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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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Reviews of the film were less than rosy. One critic wrote: "Eleanor is on safari in the jungle.... A swarthy turbaned nabob who keeps 100 wives in a jungle palace marks her for 101. But he reckons without Glenn Morris.... On the bank of his jungle swimming hole Tarzan makes funny motions, meaning 'Can you swim?' Yes, Mrs. Jarrett can swim. Off comes the jumper, revealing a natty white swimsuit and in she dives. Best lines: Eleanor, welcomed by the nabob with punctilious honors, rejoining with full Flatbush skepticism: 'Wuss this alla bout?'...Best all-round performer: Cheetah, the Chimp."

When Rose and Holm married in the fall of 1939, the end of her aquatic career was, at last, blessedly in sight. She would star in the Aquacade for one more season, and she couldn't wait for the final aquacurtain. "I had a wonderful dream last night," she said in 1940, "[that] I woke up and my maid said, 'Your bath is ready.' And I just laughed and told her, 'I'm never going to get in the water again.' "

The early years of the marriage were blissful. The couple lived on Beekman Place in Manhattan, in a five-story town house that overlooked the East River and was filled with paintings by Modigliani, Van Dyck, Renoir and Rembrandt. The Roses bought a 35-room mansion in Mount Kisco, N.Y., furnished it with 18th-century English furniture and dubbed it Roseholm. In the backyard there was a swimming pool, a garden, an oversized cabana with a Swedish bath and full-time masseur, and stables that had been converted into a private movie theater.

Holm added an easy, diplomatic touch to the abrasive Rose's style, and Rose surrounded her with furs, diamonds and stars. "I had wonderful times with Billy," Holm says today. "Bernard Baruch [the New York financier] brought Winston Churchill to Mount Kisco. Holy father! Orson Welles came, too. And Laurence Olivier and Jimmy Durante would be out in the garden picking tomatoes and corn. I was terribly impressed, because I had never considered myself in that kind of class. I was a swimmer. And if they hadn't kicked me off the team, I would have been just another swimmer, believe me."

Billy got a kick out of Eleanor, too. He called her "my champ" and teased her affectionately in his syndicated column, Pitching Horseshoes. "I am married to a very pretty girl," began one piece in 1946. "....Three generals and one stale ambassador had to wail in line because the editors of TIME thought my wife in a bathing suit would sell more magazines [Aug. 21, 1939].... Eleanor Holm was born pretty—why, then, does it take her an hour to makeup?"

He wrote similarly of her on their round-the-world trip in 1949, so it came as a shock when the War of the Roses broke out in 1951.

The scandal began on July 15, when Joyce Mathews, a 31-year-old blonde who had twice been married to and divorced from Milton Berle, slashed her wrists in Rose's office at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City. Mathews offered several explanations for her action, one being that she had been "shaving her wrists." But friends of both of them believed she did the deed after Rose told her he had no intention of divorcing Holm to marry her.

Holm rallied in support of her husband until he was seen in Mathews's company during the following months. In December she named Mathews as the "other woman" in her suit for separation. Rose, ever the Napoleonic competitor, spitefully sued Holm for divorce, also on the grounds of adultery—the only legal grounds for such action in New York State at the time.

Finally, in January '54 over coffee in New York City, the couple agreed to a divorce settlement. Rose offered Holm $30,000 a year, plus $20,000 more a year for a decade, so long as the divorce went through by April 10. Holm flew to Las Vegas and became the ex-Mrs. Rose on Feb. 27.

While in Vegas she took up with Tommy Whalen, a St. Louis native who had been connected with the Mafia, though he described himself in 1954 as a professional soccer player. Whalen had been a suspect in a St. Louis murder in 1941, but he was never prosecuted for the crime. He was a gambler and a nightclub owner and had made a fortune in the oil business in Wyoming. His primary pursuit with Holm, though, was a life of leisure.

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