The Wolanski Foundation Project


Paper no 37









List of papers








By Paul Bentley

8 April 2005


A book, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid, launched by Olympian Shane Gould at Wylie’s Baths, Coogee, on 7 April 2005, highlighted an important role of the Dennis Wolanski Library of the Performing Arts in the period 1973-1997 and rounded off an obsession by Barbara Firth to tell the full story of Australian vaudevillian, film star and swimmer, Annette Kellerman.

Allen & Unwin’s biography, written by Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, tells the story of a young Australian woman who became one of the highest paid and most adored Hollywood and vaudeville stars of the early twentieth century.

Born in Sydney in 1886, Annette took up swimming to overcome a childhood illness. Her sporting prowess led to a trip to England in search of fame and fortune. Before long, her marathon swims in the Thames and the English channel had captured the imagination of Londoners and Annette turned her fascination with water into a vaudeville act at the London Palladium.

When Hollywood beckoned, she quickly became a darling of the silent film era, starring in the first million-dollar film, A Daughter of the Gods. In 1907, she dared convention by wearing a men’s swimming costume to Revere Beach, Boston, where she was arrested for indecent exposure (but later acquitted). In 1908, Dr Dudley Sargent of Harvard University dubbed her the Perfect Woman because of the similarity of her physical attributes to the Venus de Milo.

Hollywood payed its respects in the 1950s film of life, The Million Dollar Mermaid, starring Esther Williams as Annette Kellerman.

Annette returned to Australia with her American husband Jimmy Sullivan in 1939, and during the war years raised the equivalent of over $50,000 for the Red Cross. She died penniless at Queensland’s Gold Coast on 6 November 1975.

The Sydney Opera House acquired the Kellerman collection of papers and memorabilia for the Dennis Wolanski Library & Archive of the Performing Arts in September 1975, after Annette had seen a news item about the new collection on the ABC television program, This Day Tonight, fronted by reporter Peter Collins, who was to become Minister for the Arts in the Greiner Government, and later, NSW Leader of the Opposition. The collection formed the nucleus of Splish Splash, an exhibition about swimming and its cultural impact, presented in the Sydney Opera House exhibition hall in 1977. The story of how the collection was acquired by the Opera House, and the central roles of Barbara Firth and Sydney Opera House General Manager Frank Barnes, are told in The Original Million Dollar Mermaid.

When the Sydney Opera House closed the Dennis Wolanski Library in 1996, papers and photographs in the Kellerman collection were transferred to the State Library of New South Wales and an extensive collection of costumes and other artefacts were transferred to the Powerhouse Museum.

A documentary film, The Original Mermaid, scripted by Emily Gibson and with Barbara Firth as a research consultant, was nominated at the 2003 Australian Film Industry Awards and was chosen by the Film Critics Circle of Australia as dual winner for the Best Documentary of 2003.

The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: the Annette Kellerman Story, by Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2005).


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