Free, white and 22: The life and times of Eleanor Holm
Chronicling the colourful career of a controversial Olympic champion.
The Berlin Olympics is famous as Jesse Owens' Olympics as the legendary sprinter ran fast enough to humiliate Adolf Hitler. His friendship with Luz Long - the epitome of Nazi manhood- was another startling development during that Olympics. The other story-maker during that Olympics didn't participate in the games. Her name was Eleanor Holm.
Holm was the daughter of a fireman in Brooklyn. She started swimming to impress the handsome life-guards at her family's summer house. She did phenomenally well even at a very young age and won a national title at the age of 12. A couple of years later she participated in the Amsterdam Olympics and was placed fifth in the final of the 100 meter backstroke- a fairly impressive achievement in the life of a 14-year old.
Four years later, in Los Angeles, defending champion Zus Braun was the favourite to win again. She qualified for the final with ease but received an insect bite on the day before the event and, as a result, was forced to disqualify due to a blood poisoning. This was the official story, quite different from what Braun had to say, though.
According to her, she was watching Buster Crabbe win the men's 400 meter freestyle when someone stabbed her in the left leg. She developed high fever and was unable to participate. She thought that gamblers who had bet against her did this mischief. Eleanor Holm won the gold medal. Some even thought that Holm played a role in this ugly story. Nothing was proved but that was Holm's first encounter with controversy. More were to follow, in much bigger proportions.
Expelled from Olympics
In September 1933, Holm married singer and orchestra leader Art Jarrett. Soon, she joined her husband as a singer in nightclubs. The social life made her a familiar face in certain circles in the U.S. But she made sure that she was still a great swimmer. In 1935, a year before the Berlin Olympics, she was the holder of the world record in both the 100 meter and the 200 meter in backstroke swimming.
On July 15th 1936, when she boarded the SS Manhattan for a nine-day voyage to Germany, she was the firm favourite to defend her championship. She was not very happy with the third-class accommodation for the athletes, especially when the officials and the press were given the first-class variant. Moreover, there was strict rules in place for the athletes- the females were not allowed to stay outside their cabin after 9 pm and a chaperone was there to look after them.
On July 17th, Holm was invited to a party in the A-deck bar and lounge. She liked the place and the people and stayed there till 6 in the morning when she had to be helped back to her cabin. The non-Olympic first-class passengers were quite amused with the 'training techniques' of the athletes and jokes about Holm were circulated on the ship. The officials didn't like it one bit and issued a warning. Friends and other athletes tried to moderate her behavior, only to hear replies like, "I am free, white and 22".
Also Read: 1936 Olympics - Dhyan Chand's last hurrah
On July 23rd, the ship stopped in France. A champagne party was organised and Holm joined it gleefully. At 10:30 pm, with Holm still not in her cabin, the chaperone had to intervene. She managed to bring her back to the cabin but as soon as Holm entered there, she started to shout obscenities. Her room-mates made her sleep but at midnight the team doctor was called to examining her. The doctor found her 'in a deep slumber which approached a state of coma'. The ensuing diagnosis mentioned acute alcoholism.
Members of the U.S. Olympic Committee met to discuss the case and at 6 am next morning, she was informed that she had been removed for the U.S. Olympic team.
Holm pleaded, then when that didn't work, lashed out at the officials, but all in vain. She was not re-instated.
Living a charmed life
She couldn't take part in the games but that didn't prevent her from having a great time in Berlin. The Nazis entertained her as a special visitor. In 1972, in an interview to Sports Illustrated, she said, "I had such fun! I enjoyed the parties, the Heil Hitlers, the uniforms, the flags. Goring was fun. He had a good personality. So did one with the club foot (Goebbels). Goring gave me a sterling-silver swastika. I had a mold made of it and I put a diamond Star of David in the middle."
Holm became even more popular after the Berlin Games. She worked in a film (Tarzan's Revenge) with decathlon champion Glenn Morris.
In 1939, just before war broke out, she married impresario Billy Rose. They lived a lavish life even during the hard war-years. But it was too good to last. In 1954, they divorced after a rather shameful episode known in the media as 'The War of the Roses'.
Holm led a charmed life. She had seen the ups and downs but never compromised with living on her own terms. She never lost 'it'. In 1999, 85-year old Holm was invited to the White House for a reception in honour of 'Women in Sports'. She looked up at president Bill Clinton and said, " Mr. President, you're really a good looking dude!" Five years later, she would pass away due to renal failure.