In 1930 a 17-year-old Brooklyn girl named Eleanor Holm gave up a chance to go on the road with the Ziegfeld Follies so she could dedicate her time to training for the 1932 Summer Olympics. Earlier that year Florenz Ziegfeld, the legendary impresario, had spotted her at a swim meet in California and had been dazzled by her vivacity, smile, hazel eyes and curvaceously athletic 5'2" physique. He offered her a spot as a skit player upon her return home.
Although Holm never got beyond rehearsals at the Follies, she mixed swimming and show biz, for better and worse, for years to come. In 1936, by then an established nightclub entertainer, Holm was kicked off the U.S. Olympic team for carousing with her journalist pals on the Atlantic crossing to the Berlin Games, but she went on to become the centerpiece of Billy Rose's Aquacade. The star-crossed Olympian became a crossover star.
She was the seventh and youngest child of Charlotte and Franklin Holm, chief of the Jamaica branch of the New York City Fire Department. They summered in Long Beach, N.Y., where Eleanor began her swimming career at age 13. "I had a lazy right eye," says Holm, now 79 and as splashy as ever, in her North Miami condominium overlooking Biscayne Bay. "My mother used to sit near the end of the pool wearing a bright scarf so I would know where to turn."
Lazy eye or no, Holm qualified for the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics at the age of 15. The youngest member of the U.S. team, she finished fifth in the 100-meter backstroke. She went home determined to win a medal in the 1932 Olympics. By June 1932 she held unofficial world records in two backstroke events, and America had begun to take notice: "Eleanor Holm, whose swimming has not yet marred her pretty freshness with big muscles and fat," wrote TIME magazine, "breaks a backstroke record almost every time she goes for a swim."
Where better, then, for a young, pretty world-record holder to go than Los Angeles, the land of the young, the pretty and—incidentally—the 1932 Summer Games?
Holm looked every bit the star in L.A., where she won not only a gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke, beating runner-up Bonny Mealing of Australia by nearly two seconds, but also the admiration of the Warner Bros, film studio. Eleven days after her victory, Jack Warner signed her to a seven-year contract.
"They sent me to school to learn how to act," says Holm. "I started out at $500 a week, and I was supposed to go to the studio or take an acting lesson from Josephine Dillon, Clark Gable's first wife, every day. There was a great director at Warner then named Mervyn LeRoy, and I did bit parts in a few of his movies. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was there then, and Carole Lombard and Edward G. Robinson. The studio would make me go to their sets to learn how to act. And I was impressed, seeing the stars and the celebrities. So I'd ask them for their autographs!"
But after nine months Holm quit because the studio wanted her to swim in movies, which would have compromised her amateur status. Furthermore, Holm says, "It's funny, but I never really had any ambition to be an actress. God knows the studio tried, but I still have my Brooklyn accent, don't I? And they spent a lot of money for me to lose it! They tried to groom me for light comedy, but the only thing I ever wanted was to win the Olympics."
She trained in the pool at Los Angeles's Ambassador Hotel, where she met Arthur Jarrett, the featured singer at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub. In 1933 they married and started performing in nightclubs and vaudeville shows around the country. "We sang duets," says Holm. "He was a tenor, and for a champion swimmer, I was pretty good. But don't forget, I had a body in those days that wouldn't stop." In more ways than one: While on tour, Holm trained for the '36 Olympics. She would sleep during the day, sing with Jarrett by night, then find a pool for her early-morning workouts.
This unusual regimen and Holm's quick wit made her the darling of sports reporters, who could count on her for good copy. "I train on champagne and cigarettes," she said at the '36 Olympic trials in Astoria, Long Island, admitting in the same breath that that was an exaggeration.