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Still Very Much in the Swim
Sally Guard
June 15, 1992
Onetime Olympic backstroke champion Eleanor Holm reflects on her days of wine and Rose
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June 15, 1992

Still Very Much In The Swim

Onetime Olympic backstroke champion Eleanor Holm reflects on her days of wine and Rose

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When the SS Manhattan sailed for Germany that July, the 23-year-old glamour girl had not been defeated in seven years and was favored to win the 100-meter backstroke in Berlin. But she was also a celebrity, and she was accustomed to that life-style. She had no patience for the team quarters three decks down, and so she tried to buy her own ticket in first class. When the American Olympic Committee nixed that proposal, she settled for second best: She slept and ate with the athletes and worked out daily in the ship's pool, but she spent the rest of her time on the top deck with her journalist chums.

All this enjoyment stuck in the craw of Avery Brundage, the bluenose president of the AOC. Brundage watched enviously as Holm won the attention of the press and he went virtually ignored. Once, according to at least one account, she stayed up until 6 a.m. with the journalists and had to be helped back to her cabin. Some reports indicate she received a warning afterward from the AOC, but Holm denies she was ever admonished. In any case, one last party the afternoon and night before the Manhattan docked in Hamburg proved fateful.

Holm spent that evening drinking champagne, shooting craps and laughing it up with the press, and a chaperon observed her wobbling back to her cabin at about 10:30 p.m. Brundage later said two doctors who went to check on her at midnight were unable to rouse her. The following morning Holm was informed that the AOC had voted to remove her from the team for violation of training rules.

Holm pleaded with the committee to reverse the decision, to no avail. Brundage said that "it would wreck the American Olympic team." Distraught, Holm considered catching the next boat home. Instead she accepted an offer from William Randolph Hearst's International News Service to stay on at the Olympics as a correspondent for $100 a week plus expenses. Suddenly Holm not only was more famous than ever but had a byline to boot. "I was a bona fide reporter," she says, though she confesses that the prose appearing under her name was written by some of the U.S.'s top sports scribes of the day. "Paul Gallico, Jimmy Powers, Bob Considine, Alan Gould...they would ask me, 'If you were writing a letter to your mother, what would you say?' And I would give them stuff I heard in the women's locker room." Holm's journalistic career only further enraged Brundage, who subsequently banned her from competing in all amateur events in Europe as punishment for profiting from her Olympic suspension.

But she made the most of her Berlin foray. Holm mixed with royalty, and with the Nazi elite, for what that was worth. Hitler wanted to know the real reason for her being kicked off the team. "He asked me through an interpreter, 'What did you really do?' Because no European would believe I was dismissed from the team just for drinking wine," she says. "They had wine on their training tables! He told me that if I had been a German athlete the punishment would have come after the games, not before!"

For the most part Holm had a marvelous time in Germany. "I had such fun!" she told SI in 1972. "You know, athletes don't think much about politics at all." Her only unhappy moments came when the competition started. "It was pretty sad to see all my buddies training and then watching them on opening day," she says today. In her Aug. 14 column she wrote, "I don't know for sure whether I bawled or kept a straight face when those Dutch mermaids beat out our fighting girls in the last three yards of what is to me the Olympics' most tragic event—the 100-meter backstroke race.... I wonder what Avery Brundage thought of that horse-and-buggy time [1:18.9 by Dina Senff of Holland].... I could jump into the Olympic pool with a champagne bottle in either hand and equal 1:18.9."

Upon her return to the States, Holm resumed touring with her husband, became the first person of note to sport a two-piece bathing suit, and turned pro in 1937 so she could sign a $30,000 contract to star in the Aquacade that summer at Cleveland's Great Lakes Exposition. The Aquacade was the creation of diminutive New York producer Billy Rose, whose Broadway credits included the exceedingly difficult to stage and enormously successful Jumbo, a musical comedy-circus. The water show would feature Holm and former Olympic champion and Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller, as well as 150 other swimmers, dubbed aquabelles and aquaboys by Rose. The 5'4" Rose could hardly contain himself when describing what he envisioned to skeptical investors. "We've gotta use Canada for our backdrop, the moon and stars for our props, and Lake Erie for our swimming pool. [And] a curtain of water. I want that water to shoot up 30 feet. And it's gotta dance! It's gotta be bigger and more beautiful and better lit than any fountain in Versailles," he exhorted.

In the Aquacade, Holm appeared to be six feet tall when she strode to the center of the stage in her high-heeled slippers. She wore a silver-sequined leotard and a matching floor-length cape that she would shed, along with the pumps, before diving into the dark, chill water of Lake Erie. "Eleanor was darn near Nijinsky in a bathing cap when she backstroked the length of the pool," Rose later recalled.

More spectacular than that watery extravaganza, though, was the romance that blossomed between Holm and Rose that summer. Never mind Jarrett and Rose's wife of eight years, comedienne Fanny Brice. On Nov. 12, Rose announced he would marry Holm, asserting that Brice spent too much time in the spotlight while he and Eleanor believed a wife's place was in the home. Rose added that Holm had promised to be a wife to him and nothing more once they were married. It would take two years for the divorces to go through—sufficient time for Holm to remain in the spotlight and finish her work in Tarzan's Revenge and star in the New York Aquacade.

Shooting the Tarzan flick was no mean feat, even if the final product was. One day Holm had to stand in a swamp and struggle for hours while Tarzan, played by 1936 Olympic decathlon champion Glenn Morris (who followed Weissmuller as the movie Tarzan), came through the forest to her rescue. Another time she had to race with alligators in a tank. "Their jaws were wired," she recalls, "but they could still hit you with their tails, so that was pretty awful."

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