Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Original Million Dollar Mermaid The Annette Kellerman Story by Emily Gibson and Barbara Firth

In the early 20th century a young Australian woman named Annette Kellerman became one of the world’s biggest stars in vaudeville and the movies. Years later in 1952 her life story would inspire a splashy Technicolor movie starring then swimming star Esther Williams as “The Million Dollar Mermaid.”

The story begins with a little girl with her skinny legs in iron braces, suffering from rickets. She took up swimming to strength her legs and soon the braces were off and she was beating the boys and breaking records. She loved every moment of it.

After her family fell on hard times, she and her father traveled to England where she began giving exhibition dives in a one piece, modernized bathing suit of her own design. Remember, this was back when women still went into the water wearing full skirts, bloomers, bathing caps, and even lace-up shoes. Her attempts to swim the English Channel made news around the world. And she was soon appearing nightly in a huge glass tank starring in her own water ballets in such elite theaters as The Hippodrome and The Palladium. And giving lectures about her healthy lifestyle—no alcohol, cigarettes, or red meat—and beauty and exercise tips to eager women.

Then Hollywood beckoned. In 1916 Annette became the first major Hollywood star to appear nude in a film, the sadly lost “Daughter of the Gods,” a big budget fairy tale romance about mermaids and mortals and eternal love. It was a million dollar hit, thus earning Annette the sobriquet “Million Dollar Mermaid.” During the production of “Neptune’s Daughter,” another mythical ocean romance, Annette suffered a spinal cord injury when the glass tank she was swimming in cracked. Doctors said she would never walk again, but she defied them, and not only walked, but swam, and even danced again, and went on to make more movies.

But the public is fickle and fame of this kind seldom lasts long after the novelty wears off and the curious are satisfied  There’s only so much you can do with swimming. And Annette was soon back to taking whatever work she could get during the dying days of vaudeville, where the enormous cost of staging a water ballet in a glass tank proved increasingly prohibitive. During World War II she was very active working for the Red Cross to raise money and entertain the troops, but she poured so much of her own money into this lavish water shows that it’s really no wonder she ended up broke. She also opened her own health food store but that failed to prosper and in 1952. miffed that she would not be allowed to portray herself on screen, she returned to Hollywood to act as adviser on the movie of her life.

As Orson Welles once famously said, “if you want a happy ending it depends on where you end your story.” While the movie’s version of Annette’s life ends happily in the arms of the man she loves, the real Annette Kellerman died practically penniless in 1975 at the age of 89 in Queensland, she even had to sell an old fur coat to try to make ends meet. But she did in fact enjoy lifelong personal happiness. In 1912 she married her manager, Jimmie Sullivan, and had the happy marriage every woman dreams of, which only ended with his death in 1972, after which Annette’s own splendid health began to deteriorate.

If you've ever seen the Esther William’s movie “Million Dollar Mermaid,” and wondered how much truth was in this supposedly true story about the world’s first swimming superstar, this book is a great way to find out.

You can see several of Annette's theatrical and film costumes, including this mermaid tail, at

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