthusiastic Australian reviewer of Queen of the Sea commented: ‘with Annette Kellerman as the star, it must appeal to audiences here even more than it does to those elsewhere. To be able to say: “She’s ours, she’s Australian”, is to give ourselves a very big reason for seeing and enjoying the film’.173

A core element of Kellerman’s modernity was her nudity and near-nudity (including her use of flesh-coloured tights). Vaudeville paraded women’s bodies as part of its popular appeal, one reason that it was considered a faintly vulgar form of entertainment. Following vaudeville, the rise of burlesque and striptease took women’s on-stage nudity even further in the direction of scandal and the demimonde. Bodily display and nudity on stage and film were pervasive in the early decades of the twentieth century, drawing audiences more than they alienated them. Kellerman was part of the more daring world of silent film, prior to the film censorship that quickly followed the introduction of talkies. Yet there was also debate about the moral and artistic values of such display. In 1917, the Australian theatre magazine The Green Room ran articles discussing the issue, arguing for nudity’s integral role in art, in painting, sculpture and on stage – and claiming that allowing titillating glimpses of women’s limbs was invoking sex in a way that artistic nudity did not.174 While these articles did not mention Kellerman specifically, their appearance following the Australian debut of A Daughter of the Gods cannot have been coincidental. Rather, they seem to be supporting Kellerman’s claims to the artistic merit of her nude scenes. On the other hand, in 1921 the London Times complained that the British Board of Film Censors ‘cannot have paid very careful attention when they gave [What Women Love] their sanction for exhibition’.175

Kellerman sought to balance the shock and titillation of her bodily display with the respectability of her athleticism and career as an expert in physical culture. Kellerman’s respectability was shored up by the vegetarianism (by which she meant avoiding red meat) that was part of her physical culture methods. By casting herself as a fitness guru, and a record-winning champion, she repeatedly claimed that her immodest swimsuits were a matter of practicality. Invoking Venus and mermaids placed her bodily exposure in the fanciful realm of mythology, thus claiming an ancient cultural legitimacy. She urged other women to swim and take up other forms of physical exercise, for their own health and vitality. Though Kellerman’s message was one of liberation, as well as modernity, she was (as mentioned earlier) not a feminist; for example, her arguments for women to exercise included their need to stay physically attractive to their husbands, because ‘[a]ll our religion and all our morality has failed to keep men good’.176 But she also advocated abandoning corsets, and wearing less restrictive clothing. In the publicity surrounding A Daughter of the Gods in 1916, she boasted:

I have taught a hundred mermaids who appear with me in many scenes of the picture to do with ease things they never dreamed of attempting before … These feats of modern mermaids are always followed with great interest by the public, for they bring fresh evidence of the splendid influence which the growing popularity of swimming is exerting upon the feminine sex.177

She believed that she could assist others to achieve health and fitness, and therefore greater vitality and happiness. Physical beauty would be the result of health and fitness, she promised: ‘I insist that swimming is not only a splendid sport for women but that it is the sport for women’, the one in which they could compete with men on equal terms.178 While Kellerman was influential because of her visibility, in turn she succeeded because her message resonated with her times. Women were becoming more interested in exercise; from around 1909 onwards, fashion began to emphasise the slim figure; and her vaguely women’s rights message echoed the first-wave feminism that was so prominent, without actually taking a provocative feminist stance.

Kellerman had become a celebrity early in her career with her long-distance swimming, and her vaudeville and then film careers escalated that fame. She became synonymous with swimming and diving when those activities were themselves considered symbolically modern behaviour. Miscellaneous forms of recognition reflect her popular profile: she was compared to Nellie Melba as the most internationally recognised Australian woman (and in fact, she knew Melba through her mother, who had been Melba’s piano teacher in her youth in Melbourne179). By 1914, young women divers competed annually at Madison Square Garden or elsewhere in New York city for the ‘Annette Kellermann Cup’.180 In 1917 there was an art contest for ‘the best full-length pose of Annette Kellermann’, with over a hundred entries, and the winner announced at a special luncheon at the Hotel Astor.181 The contest was linked to A Daughter of the Gods with the winning picture to be displayed in the lobby of the Lyric Theatre where the film was being screened; and like the film, the full-length poses showed Kellerman with very little on – only ‘a tango sash’.182 In American popular culture in the 1920s, she was such a household word that reports of baseball games used the term ‘an Annette Kellermann’ to mean a diving catch.183 In 1939 she was listed as one of the ‘glamour girls’ of film history, along with Clara Bow, Dorothy Lamour, Hedy Lamar, Greta Garbo and others.184 In 1952 a film was made about Kellerman’s life, called Million Dollar Mermaid and starring Esther Williams; including a Busby Berkeley water ballet extravaganza, it had originally been slated as The One-Piece Suit, denoting the swimsuit that had become synonymous with Kellerman.185

Patty O’Brien argues that, after the ethnographic films of the 1910s–20s that blurred documentaries and fictional cinema, few indigenous actors were employed until the 1960s. While South Seas films were popular in the intervening decades, Hollywood whitened Polynesian women with actresses who were Mexican or otherwise more European in appearance. The cinematic colonising romance between European men and islander women was rendered more acceptable through this racial masking.186 It was a whitened version of the South Sea Island nymph for which Kellerman was at least partially responsible.

The South Seas imagery and its sexual dimensions would linger in Australian popular culture. Partly this was due to the transnational circulation of images of Pacific islands as tropical paradises and tourist destinations, images that were linked to the mid-twentieth century icon of the hula girl. After its nineteenth-century suppression by missionaries, in the 1920s and 1930s hula dancing made a dramatic comeback in Hawaii, tied to the rise of tourism and the commodification of island culture. Following World War II, tourism, the enormous popularity of hula dancing and emblems of island culture were all part of the integration of Hawaii into the United States, formalised in 1959. As Adria L. Imada has argued, it was a Hawaiianness ‘signified primarily through the spectacle of women’s bodies’, an eroticised and submissive femininity that represented Hawaii’s yielding to American economic and military domination.187 Hula dancing and hula hoops, along with images of island paradises as tourist destinations, became part of global commodity culture.

Kate Hunter’s evocative research on rodeos and bush carnivals in rural Australia from the 1930s to the 1950s shows how this set of images became available for eroticised racial masking. Rodeos and bush carnivals showcased the riding and other physical feats of white men; Aboriginal men and a few white women were accorded minor roles in the main events. In the sideshows of these widespread events, though, there were tents where women would put on ‘leg shows’, striptease events that were well attended. The women performers in these tents were often Aboriginal or mixed-race: the only kind of performance Aboriginal women were permitted. Hunter shows that the women performers commonly had Pacific island personas and names, such as ‘Fifi from Tahiti’ and ‘Gigi from French Polynesia’, names that hid Aboriginality in a pretence of dusky, islander, hula-dancing glamour.188 Aboriginal and mixed-race women’s performing as eroticised South Sea Islanders in the bush towns of mid-twentieth century Australia was a continuation of the racialised codes of feminine modernity in which Annette Kellerman had been so influential. Kellerman’s live performances and films placed Australia firmly within transnational popular culture, and enabled Australians to imagine themselves as part of global modernity – a modernity that was fundamentally structured through racialised understandings of Australia’s place in the world, including its local imperial power in the South Seas.

1 Annette Kellerman’s surname was often spelled Kellermann during her career, even in one of her own publications. Yet by far the dominant spelling was Kellerman, so that is what I use here.

2 Lydia Lane, ‘“Ageless” Swimmer Gives Health Rules’, The Los Angeles Times 9 April 1950, p. B9.

3 For brief biographical information on Kellerman, see G. P. Walsh, ‘Kellermann, Annette Marie Sarah (1886 – 1975)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1983), pp. 548–9; Philip Parsons (ed.), Companion to Theatre in Australia (Sydney: Currency Press, 1995), p. 312; and Anthony Slide, The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994), pp. 285–287. Biographical sketches of Kellerman abound, though many are inaccurate. Kellerman herself commented: ‘I have seen several biographies that are so far from the truth as to make them farcical’. ‘My Story’, Annette Kellerman Papers, ML MSS 6270 Box 1, Folder 3, State Library of NSW.

4 Annette Kellerman, Fairy Tales of the South Seas and Other Stories (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., n.d. [1926]), pp. 11–12.

5 Annette Kellermann, How to Swim (London: William Heinemann, 1919), p. 16.

6 ‘Cavill, Frederick (1839–1927), Australian Dictionary of Biography Vol. 7 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1979), pp. 593–4.

7 ‘Bathing Under the Fig-Tree in the Domain’, Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 10 January 1833, p. 3.

8 Alan Clarkson, Lanes of Gold: 100 Years of the NSW Amateur Swimming Association (Sydney: Lester-Townsend Publishing Pty. Ltd., 1990), pp. 12–19.

9 Gary Osmond and Murray G. Phillips, ‘“Look at That Kid Crawling”: Race, Myth and the “Crawl” Stroke’, Australian Historical Studies No. 127 (April 2006), pp. 43–62.

10 Kellermann, How to Swim, p. 135.

11 Kellerman, ‘My Story’, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 3; Annette Kellerman, ‘Swim in Your Own Home’, The Los Angeles Times 22 March 1921.

12 ‘Miss Annette Kellermann’s Latest Feat’, The Sydney Mail 8 February 1905, p. 350.

13 Kellermann, How to Swim, p. 126.

14 Osmond and Phillips, ‘“Look at That Kid Crawling”’, p. 44–45, 55–56.

15 Kellerman, Fairy Tales of the South Seas, p. 22.

16 ‘Stage Mermaid Doing Farewell’, The Los Angeles Times 25 May 1919, p. III 15.

17 Letter from Amable Charbonnet to his mother 21 April 1867, Box 1, Folder 1; and Marcelle Wooster’s biography of her sister Annette Kellerman, Box 1, Folder 4, Annette Kellerman Papers, ML MSS 6270 State Library of NSW.

18 Kellerman, ‘My Story’, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 3.

19 Pauline B. Burren, Mentone: The Place for a School: A History of Mentone Girls’ Grammar School from 1899 (South Yarra: Hyland House Publishing, 1984), p. 20. I am grateful to Dr. Peter Wyllie Johnston for this reference. In the school’s official history, Burren comments that Kellerman ‘apparently shared her mother’s flamboyant character and she was in no way typical of the girls who attended Mentone High School’ (p. 21). Nevertheless, in recent years the school has built its Annette Kellerman Swimming Centre.

20 Kellerman, ‘My Story’, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 3.

21 Margaret Williams, Australia on the Popular Stage, 1829–1929 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 208.

22 ‘Women in the World’, The Australian Woman’s Mirror 6 December 1927, p. 20; Veronica Raszeja, A Decent and Proper Exertion: The Rise of Women’s Competitive Swimming in Sydney to 1912 (Campbelltown, NSW: Australian Studies in Sports History, No. 9, 1992), pp. 43, 87.

23 Kellermann, How to Swim, p. 18.

24 Burren, Mentone: The Place for a School, pp. 21–22.

25 Raszeja, A Decent and Proper Exertion, pp. 65–66.

26 Kellerman’s biographers place her departure in 1904, using her own words, but newspaper reports show it to have been 1905. Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2005), p. 21.

27 Caption of photo ‘Annette Kellermann’s Most Graceful Dive’, The Sydney Mail 26 April 1905, p. 1044.

28 Kellerman, ‘My Story’, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 3.

29 Kellerman, Fairy Tales of the South Seas, p. 13.

30 ‘Woman Tries to Swim Channel’, Chicago Daily Tribune 27 July 1905; ‘Fail to Swim the Channel’, Chicago Daily Tribune 25 August 1905; ‘Fails in Attempt to Swim Channel’, The New York Times 3 September 1920, p. 14.

31 ‘Men and Women of the Hour’, Life [Australia], 15 September 1905, p. 891.

32 ‘Celebrating one-piece of history’, The Sun-Herald 20 August 2006, p. 27.

33 Slide, The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, p. 285.

34 Undated letter to Colin Thompson, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 1.

35 Armond Fields, Women Vaudeville Stars: Eighty Biographical Profiles (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2006), pp. 5–6.

36 Kellerman, ‘My Story’, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 3.

37 Kellerman, ‘My Story’, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 3.

38 ‘No Affinity in Her Flat’, The Los Angeles Times 13 March 1909, p. I 1.

39 Chicago Daily Tribune 2 June 1907; 16 June 1907; 28 July 1907; 2 August 1907; 4 August 1907; 17 October 1907.

40 Amusements, Chicago Daily Tribune 11 May 1907.

41 ‘The Biggest Day of the Year at White City Next Friday’, Chicago Daily Tribune 28 July 1907.

42 Kellermann, How to Swim, p. 30.

43 Kellerman, ‘My Story’, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 3.

44 Mark A. Herlihy, ‘Leisure, Space, and Collective Memory in the “Athens of America”: A History of Boston’s Revere Beach’, PhD Thesis, Dept of American Civilization, Brown University, 2000; UMI Films, pp. 137–138.

45 ‘Returning to Conservatism’, The New York Times 7 May 1915, p. 6.

46 ‘Annette Kellerman in a New Role’, Chicago Daily Tribune 1 August 1909.

47 ‘Bathing Suit Must be Cut’, The Boston Post 7 November 1908, cited in Herlihy, ‘Leisure, Space, and Collective Memory in the “Athens of America”’, pp. 138–9.

48 For example, ‘Gimbels’ department store advertisement, The New York Times 9 June 1911, p. 7.

49 ‘Coney Island to Ban “Petting” This Summer’, The New York Times 13 May 1930, p. 28.

50 Mildred Adams, ‘From Bloomers to Shorts: An Epic Journey’, The New York Times 26 August 1934, pp. SM10, 17.

51 Caroline Daley, Leisure & Pleasure: Reshaping & Revealing the New Zealand Body 1900–1960 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003).

52 For example, ‘Annette Kellerman Performing Water Ballet ca. 1925’, Item 554, National Film and Sound Archive (Australia).

53 In theatre advertisements, The New York Times 10 January 1909, p. X9.

54 ‘Theatrical Notes’, The New York Times 23 January 1909, p. 5.

55 Kellerman interview with Michael Charlton, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 2.

56 ‘Vaudeville’, The New York Times 28 February 1909, p. X10; Theatre advertisements, The New York Times 22 March 1909, p. 16.

57 ‘The Vaudeville Theatres’, The New York Times 23 March 1909, p. 9; display advertisements, The New York Times 28 March 1909, p. X9.

58 ‘Vaudeville’, The New York Times 28 March 1909, p. X8.

59 ‘The Vaudeville Theatres’, The New York Times 27 April 1909, p. 11; ‘Woman Diver Scored’, The New York Times 11 May 1909, p. 4.

60 ‘Actress Leads Auto Chase; Annette Kellermann Barely Beats an Injunction in a Broadway Race’, The New York Times 4 May 1909, p. 9; ‘Woman Diver Scored; Neither She Nor Her Manager Regards a Contract’, The New York Times 11 May 1909, p. 4; ‘Her Dive into Tank was only a Faint: William Morris Blames Vaudeville Trust for the Swooning of Annette Kellerman’, The New York Times 20 October 1915, p. 9. There is some detail on this episode in Emily Gibson and Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2005), pp. 79–84.

61 It was not the last time she had a legal battle with a theatre manager. In 1913, she sued for salary and royalties. ‘Splash! Splash! And Splash! Annette Kellerman Sues’, Chicago Daily Tribune 8 February 1913.

62 ‘King and Queen of Carnival Elected’, The New York Times 23 April 1909, p. 7.

63 ‘Volley of Hail Routs Soldiers’, The New York Times 30 April 1909, p. 7.

64 ‘Carnival Parade Off Until Monday’, The New York Times 1 May 1909, p. 7.

65 ‘Told Thousands of Auto’s Universality’, The Automobile Vol. XX, No. 18 (6 May 1909), p. 728.

66 Kellerman, ‘My Story’, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 3.

67 ‘No Swimming for Annette’, The Los Angeles Times 28 August 1910, p. III 1.

68 The speed for which he was arrested was all of thirty miles per hour. ‘Miss Kellermann in Speeding Auto’, The New York Times 29 July 1909, p. 4.

69 ‘A New “Century” Dictionary’ [advertisement], The New York Times 19 August 1909, p. 4; ‘Miss Kellermann Flies: Makes Trip From Cleveland to Curtis Field in Five Hours’, The New York Times 14 September 1925, p. 17.

70 ‘Farewell to “The Old Farm”’, The New York Times 13 May 1909, p. 7; ‘At the Theatres and Roof Gardens’, The New York Times 25 July 1909, p. X7.

71 Kellerman, ‘My Story’, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 3.

72 ‘Miss Hoffmann’s New Act’, The New York Times 1 February 1910, p. 7.

73 Program for Keith’s Theatres, Columbus, Ohio 1909–10, week of 28 February, Ephemera Collection, Petherick Reading Room, National Library of Australia.

74 Kellermann, How to Swim, p. 31. She was probably aware in 1909 that ‘Little Elsie [who] swims like a mermaid and looks like a peach’ was performing at White City Park where she had worked. Chicago Daily Tribune 25 July 1909. Her films would be imitated later too. ‘The Spice of Life … News and Gossip of the Playhouses’, The Los Angeles Times 14 May 1919, p. III 4.

75 ‘In the Theaters’, Chicago Daily Tribune 11 December 1910; Chicago Daily Tribune 21 December 1910.

76 Kellerman, ‘My Story’, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 3.

77 ‘Modern Woman Getting Nearer the Perfect Figure’, The New York Times 4 December 1910, p. SM4.

78 ‘Chinese Girl Rivals Annette Kellerman’, The Los Angeles Times 9 September 1913, p. I 4.

79 ‘Among the Magazines’, The New York Times 24 July 1909, p. BR456.

80 ‘Vaudeville’, The New York Times 15 August 1909, p. X7.

81 ‘No Swimming for Annette’, The Los Angeles Times 28 August 1910, p. III 1.

82 Program for Keith’s theatres, Columbus, Ohio 1909–10, week of 28 February, Ephemera Collection, Petherick Reading Room, National Library of Australia.

83 Advertisements, The New York Times 3 November 1912, p. PS7.

84 Advertisements, The New York Times 3 November 1912, p. PS7.

85 ‘Annette Kellerman’s Deauville Season’, New York Herald n.d, Folder of Photos, Postcards, A. Kellerman papers, MS. 9669, National Library of Australia.

86 Kellerman, ‘My Story’, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 3.

87 ‘Croker in Training, But Breaks Rules’, The New York Times 4 June 1912, p. 4.

88 Advertisement for Gimbel Brothers, The New York Times 23 August 1914, p. 16. Other product endorsements would include bathing suits and caps.

89 ‘Theatrical News Notes’, Chicago Daily Tribune 21 February 1912.

90 ‘Society at Home and Abroad’, The New York Times 12 November 1911, p. X1.

91 ‘Lively Operetta at Winter Garden’, The New York Times 21 November 1911, p. 9.

92 ‘Theatrical Notes’, The New York Times 25 January 1912, p. 11.

93 Kellerman, ‘My Story’, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 3.

94 ‘At Other Playhouses’, The New York Times 26 November 1911, p. X1.

95 The British Australasian 23 May 1912, p. 23 and 30 May 1912, p. 23.

96 The British Australasian 6 June 1912, p. 23.

97 ‘Proctor in London Alliance’, The New York Times 9 September 1912, p. 9; ‘Annette Kellermann Back’, The New York Times 13 September 1912, p. 9.

98 Program for the Southend Hippodrome, week of 25 August 1913, Ephemera Collection, Petherick Reading Room, National Library of Australia.

99 ‘Annette Kellermann Here With Play’, The New York Times 13 November 1913, p. 11.

100 These 1909 films were titled ‘The Bride of Lammermoor, a Tragedy of Bonnie Scotland’, ‘Adele’s Wash Day’ and ‘Miss Annette Kellerman’ and were made by the Vitagraph Co.; listed in the Catalog of the American Film Institute.

101 ‘Bermuda Gayeties, Balls and Dinners’, The New York Times 24 December 1913, p. 11.

102 ‘Facts and Comments About the Stage and Its People’, Chicago Daily Tribune 17 August 1913.

103 ‘In the Busy World of the Movies’, The New York Times 10 May 1914, p. X5.

104 Advertisement for B.F. Keith’s Palace Theatre, The New York Times 6 December 1914, p. XX4; and Kellerman, ‘My Story’, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 3.

105 Program for Palace Theatre, Sydney, Ephemera Collection, Petherick Reading Room, National Library of Australia.

106 ‘Annette Kellerman in Pretty Pictures’, Chicago Daily Tribune 18 May 1914. The film was shown in Chicago until at least the end of the year.

107 ‘Annette Kellerman in Pretty Pictures’, Chicago Daily Tribune 18 May 1914.

108 ‘All Excitement Over Pictures’, The Los Angeles Times 20 May 1915, p. II 9.

109 Munchausen Mullagitawny, ‘When the Sergeant Saw Annette!”, The Picture Show 20 September 1919, pp. 16–17.

110 ‘Written on the Screen’, The New York Times 16 January 1916, p. X6.

111 ‘Written on the Screen’, The New York Times 19 December 1915, p. X11.

112 ‘Written on the Screen’, The New York Times 12 March 1916, p. X10.

113 ‘Annette Kellermann Returns’, The New York Times 19 April 1916, p. 11.

114 Kellerman, ‘My Story’, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 3.

115 Undated letter [ca. 1974] to Colin Thompson, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 1.

116 ‘The New Plays’, The New York Times 15 October 1916, p. X6.

117 ‘Kellermann Film Shown at the Lyric’, The New York Times 18 October 1916, p. 9.

118 Advertisements, The New York Times 20 November 1916, p. 11.

119 The Triad n.s. 2 (10 February 1917), p. 6.

120 ‘Annette Kellermann’s Latest Success – A Movie Triumph – A 1,000,000 Dollar Fox Film’, The Green Room: Australia’s Greatest Stage Magazine 1 August 1916, p. 2.

121 ‘Annette Kellermann’s Latest Success’, The Green Room, pp. 2, 4.

122 Ibid., p. 4.

123 ‘A Daughter of the Gods – In Story and Picture’, The Green Room 2 October 1916, p. 12.

124 ‘New Productions at the Sydney Theatres’, The Green Room 1 February 1917, p. 9.

125 ‘What News on the Rialto?’ The New York Times 24 December 1916, p. X5.

126 Kellermann, How to Swim, p. 34.

127 ‘Diving Act at Hippodrome’, The New York Times 23 January 1917, p. 7.

128 ‘The Movies’, The New York Times 7 January 1917, p. X8.

129 ‘Flashes from Movieland’, The New York Times 22 July 1917, p. 66.

130 ‘Film Flashes’, The New York Times 2 September 1917, p. 42.

131 Film record of ‘Queen of the Sea’, American Film Institute Catalog.

132 ‘Films of the Week’, The Times 1 January 1920, p. 10.

133 ‘Annette, Queen of the Sea’, The New York Times 2 September 1918, p. 7.

134 Undated letter to Colin Thompson, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 1.

135 ‘Screen People and Plays’, The New York Times 24 October 1920, p. X2; Grace Kingsley, ‘Annette Forms Company’, The Los Angeles Times 6 September 1919, p. II 3.

136 On the transition from vaudeville to cinema, see Richard Waterhouse, Private Pleasures, Public Leisure: A History of Australian Popular Culture Since 1788 (South Melbourne: Longman, 1995), pp. 175–6.

137 ‘Annette Kellerman To Open at Tivoli Theatre’, undated flyer, Ephemera Collection, Petherick Reading Room, National Library of Australia.

138 ‘Rickard’s Tivoli. Harry G. Musgrove Presents Annette Kellerman’, program in Ephemera Collection, Petherick Reading Room, National Library of Australia.

139 Quoted in ‘Champion swimmer on Tivoli screen and stage’, Katharine Brisbane (ed.), Entertaining Australia: An Illustrated History (Sydney: Currency Press, 1991), p. 192.

140 Marcelle Wooster, Typescript biography of Annette Kellerman, Kellerman Papers, Box 1, Folder 4.

141 ‘“Splash Me, Girls!” Illustrating some of the swimming costumes that the stars are wearing’, The Picture Show 18 October 1919, p. 14.

142 F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1920), p. 189.

143 Jack London, The Valley of the Moon (1913; New York: Macmillan, 1928), p. 129.

144 Andrew J. Furer, ‘Jack London’s New Woman: A Little Lady With a Big Stick’, Studies in American Fiction Vol. 22 No. 2 (Autumn 1994), esp. 201.

145 Junichiro Tanizaki, Naomi ([1924]; New York: Vintage Books, 2001), p. 29.

146 Grace Kingsley, ‘Mermaids to go Cameraing’, The Los Angeles Times 14 September 1919, p. III 1.

147 Tanizaki, Naomi, pp. 38–9.

148 Kendall H. Brown, ‘The “Modern” Japanese Woman’, The Chronicle of Higher Education 21 May 2004, p. B19.

149 Vera Mackie, ‘The Moga as Racialised Category in 1920s and 1930s Japan’, in L. Boucher, J. Carey and K. Ellinghaus (eds.), Historicising Whiteness: Transnational Perspectives on the Construction of an Identity (Melbourne: RMIT Publishing, 2007).

150 ‘Miss Hoffmann’s New Act’, The New York Times 1 February 1910, p. 7.

151 ‘Annette Kellermann’s Latest Success’, The Green Room p. 4.

152 ‘STAE [sic]: Plays Hold Over’, The Los Angeles Times 25 May 1919, p. III 13.

153 See, for example, Patty O’Brien, The Pacific Muse: Exotic Femininity and the Colonial Pacific (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), p. 243.

154 ‘Flashes’, The Los Angeles Times 6 June 1921.

155 Jennifer M. Bean, ‘Technologies of Early Stardom and the Extraordinary Body’, Camera Obscura 48, Vol. 16 No. 3 (2001), pp. 10, 14.

156 ‘Annette Kellerman Hurt When Glass Tank Bursts’, Chicago Daily Tribune 4 February 1914.

157 Annette Kellermann, ‘“Stockade” to Protect the Beaches from the Man-Eaters’, The Washington Post 16 July 1916, p. ES3.

158 Clarkson, Lanes of Gold, p. 24.

159 Osmond and Phillips, ‘“Look at That Kid Crawling”’, p. 57.

160 O’Brien, The Pacific Muse, pp. 216–226.

161 The Picture Show 1 March 1921, p. 27.

162 The Picture Show 1 March 1921, p. 67.

163 Kellermann, How to Swim, p. 37.

164 Annette Kellerman, Fairy Tales of the South Seas and Other Stories (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., n.d. [1926]), opposite p. 46.

165 Biographical and bibliographic information is available at the Jack London Online Collection, including a biographical sketch by Clarice Stasz. [Accessed 1 June 2008.]

166 ‘Martin Johnson and his Wife, Explorers, Go to Conquer Cannibals with a Camera’, The Picture Show 10 May 1919, pp. 18–19.

167 Rod Edmond, ‘Skin and bones: Jack London’s diseased Pacific’, Ch. 7 in his Representing the South Pacific: Colonial Discourse from Cook to Gauguin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

168 Advertisement for films made by the Austral Photoplay Co. Ltd., an Australian film studio. The Picture Show 24 May 1919, p. 27.

169 One reported story is that she used ‘Cooee’ at a Los Angeles wharf to meet a visiting Australian stranger. ‘Australians in the Studios’, The Picture Show 4 October 1919, pp. 18–19. Moreover, apparently Kellerman called her dog ‘Cooee’.

170 ‘Beauty who swam in the big pool’, The Sydney Morning Herald 14 April 2004.

171 Kellermann, ‘“Stockade” to Protect the Beaches from the Man-Eaters’.

172 ‘An Australian Venus’ Hints on Swimming’, The Green Room 2 October 1916, p. 17.

173 ‘Annette Kellerman Triumphs’, The Picture Show 27 September 1919, pp. 18-19.

174 ‘Naked Girls on the Stage’, The Green Room 1 February 1917, p. 5; ‘Is it Rude to Pose in the Nude? The Decline of Art and the Development of Modesty into Wowserism’, The Green Room 1 June 1917, pp. 1-2.

175 ‘The Film World’, The Times 15 August 1921, p. 6.

176 Annette Kellerman, Physical Beauty: How to Keep It (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1918), p. 13.

177 ‘An Australian Venus’ Hints on Swimming’.

178 Kellerman, Physical Beauty, p. 85.

179 John Hetherington, Melba (London: Faber & Faber, 1967), p. 20.

180 ‘Women Enter Garden Swims’, The New York Times 24 December 1914, p. 7.

181 ‘Wins Annette Kellermann Prizes’, The New York Times 5 January 1917, p. 11.

182 Phyllis, ‘In the Looking Glass’, The British Australasian 25 January 1917, p. 20.

183 For example, ‘Pickups and Putouts’, The New York Times 16 July 1925, p. 15.

184 Frank S. Nugent, ‘Glamour Girls: A Film Cavalcade’, The New York Times 25 June 1939, p. SM5.

185 ‘Hollywood Memos’, The New York Times 9 December 1951, p. 131.

186 O’Brien, The Pacific Muse, pp. 244–50.

187 Adria L. Imada, ‘Hawaiians on Tour: Hula Circuits through the American Empire’, American Quarterly Vol. 56 No. 1 (March 2004), p. 134.

188 Kate Hunter, ‘“Fifi from Tahiti” and other Koori girls: Untangling race and gender in travelling shows to the 1950s’, paper presented at the Australian Historical Association Conference, University of New England, Armidale, September 2007. Cited with kind permission of the author.

Race and the Modern Exotic: Three ‘Australian’ Women on Global Display

   by Angela Woollacott