H is for Holm

Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.

Dorothy Parker

Eleanor Holm, gold medalist and world record holder in the backstroke, was a modern woman. Or a disgrace, take your pick.

She was the Ryan Lochte of her generation, guilty of conduct unbecoming to an American Olympian. Or she was the Megan Rapinoe of her day, unstinting in her sense of self and forthright in demanding the right to be treated fairly. However history judges Eleanor Holm, she was a hell of a gal.

Eleanor Holm, far left, with the team at 1932 Los Angeles before winning gold in the backstroke. Photo from Seattle Museum of History & Industry.

Oh, Is It Really Bedtime?

Holm was a teenaged swimming phenom of 14 when she placed fifth in the backstroke in the 1928 Amsterdam Games. She went on to earn a gold in the 100 meter backstroke in Los Angeles 1932 and, with world records in the 100 and 200 under her belt, she seemed poised for more gold in Berlin. She had not lost a race for seven years.

In July 1936, she boarded the ship crossing the Atlantic with her team and her husband, bandleader Art Jarrett. Already intrigued by what they used to call “show business,” Holm sang with Jarrett’s band (in a skimpy bathing suit) and acted in tiny parts in early Warner Brothers movies. She hung with the in crowd and was invited to parties with Helen Hayes and other A-list celebs.

Holm on the SS Manhattan, on its way to Berlin. Photo from SwimmersDaily.com.

What happened next appears in different versions. She was seen drinking champagne with Hayes and her playwright husband in the first-class lounge of the SS Manhattan. The Olympic chaperones, sitting nearby and also drinking champagne, spotted her and disapproved.

This chaperone came up to me and told me it was time to go to bed. God, it was about 9 o’clock, and who wanted to go down in that basement to sleep anyway? So I said to her: ‘Oh, is it really bedtime? Did you make the Olympic team or did I?’ I had had a few glasses of Champagne. So she went to Brundage and complained that I was setting a bad example for the team, and they got together and told me the next morning that I was fired. I was heartbroken.

From Holm’s bio in Wikipedia

Alleged Whoopie

Interestingly, that’s not the only version of the story. Other obituaries say she was invited to an all-night sportswriter party and that “a doctor” found her next day, nearly comatose, in a room with two other swimmers. He claimed she suffered from acute alcoholism, an allegation the Holm denied. At a stopover in Cherbourg, Holm was also invited to another party and won a few hundreds playing dice against the sportswriters.

Holm mugging for cameras during her showbiz career. Photo at Museum of New York.

If you know anything about the history of the old farts gentlemen who ran the International Olympic Committee, they were not fans of the rising tide of feminism. Avery Brundage, the chauvinist at the head of the IOC, famously pointed out that the ancient Greeks kept women out of the Games, and “I’m not sure but that they were right.” Brundage decided to make an example of Holm and, by the time the ship docked in Germany, Holm was kicked off the team.

She was “heartbroken,” or pissed off, whichever vernacular you’d like to use. In later interviews, she also claimed that Brundage propositioned her and she rejected him. Her American teammates came to her defense, and over a hundred–including Jesse Owen–petitioned for her reinstatement, but USOC was having none of it. Holm ended up invited to a few Nazi parties, which she may have regretted later. But when you’ve already committed “alleged whoopie” as the Brits called it in their newsreels, might as well thumb your nose all the way.

Pairing up with Tarzan

Ironically enough, as a woman looking for an after-Olympics career, this particular notoriety was the perfect launch. She was followed even more by the sportswriters and photographers, so she made the most of it. She started appearing in pairs with other handsome Olympians who went into the movies. First, she appeared opposite decathlete Glenn Morris in Tarzan’s Revenge.

Holm with gold-medal winning Glenn Morris. Photo at VintageNews.com.

Eventually, she starred in the “Aquacade” at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Thirty-nine shows a week, with Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams also on the bill. America’s love affair with follies-style swimming shows was just beginning, so she had steady work. So much work that the chlorine in the pool turned her hair green. The shows were run by famed impresario, Billy Rose, and Holm’s days of scandal weren’t over.

War of the Roses

Yes, that Billy Rose, the Fanny Brice/Funny Girl husband Billy Rose. It’s not clear whether Holm broke up Rose’s marriage to Brice or whether Rose broke up Holm’s marriage to bandleader Jarrett. But by 1939, Rose and Holm had ditched their earlier spouses and were married to each other. In 1954, Rose and Holm also broke up, very publicly and very acrimoniously. The newspapers called it the “war of the roses.”

She ended up with a large monthly alimony check and eventually caught the eye of Tom Whalen, an oil executive. Holm retired and settled in Miami, eventually running several charities, as knowledgeable, prominent, no-nonsense old broads ought to do after becoming rich off a public scandal.

Getting the Last Laugh

As for the incident on the Atlantic crossing, Holm was never sorry. She didn’t see what the fuss was about. Alcohol wasn’t illegal, wasn’t considered off limits for athletes, and everyone around was drinking. She was no longer a 14-year-old ingenue, but a 22-year-old married celebrity. In the end, although she won no more medals, she was able to parlay the notoriety into a life full of fun and ultimate wealth, all “thanks to that old poop, Mr. Brundage.” She lasted until nearly age 91; Brundage died at 88. As she put it,

He rained on my parade for only a very short time. He did make me famous. I would have been just another female backstroke swimmer without Brundage.

New York Times, Eleanor Holm obituary, February 2004

Well played, Eleanor Holm, well played.

Holm living into her 90s. Photo by HistoricImages.

This post was one of a series on the Olympics for the April A to Z challenge:

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