Shirley May France, who as a young woman tried to swim the English Channel, dies at 79

With the words “Black Magic” emblazoned across the bosom of her swimsuit, Shirley May France captivated two continents with her attempt to swim the English Channel in 1949.

Then a 17-year-old Massachusetts schoolgirl, she would have been the youngest person in history to conquer the 21 miles of frigid double tides and currents between Cap Gris Nez in France and England’s white cliffs of Dover.

(MARK KAUFFMAN/LIFE) - Shirley May France, a teenage American swimmer who became an international sensation when she tried unsuccessfully to swim the English Channel in 1949 and 1950, died March 18 at a hospital in Fall River, Mass. She was 79.

Gallery

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.)

She started from Cap Gris Nez on Sept. 6, 1949, at 5:26 a.m. Six miles from Dover, and fading from exhaustion after 10 1 / 2 hours of swimming, she was dragged out of the water by the minders following her in a boat.

“Please — please — leave me in,” she begged her coach. “Look how near it is,” she cried, looking to the shore.

A year later, Miss France sailed back to England for another much-hyped attempt. Five miles from Dover, she was again pulled from the water because of fatigue. Another American swimmer, 31-year-old Florence Chadwick, broke Ederle’s record that same day. Miss France was hysterical.

Shirley May France was born Aug. 11, 1932, in Fall River, Mass., not far from Somerset, where she spent nearly all her life.

Even in defeat, she was inundated with fan mail. Dozens of marriage proposals arrived by post. She met and was serenaded by Frank Sinatra and was said to have socialized with Jackie Robinson, Clark Gable and Johnny Weissmuller — an Olympic swimmer before he played Tarzan in the movies.

There was talk of movie roles for Miss France, but they never materialized. She was a hat model in New York City and a disc jockey in Massachusetts, and she taught swimming in Fall River. In her later years, she worked at her family’s pork pie restaurant in Somerset.

Her first husband, Marine Capt. Douglas Smith, died in a plane crash in 1959 after five years of marriage. Her second husband, Donald P. Setters Sr., died in 2009 after 48 years of marriage.

Survivors include three children from her first marriage, Scott Smith of Somerset, Daryl Smith of Lyons, France, and Shelby Smith of Fall River; two children from her second marriage, Donald P. Setters Jr. and Daniel Setters, both of Somerset; a brother; a sister; 12 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Between her two publicized attempts to swim the channel, Miss France made another try. She got close but was disqualified on a technicality involving her father’s failure to sign sponsor release forms, her son Donald said. Miss France and her father became estranged over the incident and never reconciled.

Incomplete as they were, Miss France’s channel swims amounted to more than a media hullabaloo. During one of the weather delays, she gave swimming lessons to a young girl who later managed to save herself in a shipwreck. Around the same time, a sailor fell off the deck of his carrier flight deck and kept himself afloat in the Mediterranean for 12 hours, he said — by thinking of Shirley May.

 
Read what others are saying