Water Safety – Mae West or Annette Kellerman?

Summer’s in full swing, and it’s time to be out on the water with a Coast Guard approved personal flotation device. That’s a mouthful to say so a personal flotation device is nicknamed PFD for short. PFDs (or life-preservers) have had other nicknames throughout the years.

A3WMG1 MAE WEST - US actress 1892 to 1980
A3WMG1 MAE WEST – US actress 1892 to 1980

 

In World War II, PFDs were nicknamed a Mae West after the movie star famous for her sexy image. To this day, sailors still refer to personal flotation devices as Mae West.

 

 

Annette Kellerman

 

Back in the First World War, PFDs were nicknamed after another movie star, Annette Kellerman, the Million Dollar Mermaid. Known for her swimming, she was considered to be the “perfect woman” with measurements equal to Venus de Milo. (See my previous post for more on Annette Kellerman.)

Here’s a snippet from Private Lawrence Henry Foster’s letter to a friend from aboard the USS Leviathan in 1918, “We have these nifty little life-preservers [sic] that go on like a chest protector. We was told that if the ship went down, to keep cool, and take one blanket with us, and take an Annie Kellerman off the stoin.” (From Into the Danger Zone: Sea Crossings of the First World War by Tad Fitch and Michael Poirer)

So which do you prefer? PFD, Annie Kellerman or Mae West?

Given her athleticism, I’d call it an “Annie Kellerman.”

Diving In! Annette Kellerman

Annette Kellerman at Schooner Head in Bar Harbor, Maine on September 23, 1917. This photo was found in her 1924 book, Fairy Tales of the South Seas.
Annette Kellerman at Schooner Head in Bar Harbor, Maine on September 23, 1917.
This photo maybe found in her 1924 book, Fairy Tales of the South Seas.

I am taking the plunge with my first post to my Flotsam and Jetsam blog, a place where I post any odd bits of research that washed ashore. As a writer, I uncover so many interesting stories that I wanted a place to share them.

While conducting research for my WWI historical fiction novel, I started reading newspaper articles about Annette Kellerman and her days in Bar Harbor filming the silent movie, Queen of the Sea. I love old movies, Bar Harbor, and Acadia National Park so naturally I veered off course and followed the story.

In her day, Annette Kellerman was well-known swimming, dancing, diving, and the creator of the one piece bathing suit. Not only that, but she was one of the highest paid stars in vaudeville and on the screen. Her movie, Neptune’s Daughter, was the first movie to earn a million dollars at the box office, and her next movie, A Daughter of the Gods, was the first movie to cost a million dollars to produce. That’s why she earned the moniker, the Million Dollar Mermaid.

Annette did all her own stunt work. She was thrown over cliffs and into pools with live crocodiles. She rode horses, dove off towers, and waterfalls. She was never a mere damsel in distress waiting to be rescued. She did the rescuing.

For the featured stunt in Queen of the Sea, engineers constructed an eighty-five- foot tower called the Tower of Knives and Swords on one end of the shore at Schooner Head and a scaffold on the other. They connected the two structures by a wire that spanned 125 feet and was 65 feet high over the bay. Despite the best efforts of the engineers, there was no way to keep that wire from swaying.

Tower of Knives and Swords - Jonathan Silent Film Collection
Tower of Knives and Swords – Jonathan Silent Film Collection

On Sunday, September 23, 1917, hundreds of spectators stood along the shoreline at Schooner Head while the U.S. Navy kept curious boaters at bay.

It was late afternoon when Annette emerged from the tower. She stepped onto the wire gripping her parasol for balance. There was no net and the first fourteen feet she crossed were over submerged rocks. The wire was at least six times higher than any wire Annette had used on stage. Slowly she walked across the wire. Her calves ached from clutching the swaying wire.

At one point, Annette hesitated and appeared to lose her balance. She steadied herself, tossed her parasol into the sea, and leapt off the wire. The wind buffeted her, but she twisted into a dive position and smoothly entered into the cold, choppy waters of Frenchman’s Bay.

Her stunt was a remarkable feat on its own and would still be considered so today. What’s even more extraordinary was that a year prior Annette was thrown from a horse, hospitalized and warned that she might never walk again. She called her recovery, the most dramatic episode of her life. It took nearly a year of grueling physical therapy to recover. According to her biographer, she devised her own therapy routines.

Here’s what the Bar Harbor Times wrote about Annette’s daily routine while filming in Bar Harbor, Maine.

The popular idea of a motion picture star is that she lives a life of ease. This is not true in Miss Kellerman’s case. She is up ever morning at 6 o’clock and puts in a day that exhausts the trained athletes of her company. After her bath and massage she puts in an hour or two rehearsing ballet dancing and following this there is half an hour of gymnastic exercises. She has breakfast about 9 o’clock and walks to the location where the picture is being made. After a strenuous day of picture making she leaves about 5 o’clock in the afternoon when the light fails for photographer work, and starts for a ten or twelve mile walk over the mountain paths of Mt. Desert. On this jaunt she is usually accompanied by three athletes who have been selected as her personal body guard when she is working in the icy waters of the ocean. These men are regarded by Miss Kellermann as the most expert swimmers in the United States. They come from New Rochelle, New-York, and are William Noel, Eddie Carroll and “Toots” Brady- all as hard as nails and men who are in constant training. Miss Kellerman can outlast any one of these three. After the ten or twelve mile “hike,” the men are practically all in, while Miss Kellermann is as fresh as when she started. She sets a pace in excess of five miles an hour and keeps it up. After returning from the walk Miss Kellermann has a bath and rub down and except on the evenings when she gives a dance to members of her company is in bed at 8.30 o’clock. In addition to these strenuous activities during the day she finds time to practice wire walking and other activities expected of her for “Queen of the Sea.” (Bar Harbor Times, September 1, 1917)

Annette Kellerman was thirty years old when she graced Bar Harbor and made Queen of the Sea.

Sadly there are no known copies of this movie. Like so many movies of her day, these early movies were filmed on nitrocellulose, which is highly flammable and deteriorates into dry powder or a black mass of goo. Movie studios threw out many old movies. Film historians estimate 90 percent of all silent movies are lost. Only Annette Kellerman’s 1924 Venus of the South Seas remains intact.

Annette Kellerman as Merilla in Queen on the Sea
Annette Kellerman as Merilla in Queen on the Sea courtesy of the Jonathan Silent Film Collection

Books to Explore:

For more on the amazing Annette Kellerman read:

For Children: Mermaid Queen: The Spectacular Story of Annette Kellerman who Swam her Way to Fame, Fortune and Swimsuit Beauty by Shana Corey

For Adults: The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: the Annette Kellerman Story by Emily Gibson

 

 

Websites/Blogs to Navigate:

Online photos from the the Queen of the Sea can be found at the Jonathan Silent Film Collection at Chapman University.

For information on Annette Kellerman’s pioneering role in the silent film industry see How Women Worked in the US Silent Film Industry.

To discover the beauty of Mt. Desert Island combined with the Queen of the Sea read The Coast Watch Project: Art and Science at the Edges of Mt. Desert Island, Maine.

Acknowledgements:

I am grateful to Deborah Dyer of the Bar Harbor Historical Society, Claudia Horn Coordinator, Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections and Archives and Karin Carison of Northeast Historic Film for helping me piece together this story.