Her derring-do 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. Dozens of other swimmers were lured by the channel in the intervening years, but Miss France became the most vigorously ballyhooed.
The fact that Miss France never made it to the white cliffs mattered little to the legions of fans who followed her in breathless news reports. Her valiant effort, her blue eyes and wickedly cute dimpled smile were enough.
Miss France died March 18 a hospital near Somerset, Mass., where she was known by her married name of Shirley May Setters. She was 79 and had cancer, her son Donald P. Setters Jr. said.
Miss France never set out to be a hometown heroine but embraced the role once it was thrust upon her by a combination of her father’s ambition, the wily promotion of a press agent, newspapers’ thirst for human interest stories and the American appetite for adventurers.
Her dad, a former amateur swimming champion who made a living fixing oil burners, knew his daughter was a good swimmer and engaged her in a series of aquatic conquests. In 1948, as the only woman among 100 contestants, she finished 10th in a race across New York’s Lake George.
Ted Worner, a rollicking press agent who had known Ederle, told the New Yorker magazine that he “had a hunch the public might be ready for another one of those things.” He began stoking Miss France’s ambition to swim the channel — and ginned up a stunt that made her a press darling.
On July 10, 1949, with plenty of reporters in tow, Miss France swam 14 miles from Lower Manhattan to Coney Island in southern Brooklyn. It took her five hours and 40 minutes. (The trip was made slightly longer by a detour to avoid some dirty sewer water.)
Days later, Miss France was off to Europe with a small entourage. Awaiting them there was a slew of reporters poised to deliver stroke-by-stroke accounts of her swim. Fueling the frenzy was a report — untrue — that Miss France would swim in the nude. On the contrary, she left the English besotted by her wholesomeness. “Pleased ta meetcha,” she greeted onlookers.
With bad weather and other delays, the appointed date of Miss France’s swim came and went, and came and went. Meanwhile two Egyptians, a Frenchman and a Dutch housewife tried to swim the channel and succumbed to exhaustion.
On Aug. 24, 1949, Philip Mickman, a Yorkshire boy, became the youngest person at the time to swim the channel. He was 18. Miss France — then 17 — still had a chance to claim the distinction. (She wore a suit bearing the words “Black Magic” at the behest of Worner, to promote a film by the same name.)