Shirley May Setters: American swimmer who, at 17, tried to cross the English Channel

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The Independent Online

Shirley May Setters, with her blue eyes, upturned nose and cute dimpled smile, captivated two continents and the imagination of the world with her attempt to swim the English Channel in 1949.

Aged 17, the Massachusetts schoolgirl would have become the youngest person in history to conquer the 21-mile stretch of limb-chilling, frigid double tides and currents between England and France. The fact that Setters' three attempts ended in glorious failure seemed to matter little to the legions of fans that followed her through news reports and newsreels.

In a post-war era crying out for heroic deeds, she evoked the exuberance of the 1920s, when the American swimmer Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to cross the Channel and aviator Charles Lindbergh made the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic. In the intervening years, dozens of other swimmers were lured by the Channel, but Setters became the most enthusiastically publicised and supported, being cast as a symbol of post-war America's pluck and perseverance.

Perhaps her popularity owed much to her atypical cross-Channel swimmer stature, lacking the standard covering of protective flab that helps swimmers to withstand the cold. Indeed, Setters not only had a slender figure (though newspapers talked of her "ample bosom"), she was also extremely pretty. Upon her arrival in Europe, The London Star reported, "Tawny hair as glamorous as a film star's swept her white fox fur collar, and she flashed a smile as brilliant as a toothpaste advertisement at the crowds."

Setters never set out to be a hometown heroine, but accepted the role once it was thrust upon her by a combination of her father's ambition, and the shrewd promotions of press agent Ted Worner, who could see the thirst for human interest stories and the American appetite for ad­ven­turers. After several races, Worner arranged a publicity stunt which would stoke their ambitions for a Channel attempt. On 10 July 1949, Setters swam 14 miles from Lower Manhattan to Coney Island. Days later, she crossed the Atlantic with a small entourage to be welcomed by banks of press and photographers, who seemed to fuel the frenzy with reports, untrue, that Setters would be swimming nude.

After several delays due to bad weather, her time had come. In the meantime, however, two Egyptians, a Frenchman and a Dutch housewife tried to swim the Channel, but succumbed to exhaustion. Furthermore, 24 August 1949 saw an 18-year old Yorkshire boy, Philip Mickman, become the youngest person to successfully make the crossing. At 17, Setters still had a chance to claim the distinction.

Wearing a thick layer of protective grease, an orange cap and a black bathing suit with the words "Black Magic'' emblazoned across the bosom, promoting Orson Welles's new film, Setters slipped into the cold waters of the Channel at Cap Gris Nez at 5.26am on 6 September 1949. Almost 10-and-a-half hours later, and only six miles from Dover, Setters, nauseous and with her limbs freezing, was pulled from the water.

She later recalled, "They insisted I come out... Oh what a heartbreak! I could see the cliffs... the White Cliffs of Dover. Oh I was screaming murder. But they grabbed me and once they touch you, you're all done... you're disqualified."

Within a year, Setters had returned for another much-hyped attempt. However, five miles from Dover, she was again pulled from the water, "hysterical and weeping" into her pilot boat, due to fatigue. She sobbed, "Everyone's going to think I'm a flop." Setters believed she had let down her hometown and her country as she was swimming to honour the US flag. That same day, 8 August 1950, another American swimmer, 32-year-old Florence Chadwick, broke Ederle's record.

Nevertheless, Setters remained popular because of her determination to succeed, defying orders to leave the choppy currents and frigid temperatures while putting her life at risk. She returned to ticker tape parades in her hometown and razzmatazz all over the country, and was invited to make a cross-country promotional tour. "I hated every minute of it,'' she recalled. She made the cover of many magazines, including Time. Inundated with fan mail and countless marriage proposals, Setters socialised with celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable and former Olympian and Hollywood's best-known Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller.

Setters' photogenic, wholesome good looks and newsreel stardom made her a Hollywood prospect, but she rebelled against plans by her father and her agent to market her as the next Esther Williams, a former swimming champion and MGM movie star.

Following her two publicised Channel attempts, Setters made one last bid, on 22 August, only to be disqualified on a technicality because her father had not signed some sponsor release forms. According to her son, father and daughter fell out over the incident and were never reconciled.

Born in Fall River, Massachusetts on 11 August 1932, where she spent almost her entire life, Shirley May France was one of four children of John and Florence France. Her father was an oil-burner salesman and her mother tended the home.

Her father, a former amateur endurance swimming champion, knew from an early age that his daughter was a good swimmer and promoted her in a series of aquatic conquests. At 10, she beat her father's time in the nine-mile Fall River City Length Swim, near Somerset. At 14, she swam 33 miles across Lake St. Clair in Michigan. Two years later, she was named the world's long-distance women's champion when she was the sole female racer to swim in fresh water across Lake George, New York, finishing 10th and one of only 15 to finish from 121 starting the 12-mile race.

Ready to compete in the 1948 Olympics, she decided to swim the English Channel after officials cancelled the endurance swimming.

In 1950, Setters said, "If I have my way, I'll never see water again, except in a bathtub." This did not quite happen, as later in life she taught swimming at the Fall River Y.M.C.A. In addition, she became a hat model in New York, an actress and later a disc jockey at a radio station in Somerset before working in the family-run restaurant.

Setters died of cancer, aged 79. She is survived by her five children.

Shirley May Setters (née France), swimmer: born Fall River, Massachusetts 11 August 1932; married Marine Capt. Douglas Smith 1954 (died 1959, two sons, one daughter); married Donald Setters 1961 (died 2009, two sons); died Fall River, Massachusetts 18 March 2012.