Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Diving Venus

"There is nothing more democratic than swimming. Swimming, like running, is a sport that requires in its most basic mode no equipment other than one’s body." – Annette Kellerman.

Swimmer and silent film actress Annette Kellerman, known as the "Diving Venus," was born on this day in 1888 in Sydney, Australia. She apparently occupies a number of obscure but important niches in pop culture history: by legend, she was the first woman to attempt to swim the English channel; the first to perform underwater ballet, the forerunner to today's synchronized swimming; the first to brave North American shores in a one-piece swimsuit; and, as a pioneering athlete turned film star, the first celebrity to appear nude on screen.

Born with weak legs and requiring braces to walk, Kellerman began swimming at an early age as therapy. She moved with her family to England when she was 14, where her down-and-out father Frederick Kellerman promoted her swimming prowess shamelessly. After a series of local exhibitions, Mr. Kellerman announced to the press that his little Annette would swim 26 miles down the Thames from Putney to Blackwall, training on a diet of bread and milk. The teenaged Annette succeeded mightily, and thereafter earned a small fortune by performing other swimming feats, but failed twice to become the first woman to swim across the English Channel (a feat finally accomplished by Gertrude Ederle in 1926).

In 1907 she moved to the U.S., performing water ballet to packed houses at the New York Hippodrome and doing high diving stunts at Chicago's White City amusement park in the dead of winter. While visiting Boston's Revere Beach in 1907, Annette appeared before the assembled press in a tight-fitting boy's one-piece racing swimsuit -- demure by today's standards, amply covering both bottom and top, but scandalous by the standards of the day, which required a woman to wear skirts, bloomers and stockings when cavorting in the surf. The police arrested her on the spot (some would cynically say it was just another publicity stunt) and hauled her away.

Kellerman, however, was not so easily turned away: when she discovered that it was not the tightness that violated the law but the amount of flesh shown in the outdoors, Kellerman returned to Revere Beach wearing a modified version of her original one-piece, showing off her curvaceous figure (she was actually 5'-4" weighing 140 lbs; perhaps more chutzpah than cheesecake, although a gawking Harvard professor stammered that Kellerman was "the most beautifully formed woman of modern times") in her tight, scoop-necked, sleeveless black leotard and tights while still not showing more skin than the law allowed. The woman’s one-piece bathing suit was born -- or at least a standard which allowed a woman to wear tight-fitting garb. For Kellerman, it was a matter of sport, not fashion: "I can’t swim," she declared, "wearing more stuff than you can hang on a clothesline."

Her overnight celebrity caused Hollywood to take note, and Kellerman's swimsuit was shown off in a couple of quick newsreels in 1909. Kellerman made her bona fide film debut later that year, and starred in 8 features, including Neptune's Daughter (1914, directed by Herbert Brenon). Her most notorious appearance, however, was in Brenon's Daughter of the Gods (1916; produced by William Fox), by reputation a bit of overripe nonsense as cinema (it is now lost), but enormously popular on the strength of Kellerman's "startling nude scenes," including a bit of nude swimming (confirmed in surviving production stills) -- 78 years before another uninhibited Australian, Elle Macpherson, would cause barely a ripple by appearing nude for long glorious stretches of the film Sirens (1994). At any rate, Daughter of the Gods made a fortune for Fox and Brenon.

In 1918, Kellerman wrote a book, Physical Beauty and How to Keep It, in which she offered diet tips. Her film career ended in the 1920s, but Kellerman's tale was revived when Esther Williams portrayed her in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). Kellerman died on November 5, 1975 in Southport, Australia.

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