The Original Million Dollar Mermaid – The Annette Kellerman Story
by Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth
Allen and Unwin
Like so many stars of silent film and Vaudeville, today Annette Kellerman rates barely more than an obscure entry in IMDB. One-hundred years ago she sensationalized the world as she swam from glory to glory in a revealing bathing suit, preaching comfortable clothing for women, exercise and good nutrition for all, and raking in millions that somewhere along the way evaporated. Annette grew up in Sydney, daughter of a well-to-do and well connected family. She aspired to the stage, but rickets kept her in uncomfortable braces until she discovered swimming. This unusual exercise for the day restored her strength and gave her something to live for. After setting local records and beating all the boys, she set out for England. A few bold stunts propelled her to triumph after triumph, and eventually she became the highest paid act in the vaudeville circuit, and then a major motion picture star. Somewhere along the way, she went from leading society to pacing it to trailing behind, and while her star faded around WW2, she kept working in one capacity or another until she died at 90.
As biographies go, this one is well researched but a bit fawning. Author Gibson met Annette and her sister late in their lives, and reports her story from press clippings and personal reminiscences. We clearly get the idea that Annette’s physique and clinging swimsuit were no small part of her success, and that she had a major positive impact on the world around her. There’s not much juicy gossip, and only a few oblique references to people she may not have gotten along with. Kellerman wrote her own biography How To Swim at some point. This book draws on it very heavily, but never really mentions when she wrote it or how well it did. Her two greatest films are lost or damaged – Neptune’s Daughter survives only in part, and A Daughter of the Gods is completely lost. It’s a shame, as it was the highest grossing film released until the 1950s. It’s amazing how frail art can be.
This is the sort of book you might get for someone who remembers Annette Kellerman, as it is unabashedly positive. It also contains a few whopping typos, which I find jarring in a book released by any professional publisher. I rank this book as Nice, but Not Essential.