Holm, Eleanor Grace Theresa

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Holm, Eleanor Grace Theresa

(b. 6 December 1913 in New York City; d. 31 January 2004 in Miami, Florida), Olympic gold medalist in swimming, one of the developers of synchronized swimming, star of water spectacles, and glamorous celebrity of the 1930s and 1940s.

Holm was one of seven children of Franklyn Holm, a fire captain, and Charlotte (Long) Holm, a homemaker. Holm was born in a second-floor bedroom of the family brown-stone in Brooklyn. She had hazel eyes and brown hair. In 1931 she graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn.

Holm became interested in swimming at the age of eight, when her sister took her to the pool owned by the Women’s Swimming Association in Long Beach, New York, where her family owned a summer cottage. She took to the water immediately and paddled about in shallow waters while her sister saw to it that she did not go in over her head. When she was given a pair of water wings, Holm swam “doggy” style out into the ocean surf so far that she had to be retrieved by a lifeguard. She continued this dangerous practice of paddling beyond her depth and claimed that the lifeguard gave her swimming lessons as he brought her back. When she was twelve, her father finally relented and let her join the Women’s Swimming Association. She became a medley swimmer and at thirteen won her first Amateur Athletic Union title in 1927 in the 300-meter individual medley. Since the medley was not then an Olympic event, she worked on her backstroke. The noted coach Louis de Breda Handley helped her to perfect her backstroke. She commented that her coach “worked me like a washerwoman six days a week, and on the seventh let me relax.” In 1928, representing the Women’s Swimming Association of New York, Holm placed fifth in the 100-meter backstroke at the Amsterdam Olympics. Her loss gave her the resolve to win in the next Olympics. In the intervening years between the 1928 Amsterdam games and the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, she concentrated on her backstroke. At five feet, two inches the broad-shouldered swimmer so dominated that event that no one could approach her.

On 9 August 1932 Holm was ready for her greatest triumph. In the trial heat she set an Olympic record (1:18.3) for the 100-meter backstroke. Then late in the afternoon of that day came the final, and Holm swam a superb race. She had a yard lead at seventy-five meters and finished first by a body length. Her time was 1:19.4. Flashing her well-known wide smile, she accepted a bouquet of flowers. She had won her long-desired gold medal.

After the Olympics, Holm entered show business. She signed a seven-year contract with Warner Bros. movie studio. She got bit parts in a number of movies and lessons in losing her Brooklyn accent. Her only starring role came in 1938, when she appeared with her fellow Olympian Glenn Morris in Tarzan’s Revenge, a poor movie in which she played Jane to Morris’s Tarzan. She also began a singing career with the orchestra of Art Jarrett, a man she had known since Erasmus Hall High School and whom she married on 2 September 1933 in Beverly Hills, California. Holm would perform in such costumes as an all-white cowgirl outfit. She had a naturally low voice, and Jarrett adjusted the orchestration accordingly and accompanied her to help her through the difficult parts.

While singing at night, Holm still continued to train during the day for the 1936 Olympics. But this time she was not even going to have a chance for a gold medal. On the ship going over she was caught breaking training by drinking and missing curfew. She was suspended by Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee. Holm and her supporters believed that she was singled out because she was a married woman and an entertainer who earned money and was no longer a teenage female athlete who fit Brundage’s Olympic ideal. Her only participation in the Olympics was as a celebrity reporter whose articles were ghostwritten by her sportswriter friends. Throughout the rest of her life Holm remained angry at what Brundage had done to her, but she also admitted that the notoriety she received made her career. Otherwise she would have remained just another backstroker.

In 1937, since she could not get reinstated as an amateur, Holm signed to appear in the Billy Rose Aquacade of the Great Lakes Exposition held in Cleveland. Her performances here and in Rose’s Aquacade at the World’s Fair of 1939–1940 in New York City contributed to synchronized swimming’s eventual recognition as an Olympic sport. The famed showman Billy Rose remembered not only the day but the exact moment he fell in love with Holm. The first time she swam at his Cleveland Aquacade, she made a stunning appearance as she shed a sequined silver cape that revealed a breathtaking figure clad in a one-piece bathing suit. Before she entered the water, she put on her bathing cap in such a way that not only charmed the crowd but also bowled over Rose. Their romance was a secret since they were both still married, but they soon both secured divorces (Holm’s divorce was finalized 9 June 1938) and were wed in New York City on 14 November 1939.

Holm now gave up professional swimming and performing and became the stylish wife and hostess to one of the most famous show business figures of that era. She was quite content in her life for about twelve years, but trouble began when she and Rose accused each other of lurid sexual misconduct. The newspapers relished this furor and labeled it the “War of the Roses.” The couple finally divorced in 1954. In that year Holm met Tommy Whalen, a rather shadowy character reputed to have ties to the St. Louis underworld. They lived together in Florida so that both could enjoy the alimony and settlement Holm had received from Rose. When Rose died in 1966, Holm also benefited from his estate. Holm became an interior decorator as well as a shrewd investor. In 1966 she joined the International Swimming Hall of Fame as a charter member. She was also inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1980. Whalen and Holm finally married in 1974, and he died in the mid-1980s. Holm never had children and died at age ninety of kidney failure.

Although her life was marred by disappointments and turbulence, Holm was one of the greats of the 1920s and 1930s—an era of exceptional female athletes. And as she expressed in a letter to a fellow Olympian, she gloried in “our day in the sun.”

Biographical sketches of Holm are in Billy Rose, Wine, Women, and Words (1948); Polly Rose Gottlieb, The Nine Lives of Billy Rose: An Intimate Biography (1968); Lewis H. Carlson and John J. Fogarty, eds., Tales of Gold: An Oral History of the Summer Olympic Games Told by America’s Gold Medal Winners (1987); Doris H. Pieroth, Their Day in the Sun: Women of the 1932 Olympics (1996); and David Wallechinsky, Sports Illustrated Presents the Complete Book of the Summer Olympics (1996). Details of her early life are in the New York Journal-American (31 Aug. 1952). A discussion of her backstroke technique and contribution to synchronized swimming is in David Levinson and Karen Christensen, eds., Encyclopedia of World Sport: From Ancient Times to the Present (1996). Obituaries are in the New York Times (2 Feb. 2004) and Washington Post (3 Feb. 2004).

John Moran