Holm, Eleanor (1913—)

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Holm, Eleanor (1913—)

American swimmer who won 35 U.S. championships but is most remembered for her dismissal from the 1936 Olympics. Name variations: Eleanor Holm Jarrett. Born Eleanor Grace Holm on December 6, 1913, in Brooklyn, New York; youngest of seven children of Charlotte (Long) and Franklin Holm; married Art Jarrett (a band leader and singer), in 1933 (divorced 1938); married Billy Rose (r.n. William Samuel Rosenberg, an entertainment mogul), in 1939 (divorced 954); married Tommy Whalen, in 1974 (died 1986).

Won the National Indoor Junior championships in three different categories; won the Outdoor Junior Medley championship; won the National Women's Indoor championships in five different categories; in all, won 35 U.S. championships; won a gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke in the Los Angeles Olympics (1932).

Eleanor Holm, born the youngest of seven children in Brooklyn, New York, in 1913, always claimed she was a water rat as a child. Her family had a cottage in Long Beach, New York, where they vacationed every summer. Said Holm:

My mother used to tie water wings on me because I didn't know how to swim. I had no fear of the water, and I used to go way out in the ocean, and a lifeguard had to come out and keep getting me. On the way in he would bawl me out and say, "Don't do that again," but he would also teach me how to swim on the way in. An hour later he'd be out getting me again…. I was nodope. I was getting free lessons.

Holm enjoyed watching champion swimmers at the Long Beach Olympic Pool, especially when the Women's Swimming Association (WSA) of New York came there for racing and diving competitions; diver Helen Meany was her idol. Upon joining the WSA, Holm initially became a medley swimmer, but there was one drawback: there were then no Olympic medley competitions. On the advice of her coaches, she concentrated on the backstroke.

From 1927 until 1935, Holm won 35 U.S. championships and set numerous world records. She also captured one or more AAU titles in that period, every year but 1933. In 1928, Holm was selected for the Olympic swim team when she was only 14; she finished 5th in Amsterdam in the 100-meter backstroke. In the 1932 Olympics, she won a gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke in the record time of 1:19.4 and no doubt would have won more medals had her career not been abruptly terminated—for Eleanor Holm is best remembered for being kicked off the Olympic team in 1936 by Avery Brundage, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC).

In 1933, as a result of her success in the Los Angeles Olympics, the 19-year-old Holm had married popular band leader Art Jarrett, signed a contract with Warner Bros., and immersed herself in Hollywood. Evenings, she sang with her husband's band in nightclubs while continuing to train faithfully by day. Holm won swimming competitions throughout her Hollywood years. In 1936, she boarded the S.S. Manhattan along with the entire American Olympic squad, having qualified easily for her berth on the team. "Feeling that a married woman needed less chaperon-age than the adolescent girls who made up most of the team," writes Allen Guttmann, Holm "danced, drank [champagne], and ignored reprimands." Though no one accused her of being drunk, Holm was dropped from the team by Brundage and barred from future competition before the ship reached port. The pleas and petitions of over 100 teammates and competitors from other countries fell on deaf ears, and Holm's amateur days were over. "The regulations stated that all team members should continue the same training preparations that we were accustomed to having in the States," said Holm. "That's all I was doing. At home it was my custom to have a glass of wine or champagne every day after a workout."

Brundage, however, had not reckoned on the spirit of the lively swimmer who became the star attraction. Instead of being sent home in ignominy, as Brundage had planned, she became a celebrity reporter; the Associated Press hired her on the spot. It was Brundage who was punished. Pilloried by the press for overreacting, he had to endure Holm's presence everywhere he went. Night after night, he sulked at parties with Holm in attendance.

I was everything Avery Brundage hated. I had a few dollars, and athletes were supposed to be poor. I worked in nightclubs, and athletes shouldn't do that. I was married. All of this was against his whole conception of what an athlete should be. It didn't matter to him that I held the world record…. It was just that I didn't conformto his image of an athlete. But 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.

Holm was probably right. That summer, the Dutch team cruised past their rivals. Dina Senff won the gold in the 100-meter backstroke. Rie Mastenbroek took home the silver in the 100-meter backstroke, the gold in the 100-meter freestyle and the 400-meter freestyle, while her teammate Ragnhild Hveger was a second-place finisher; Hveger would go on to demolish 42 world records between 1936–42.

Hitler used the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a showcase for his fascist government. Even though her political sympathies were not with the Nazis, Holm watched the events from a press box next to Hitler and Goering, and sought Hitler's autograph several times at the request of friends. Leni Riefenstahl , the famous cinematographer, also shot footage of Holm for her documentary of the 1936 games, but it was never used. Stories circulated about Holm's antics in Berlin, but her high profile was simply her way of thumbing her nose at Brundage.

When Eleanor Holm returned to the States, she cashed in on her dismissal from the Olympics, appearing with the Cleveland Aqua-cade and at the 1939–40 World's Fair, doing swimming stunts for $4,000 a week. Her Aqua-cade tours were sponsored by Billy Rose, the entertainment mogul. Soon she divorced Jarrett and married Rose. Looking back, Holm said:

How does one keep her life in perspective given all the bright lights and publicity?… I got so used to it, it was just like any everyday event…. I never had any problems adjusting because I was never really avid. Working with Arthur's band, doing theater, working in nightclubs, being in the Aqua-cades, and then marrying Billy Rose, I had all the glamour in the whole world, and I was right in the middle of it.

Following her marriage to Rose, Holm retired from the Aquacade and, for the next 12 years, hosted frequent parties at their lavish estate in Mount Kisco, New York. The marriage seemed idyllic until Joyce Mathews , ex-wife of Milton Berle, slashed her wrists in Rose's apartment. Holm promptly retained lawyer Louis Nizer and the three-year "War of the Roses" hit the newspapers. After divorcing Rose in 1954, Holm moved to Miami Beach. She married for a third time in 1974. Well into her 70s, she continued to play tennis and swim.

In 1966, Eleanor Holm was elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame. In retrospect, her transgression in 1936 seems minor, and many consider her punishment unwarranted. Some maintain it might have had more to do with the perceived limits of her gender than with the limits or rules set by an Olympic Committee.


Carlson, Lewis H. and John J. Fogarty. Tales of Gold. Chicago and NY: Contemporary Books, 1987.

Condon, Robert J. Great Women Athletes of the 20th Century. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991.

Greenspan, Bud. 100 Greatest Moments in Olympic History. Los Angeles, CA: General Publishing Group, 1995.

Guttmann, Allen. Women's Sports: A History. NY: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Porter, David L., ed. Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Basketball and Other Indoor Sports. NY: Greenwood Press, 1989.

related media:

Tarzan's Revenge (70 min. film), starring decathlon champion Glenn Morris and Eleanor Holm, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1938.

Karin L. Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia