Monday, May 22, 2023


Mackay and Whitsunday Life

Annette Kellerman - A Mermaid in our Midst

An extroverted Australian swimming and diving champion of the early 1900s, Annette Kellerman raised many an eyebrow with her exploits in world swimming circles and for her risqué appearances in films depicting her as a mermaid.

Born in 1887 in Sydney, as a child she suffered from rickets and had to wear calipers to assist her to walk until it was suggested she take up swimming. This not only fixed her problem but led to her being declared a perfect physical specimen. Thereafter, she made a career of swimming and became quite a celebrity in Australia, America, England and Europe where she travelled widely, giving swimming and underwater ballet displays, diving exhibitions and lecturing on physical development. She was the first woman to attempt (unsuccessfully) a crossing of the English Channel and completed marathon swims in the rivers Yarra, Thames and Seine.

Ultimately, she attracted the attention of Hollywood and appeared as a mermaid in two silent films, “Neptune’s Daughter” (1914) and “Daughter of the Gods” (1916); films which scandalised some because she appeared topless though long hair was appropriately draped to preserve a degree of decency. In 1907, she was arrested in Boston (US) for wearing a ‘revealing’ swim-suit in days when women wore neck to ankle bathers.  

During those heady days, she married American film agent, Jimmy Sullivan. Contrary to the usual Hollywood culture, the marriage was lasting - until Annette’s death in 1975 at Labrador, Gold Coast.

Readers might now be wondering just why this story belongs in the Whitsunday history section.

The point is that nowhere, in all the publicity about her, is there any mention of the fact that Annette Kellerman graced Whitsunday waters with her presence for nine months in 1933/4.

In August 1933, Annette and her husband came to Lindeman Island which they used as a base while making a movie about coral with Annette swimming among it as a mermaid, complete with fish-tail. Much of their time was spent camping on adjoining islands such as Cole, Maher and Seaforth. While on Cole Island in August 1933, a party from HMAS “Moresby” landed there to make survey sketches. This must have been quite a treat for a ship-load of virile sailors.

Originally planning to stay for only three months, unfavorable weather delayed filming and extended the stopover. Annette’s sister, Marcelle, was married to Frederick Charles Wooster who began a small resort on Newry Island in those years. Annette and her husband spent time there in a hut built for the purpose, the foundation of which still exists today.

During her stay at Lindeman, Miss Kellerman entertained guests, particularly over the Christmas holidays of 1933. She organised fancy-dress balls on Christmas and New Year’s days as well as water sports and other entertainment.  She had a diving tower of rough bush timber built off the beach to give displays and encouraged visitors to do likewise. At the time, the couple were camped on Seaforth Island and guests on Lindeman Island were invited there for a ‘jazzarino’ as Annette called it. She was ‘the life of the party’ - her presence was quite an event for those staying on the island.

In April 1934, the couple left for Europe after a farewell trip among the islands in the “Cheerio”, a tourist launch owned and operated then by local identity, Bruce Jamieson.  

Such was Annette’s fame that, in the 1950s, Hollywood produced a film of her life, “Million Dollar Mermaid”.  

Thus, our island area can notch up another item of fame in its historical records.

Story and photo courtesy Proserpine Historical Museum and thanks to the late Ray Blackwood.

Caption: Annette Kellerman was a famous actress and swimmer. Photo supplied

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