When she was 14, her family moved to England, where her father, Frederick, a man down on his luck, decided that Annette's talent as a swimmer might be used to enhance the family's failing fortunes. He announced to the British press that his daughter would swim the Thames River from Putney to Blackwall, a distance of 26 miles. Such a feat was unheard of for anyone, let alone a teenage girl. He also said that she would train for a very short time and that while in training her diet would consist mostly of bread and milk.
Annette completed the swim, became an international heroine and went on to gain fame (and a small fortune from sponsors) by performing other longdistance swimming feats. Twice she failed to become the first woman to swim the English channel, both times after the tide turned against her. Though Kellerman was not a great beauty, she was not at all shy and was enticed into vaudeville and appeared at the London Hippodrome.
Kellerman was such a hit that she went to the U.S. in the spring of 1907. She began her tour with an unforgettable performance in the outdoor swimming pool at White City amusement park in Chicago during a snowstorm. She entertained the crowd by executing a sensational high dive into a glass-enclosed tank, performing various water ballets and spending long periods of time underwater while eating and reading a newspaper. She went on to do 55 shows a week in Chicago for the next three months.
That summer she was booked into the amusement park at Boston's Revere Beach. One morning she made a brief publicity appearance on the beach—and attained immortality. She was wearing her usual vaudeville costume—a boy's black woolen racing suit that clung tightly to her torso and left her legs, arms and neck bare. Some staid women were on the beach that day in their usual cumbersome swimming garb, which included skirts, long-sleeved blouses and stockings. One of the ladies espied the lightly clad Kellerman and called a cop, who collared her for indecent exposure.
Kellerman went to jail and then to court, where she learned that the legal objections to her beachwear were based not on the form-fitting qualities of the suit but on the amount of skin it revealed. So she sewed a pair of black stockings onto the bottom of the suit, attached sleeves and a neckpiece to the top and returned to Revere—as curvaceous and sexy as ever, but with nearly every centimeter of her skin covered to meet the demands of the law. Thus was born the one-piece swimsuit, which allowed women to look like women and made Kellerman the world's first aquatic glamour girl.
She went on to star in several silent movies, including Neptune's Daughter, Queen of the Sea and A Daughter of the Gods. In the last one, Kellerman played a goddess so full of charm that when she fell into a pool of gnashing alligators, they were instantly transformed into swans. She also played the New York Hippodrome in the early 1920s for the gigantic sum of $5,000 a week and appeared on stage with some of the greatest stars of the day—Charlie Chaplin, Al Jolson, Jimmy Durante, Enrico Caruso, Anna Pavlova and Maurice Chevalier.
In 1952, Esther Williams wore 28 different bathing suits as the star of Million Dollar Mermaid, a movie based on Kellerman's life. Kellerman died in 1975 at the age of 87.
In 1913 a local rower asked the Portland (ORE.) Knitting Company to make him a pair of wool trunks to wear while working out on wintry waters in the Northwest. The company's two owners, John Zehntbauer and Carl Jantzen, came up with a knitted garment that was ribbed like a sweater cuff. The rower was delighted, and Zehntbauer and Jantzen decided to manufacture swimsuits of the same material. The suit they designed sold very well for years, despite the fact that it weighed two pounds when dry and eight pounds when wet.
In the early 1920s, not long after Portland Knitting had renamed itself Jantzen Inc., the company created what turned out to be one of the greatest retail-marketing devices of the century—a sticker for car windshields that depicted a girl diving in a red swimsuit. The Jantzen girl was so popular that the company gave out no fewer than 10 million stickers in the '20s. At one point, a number of states, including the relentlessly stick-in-the-mud Massachusetts, refused to grant a driver's license to anyone who carried such a risqu� drawing on his windshield. But most of the states had a hard time making the Jantzen rule stick.