May 2013

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Annette Kellerman & Esther Williams

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Both were champion swimmers. Both made a splash in show business.

“My God, I wish I could meet her,” thought Esther Williams when she was shown a photograph of Annette Kellerman, the woman she was set to play in the 1952 MGM aqua-musical Million Dollar Mermaid.

Taken 30 years earlier, the photo showed Kellerman twirling a parasol as she walked a tightrope high above Santa Monica pier.

Born in Marrickville in 1886, Annette Kellerman began swimming at six as a treatment for rickets. She practised natation, mastered the trudgeon and, at 16, was the fastest woman in NSW waters. Moving to Melbourne, she got a job cavorting with the fishes in a glass tank at the Exhibition Aquarium. In 1905, her first attempt on the English Channel was thwarted by the weight of her skirted woollen bathing costume. In response, she sewed black stockings onto a boy’s bathers and invented the women’s one-piece swimsuit. When she wore one on a public beach in Boston, she was arrested for indecency.

By the 1920s, she was a star of screen and vaudeville, mixing mermaid routines with wire-walking, ballet dancing and high-diving into small tanks, sometimes containing crocodiles. She wrote books promoting health and fitness and toured the US giving lectures to “modern” women.

Esther Williams was a very modern woman. At eight, she was already working as a towel girl at her local Los Angeles pool. By 16, she was a national freestyle champion. When the outbreak of war dashed her medal hopes at the 1940 Olympics, she joined the Aquacades. Sumptuously irrigated movies soon followed, their gushing fountains and bathing beauties choreographed by Busby Berkeley.

Kellerman, meanwhile, had quit the water and opened a health-food shop in San Diego. One day, she turned up on the set of Million Dollar Mermaid. She was 65, “not a wrinkle on her face”.

The two women posed for a picture, then Williams asked how Kellerman felt about her playing her life.

“I wish you were Australian,” Kellerman answered.

“I’m the only swimmer in the movies, Miss Kellerman. I’m all you’ve got.”

Later in the shoot, Williams broke her neck when she dived from a 35-metre tower in a gold-sequinned leotard and aluminium crown. She spent five months in a full body cast. She recovered, but demand for water-based musicals was drying up and so was her movie career.

Annette Kellerman returned to live in Australia. She died aged 89 and became a municipal aquatic centre in Enmore.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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