Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Dame in the Water

Reviewing the career of champion swimmer Eleanor Holm, it strikes one that if hard-drinking, hard-partying baseball great Mickey Mantle had the stamina of Miss Holm, he might have had a longer career, and would have been, indisputably, the greatest baseball player ever. Heck, Eleanor Holm trained on "champagne and cigarettes" (to use her own words), and was one of the finest backstrokers ever, living to age 90. Too bad Mickey was such a lightweight!

Eleanor Holm was born on this day in 1913 in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of a fireman. By the time Holm was 14, she was already competing in the Olympics, finishing 5th in the 1928 100-meter backstroke. By 1932, despite taking a career detour as a Ziegfeld Follies dancer at age 16, Holm was indisputably the best backstroker in the world, setting new world records at every distance between 1929 and 1932. She won the 1932 Olympic gold medal in the 100-meters, setting a new world record in Los Angeles which bested the previous standard by almost three seconds.

Her performance in Los Angeles, combined with her trim good looks and vivacity led to her signing a $500 per week contract with Warner Brothers to appear in films. She soon quarreled with the Warners, however, since they wanted her to swim on film, which would have jeopardized her amateur status, so she quit. In 1933 she married bandleader Art Jarrett and traveled with him as the band's singer, burning the candle at both ends while remaining undefeated in numerous swim competitions and establishing new world records in the 100- and 200-meters.

On her way to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics, she partied round the clock with sportswriters aboard the S.S. Manhattan, drinking with the likes of writer Charles MacArthur, smoking and gambling. When U.S. Olympic czar Avery Brundage learned of her behavior, he banned Holm from competing in Berlin, accusing her of being drunk and disorderly. While she admitted drinking heavily, she pointed out that she won a couple of hundred dollars shooting craps, which someone who was intoxicated wouldn't be able to do. Brundage didn't find the argument very amusing (despite receiving a petition signed by more than half of the U.S. Olympic team members to let her back in), and Holm found herself in Berlin, banned for life from amateur competition, but nevertheless enjoying a white-hot celebrity glow. Goering, for one, was captivated by her, and gave her a sterling silver swastika (which she later had reset with a Star of David in the middle).

In 1937, Holm returned to Hollywood to star in Tarzan's Revenge with Olympic decathlete Glenn Morris, and after divorcing Jarrett married show business promoter Billy Rose, starring in his 1939 New York World's Fair Aquacade. She divorced Rose in 1954 (the saga was labeled the "War of the Roses" by the tabloids), and settled in Miami Beach working as an interior decorator. She entered the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1966 and was one of the first six women to be selected for induction in the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame. She died on January 31, 2004 in Miami.

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