Review of Katharine Whitney Curtis: Mother of Synchronized Swimming

Whitney-Wei, Jordan. Katharine Whitney Curtis: Mother of Synchronized Swimming. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2020. Pp. 185. Notes, bibliography, and index. $39.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Vicki Valosik

In 1912, Katharine Curtis (nee Whitney) became the first woman to swim across Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin. Under the headline “Madison has a youthful Annette Kellerman,” a local newspaper compared Curtis to the endurance-swimmer-turned-vaudeville-star who had become a household name for her role in revolutionizing women’s swimwear. Little could anyone guess that only a few decades later, in 1958, Kellerman and Curtis would together be inducted into the Helms Foundation Hall of Fame for their roles in establishing a new aquatic sport: synchronized swimming. The International Swimming Hall of Fame would also later honor both women—Kellerman as a “forerunner” to synchronized swimming with her performances that combined ballet, swimming, and diving, and Curtis for “originating” the sport by choreographing routines of swimming stunts synchronized to music, leading the group of swimmers who were the first to be called synchronized swimmers, and for leading the first competition between synchronized swimming teams.

McFarland & Company, 2020.

While much has been written about the career and legacy of Annette Kellerman, whose life was immortalized in the Esther Williams film Million Dollar Mermaid, far less has been documented about Curtis. Jordan Whitney-Wei, Curtis’ great-grandnephew, fills an important gap with his biography Katharine Whitney Curtis: Mother of Synchronized Swimming. Drawing from the extensive holdings of Curtis’ personal papers at the Chicago History Museum’s archives, Whitney-Wei provides an intimate portrayal of Curtis’ life, which was notable for reasons beyond her swimming legacy. After a short but impactful stint as a physical education teacher and swim coach, during which time she laid the foundations for competitive synchronized swimming, Curtis became a recreational director for the American Red Cross in North Africa and Europe during World War II. In this role, she not only served thousands of American soldiers in need of physical respite and mental diversion, but also organized what was likely Europe’s first major aquacade and helped “spread the gospel” (Curtis’ words) of synchronized swimming abroad.

The book takes readers chronologically through Curtis’ life, frequently using excerpts from Curtis’ letters to enliven the narrative with her own words. After an opening chapter on Curtis’ family lineage, the second chapter delves into her adolescence and college years at the University of Wisconsin, including an important influence in Curtis’s life as a swimmer—an athletic trainer named Joe C. Steinauer who had previously worked as a vaudeville acrobat. Curtis and Steinauer experimented together with ways to apply techniques and movements from his aerial acrobatics to the water. The swimming stunts they developed provided a creative outlet for Curtis, who—although a versatile athlete—was not a fast swimmer and felt there should be an activity for swimmers who were more interested in form than speed.

Chapters three and four are the most substantive in terms of Curtis’ contributions to the development of synchronized swimming. In 1922, Curtis began teaching at the University of Chicago, where she also started a women’s swimming club. A nickelodeon record player located near the pool inspired Curtis to set to music some of the stunts that she and Steinauer had developed. Eventually, the music would serve as more than background accompaniment, as Curtis began coordinating the swimmers’ movements to the beat, just as one would in a waltz or other dance. Curtis called it “rhythmic swimming.” When the World’s Fair came to Chicago, Curtis organized a rhythmic swimming show called “the Modern Mermaids,” which featured more than 30 female swimmers and was seen by tens of thousands of fairgoers during the 1934 season. Radio announcer Norman Ross described the show as “synchronized swimming,” and the name stuck.

Curtis went on to develop rhythmic or synchronized swimming clubs at both Wright Junior College and the Chicago Teacher’s College and, in 1939 organized a competition between the two schools. Although Canada had hosted a stunt swimming competition between individual athletes in 1926, the Chicago competition was the first competition between teams of synchronized swimmers. Soon after, synchronized swimming came under consideration for inclusion in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) (which it gained in the early 1940s), with Curtis selected to chair the rules committee for the newly competitive sport.

Curtis was not entirely satisfied as a physical education instructor, so when the United States mobilized to enter World War II, Curtis—unattached and hungry for adventure—“wasn’t going to be left behind to float around in some pool” (p. 50). Drawing on her contacts at the American Red Cross, she secured a position as an assistant recreational director. Chapters five through eight follow Curtis’s wartime service from Casablanca and Agadir to Capri and Caserta. With barely a moment to herself during those busy years tending to the troops’ R&R, Curtis left behind the sport she had helped to found. It was only once the war was over that Curtis was able to utilize her unique aquatic skillset and organize a massive aquacade for the Allied Forces Headquarters Command in 1945, only a few weeks after V Day. The aquacade, which featured a volunteer cast of more than 250 swimmers, actors, and musicians, took place in Italy’s Caserta Palace pool and fountains and was seen by at least 2,000 spectators, including General Joseph McNarney.

The last three chapters provide a sketch of the remainder of Curtis’ life. After the war, Curtis became Director of Tours for the Special Services in Germany, a position that enabled her to travel throughout Europe and to the Middle East. By this point, synchronized swimming was becoming an international sport, and Curtis took the opportunity to meet with swimmers in the countries she visited, encouraging any fledgling development of synchronized swimming programs and connecting coaches with educational materials and resources. In 1979, just a year before she passed away, Curtis traveled to Fort Lauderdale, Florida to accept her induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame for her contributions to the development of synchronized swimming, which would make its Olympic debut in 1984.

This engaging biography contributes to our understanding of the evolution of synchronized swimming and documents the life of the woman largely considered to the be the sport’s founder. It sheds light on Curtis’ personal motivations, as well as professional influences and allies in promoting a style of swimming that valued form and groupwork over individual speed. It also details the work done by Curtis and others to codify the rules for synchronized swimming that were necessary to make it a competitive and global sport and ultimately to pave the way for its Olympic acceptance. The author also provides interesting historical context by interweaving Curtis’ life story with reminders of the political and economic events of the day.

A critical piece missing from the book, however, is the larger swimming and physical education context under which Curtis was working. While it is clear that the competitive sport of synchronized swimming would not exist as we know it today without the contributions made by Curtis, she did not work in a vacuum. Swimming clubs for women were popping up in colleges and communities across the United States throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and many of them were experimenting with group swimming, synchronization, formations, music, and stunts. A discussion of this larger trend would have been informative for readers. The author admits that Curtis was not the first to pair music with swimming (p. 46), but omits that swimming stunts, such as the type that Curtis and Steinauer developed, had been widely practiced—sometimes under the label “scientific” or “ornamental” swimming—by swim clubs, lifesaving societies, and variety performers since the late 1800s, with the first-known competition taking place in England in 1892. The author also details the water pageants that Curtis organized in 1927 at the Chicago Teacher’s College but doesn’t mention the widespread popularity of water pageants during that era. For example, the American Red Cross had been producing water pageants at colleges, community pools, and swim clubs across the United States starting in 1921; at Smith College, Gertrude Goss had been producing water carnivals and coaching rhythmic swimming since 1924.1 While the author may have considered such developments to be beyond the scope of the biography, their inclusion would have been a service to readers wishing to distinguish between Curtis’ unique contributions to the larger development of synchronized swimming versus the existing ideas and advancements she may have been building upon.

At the same time, the book has much to offer beyond swimming history. The primary source material that the author brings to light is of great value to researchers of World War II, the International Red Cross, work and gender, leisure and recreation, and numerous other topics beyond sports history. Curtis’ prolific newsletters to friends and acquaintances provide fascinating details and lively anecdotes about life in Prohibition and Depression-era America, wartime Europe, and post-war Germany, while Curtis’ more intimate and personal letters to her mother, sister, and close friends paint a fuller picture of how she viewed these events and the delights and challenges of being an unattached woman abroad during turbulent times.

A close friend of Curtis wrote of her: “The fact that she invented synchronized swimming is the least important part of her life to me. She was a thinking adventurer, who appreciated life far more than most do” (p. 169). Even as a researcher of the history of synchronized swimming, I would have to agree. Curtis befriended powerful generals and enlisted men alike, dedicated her career to providing sorely-needed diversions for war-weary servicemembers, sought and found adventure and economic independence on her own terms in an era when that was a rarity for women, and seemed—from her letters—to have delighted in each unique turn that her life took. Whitney-Wei’s biography successfully captures the story of a woman who not only laid the foundations for a modern Olympic sport but also lived life to the fullest during one of the most fascinating periods of modern history—and was gracious enough to document it for the rest of us.

1 Bean, Dawn Pawson. An American History: Synchronized Swimming. McFarland, 2005.

Vicki Valosik is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. She is currently working on a book on the history of aquatic performance with a focus on the development of synchronized. Her writing on these and other topics have appeared in numerous publications, including American Scholar, The Atlantic, Smithsonian, Slate, International Educator, and Washington Post Magazine. More information on her research, teaching, and publications are available at vickivalosik.com.

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