Wearing a thick layer of protective grease and a bathing suit emblazoned with an ad for the new Orson Welles movie “Black Magic,’’ Shirley May France slipped into the cold waters of the English Channel before dawn on Sept. 6, 1949.
Cast as a symbol of postwar America’s pluck and perseverance, the tall, blond 17-year-old from Somerset, Mass., set out to become the youngest woman to swim the 21-mile stretch from France to the White Cliffs of Dover.
She had already swam 12 miles across Lake George in New York in less than 10 hours and grabbed headlines after swimming 14 miles from Lower Manhattan to Coney Island. But bad weather and the Channel’s frigid tides turned her limbs into dead weight a few miles from shore.
“They insisted I come out and oh, no, I didn’t want to. I could see the shore,’’ she told the Globe in 1978. “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.’’
Her wholesome good looks and news reel 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. “I hated every minute of it,’’ she said of a cross-country promotional tour.
Instead, she returned to Somerset, married twice, and became Shirley May Setters. Mrs. Setters died of cancer March 18 in Charlton Memorial Hospital in Fall River. She was 79.
“My mother only cared about swimming for two reasons,’’ said her son Donald P. Setters Jr. “She loved her hometown of Somerset. She wanted to do it for her town. And she also felt she was swimming for the United States of America.’’
Newspapers chronicled the tumultuous end of her swimming career. A split with her father came in 1950 after another attempt to swim the Channel, when again she was pulled from the water exhausted, about five miles from England.
Upon returning to Massachusetts, she immediately moved out of her family home as reporters watched in the front yard. Her father accused her swim coach, Harry Boudakian, and his wife of encouraging her to run away from home. He threatened to sue and vowed to mold another daughter, Marilyn, then 12, into the next Channel swimmer.
News coverage of the family turmoil was intense. Reporters followed Shirley May to a clandestine meeting with her mother, Florence. Photographers captured their embrace as Florence begged her daughter to come home.
“No mother, I can’t. My mind is made up,’’ Shirley May said, according to a Globe report. “I won’t live in the same house with him again.’’
Her family said she never reconciled with her father.
At the heart of the rift, according to Donald, was the 1950 attempt to swim the Channel. She had almost completed the crossing when her father and swim promoter Ted Worner discovered that her father had not signed release forms for her sponsors. Her father ordered her into the boat and dubbed the swim a training event, according to Donald.
He said her handlers then had her swim the Channel again before she had fully recovered.
“The only reason she didn’t succeed in the second swim is because she had done the other swim,’’ Donald said.
When her five children were growing up, Mrs. Setters didn’t speak about her swimming days and did not display trophies or memorabilia in the house.
Donald said he pieced together the history of her Channel swims when he worked with Richard Shane, a volunteer for the Somerset Historical Society, on a 2009 exhibit about her career.
“She was an exploited kid,’’ said Shane, who sifted through Mrs. Setters’ scrapbooks and looked at records on Channel swims from the Dover Museum in England. “She was always just so proud of her hometown. Whenever you saw her in photographs, she wore a sweater with the ‘S’ on it.’’
The exhibit included her swimsuit and photos of her with celebrities she met, including Frank Sinatra and Cesar Romero. Before her first swim, Bob Hope called to wish her luck and she hung up on him, thinking the call was a prank, her son said.
“She was one of these people who had a smile that lit up a room,’’ said her daughter Shelby Smith.
Mrs. Setters taught her children to swim, but “did not like to her discuss her swimming,’’ said her daughter, a former California Highway Patrol officer.
A teetotaler Baptist, Mrs. Setters was always “a very determined person’’ and encouraged independence in her children, Smith said.
Mrs. Setters worked as a disc jockey and in local television, as well as at the family business, Hartley’s pies of Somerset.
Her first husband, Marine Captain Douglas Smith, was a fighter pilot instructor who died in a plane crash in Florida in 1959.
They were married five years. In addition to their daughter, Shelby, Mrs. Setters leaves from that marriage two sons, Daryl Smith of Lyon, France, and Scott Smith of Somerset.
Her second husband, Donald P. Setters, was a schoolteacher. They met after he offered her mother a ride when she missed a bus in Fall River, and she insisted he meet Shirley May.
The couple had been married 48 years when he died in 2009.
“All I ever wanted to be was just like the other kids,’’ Mrs. Setters told the Globe in a 1969 interview. “Now, finally, I’m a wife and a mother - just what I wanted to do.’’
In addition to Donald of Somerset, Mrs. Setters leaves another son, Daniel of Somerset, from her second marriage. She also leaves a sister, Carla Phillips of Riverside, Calif.; a brother, John W. France of Punta Gorda, Fla.; 12 grandchildren; and, five great-grandchildren. Burial was in Gibbs Cemetery in Somerset.
While researching Mrs. Setters’s swim career, Shane discovered a book by the captain of a schooner chartered to carry reporters behind Mrs. Setters during one of her Channel attempts.
Captain Richard England wrote that her agent stiffed him of half of his fee and skipped town. But England still heralded his days on her bandwagon because she befriended his daughter Inga and taught her to be a strong swimmer. A year later, his schooner sank. His other daughter, Jo, drowned, but Inga survived.
“We were losers at the time,’’ he wrote, “but subsequently we were bountifully repaid for our brief association.’’J.M. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com.