Sears, Eleanora (1881–1968)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Sears, Eleanora (1881–1968)

American sportswoman who reputedly won 240 trophies in golf, tennis, squash, field hockey, horse racing, swimming, and distance walking. Born Eleanora Randolph Sears on September 28, 1881, in Boston, Massachusetts; died on March 26, 1968, in Palm Beach, Florida; only daughter of Frederick Richard Sears (heir to a shipping fortune) and Eleanora Randolph (Coolidge) Sears (great-granddaughter of Thomas and Martha Jefferson); never married; no children.

Won the national doubles tennis championship four times (1911, 1915, 1916, 1917); was one of the founders of the U.S. Women's Squash Racquets Association (1928); sponsored the U.S. Olympic figure skating team and the equestrian team; an accomplished equestrian, shocked society by riding in a men's riding habit, instead of a skirt, and astride, instead of sidesaddle.

The Boston socialite Eleanora Sears was a champion athlete in tennis and squash and was also an accomplished horsewoman and horse breeder. Born in 1881 into an elite Boston family descended from Thomas and Martha Jefferson , Sears grew up in luxury in Boston and Paris. Throughout her life, she would use the security of her family's social status and wealth to free herself from society's expectations for a woman; she refused to marry, said what she thought, dressed as she wanted, and participated in whatever activities appealed to her. Sears was educated at home but preferred physical activities to her studies. Her father encouraged her to exercise, allowing her to accompany him on 22-mile walks between their Boston home and the family's summer home in Pride's Crossing. He also encouraged her love of horses. She first began to rebel against the norms of behavior for a woman of her status as a teenager, usually choosing the freedom of men's breeches and shirts over constricting women's fashions.

As a young adult, she took up lawn tennis, winning numerous tournaments, as well as long-distance ocean swimming. Sears' fame as a tennis player began in 1904 when she won a tournament against the former U.S. tennis champion Marion Jones Farquhar . Although Sears participated in many sports, she competed most often in tennis; her appreciation of the game came from her father, who was one of the first to play tennis in America (shortly after Mary Outer-bridge introduced the sport to the U.S. in 1874). Sears' Uncle Richard won the first American men's championship in 1881, holding the title until 1887. Between 1904 and 1924, Sears won tournament after tournament, ranking nationally in the top twenty four times. She won the Eastern States women's singles championship from 1908 to 1910, and again in 1918. In the U.S. singles championships, Sears played every year from 1911 to 1929, becoming a finalist six times. She also played doubles tennis, winning the U.S. women's doubles competition with Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman in 1911 and 1915, and with Molla Mallory in 1916 and 1917. In the 1920s, Sears traveled frequently, often competing in tennis tournaments abroad. Most notably she was a competitor at the Wimbledon championships in London in 1922, 1923, and 1924. She also loved playing squash and quickly became a champion in that sport as well. With her typical confidence and outspokenness, Sears, resentful that there were few facilities for women to play squash, publicly demanded that the Harvard Club open its facilities to women in 1918. Her demands were met, and she went on to win the U.S. women's squash championship in 1928. This was not her first public confrontation with the limited access women had to play sports. In 1912 in Burlingame, California, Sears, riding astride and wearing men's clothes, rode onto a men's polo field during a practice, and requested to be allowed to play. She was escorted off the field. Outraged, the local Burlingame Mothers' Club asked Sears to "restrict herself to the usual feminine attire in the future." Denouncing her apparel, the club passed a public resolution: "Such unconventional trousers and clothes of the masculine sex are contrary to the hard and fast customs of our ancestors. It is immodest and wholly unbecoming a woman, having a bad effect on the sensibilities of our boys and girls." Sears paid the club no mind.

With her family background, athletic ability, good looks, and outspoken demeanor, the striking blonde-haired, blue-eyed Sears attracted media attention wherever she went. She appeared in the ballrooms of New York and Boston dressed in elegant gowns by night, but by day she rode horses at full gallop and played squash in her breeches. She usually met with disapproval from her social peers, who thought her unladylike activities and male clothing eccentric, but she enjoyed the admiration of many men and women for her athletic skills. Often she sought out media publicity; yet she always maintained that she performed in sports simply because she wanted to, not out of a desire to challenge women's confined roles or for personal fame. Her personal relationships remain obscure; her name was linked in the news media to several bachelors of Boston's elite,

including, in 1911, the rumor that she was engaged to Harold Vanderbilt, yet she never publicly admitted to any love interest. Known to her friends as Eleo, she maintained a home on Beacon Hill in Boston, where she often entertained at lavish parties.

Along with tennis and squash, Sears often publicly took on wagers that challenged her physical endurance, especially in marathon walking. Her pace and stamina were remarkable. In 1912, she covered over 109 miles in 41 hours, from Burlingame to Delmonte, California. Another time she walked from Providence, Rhode Island, to Boston, a distance of 47 miles, in 10½ hours. Frequently, Sears' chauffeur followed her on her long walks; the stately woman striding purposefully along the roads of New England and California, trailed by a car, became a familiar sight. She was also something of a daredevil, riding in an early airplane in 1910 and taking a submarine voyage; she also drove an automobile, certainly one of the first women to do so. Sears' sports interests were wide-ranging, and there are few sports she did not participate in at some point in her long career. She played baseball, field hockey, football, and golf; she also enjoyed boxing, trapshooting, canoeing, racing speedboats, ice hockey, and yachting. However, her love of horses was the most enduring of her interests. Sears kept the stables at her family's summer home outside Boston filled with thoroughbreds, hunters, and jumpers. She bred and trained horses herself, and spent a few hours on horseback nearly every day. Her horses were often winners at the National Horse Show in New York's Madison Square Garden. She also bred racehorses for competition in the 1950s and 1960s. Sears supported other equestrian athletes financially, making large donations and loaning her own horses to the U.S. Olympic equestrian team for many years. She also was the major benefactor of the National Horse Show. Her love of horses and of Boston made Sears the leader in the fight to preserve the Boston mounted police when budget cuts in the late 1950s threatened to eliminate them. In 1961, her contributions were crucial in rebuilding the U.S. Olympic ice-skating team after most members of the team were killed in a plane crash, including Laurence and Maribel Owen .

Sears maintained her active lifestyle into her later years. She served as president of the U.S. Women's Squash Racquets Association, an organization to promote women's athletics, and continued to compete herself. In 1939, she and Sylvia Henrotin won the women's doubles tennis championship for women over age 45. The next year, she was a semifinalist in the U.S. women's squash tournament. She was still competing in squash championships for her age group in 1954, at age 73.

In 1963 Sears, whose career had reputedly earned her over 240 trophies, retired to Palm Beach, Florida, where she died in 1968. Following her death, she was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She was also posthumously honored as an inductee of the Horseman's Hall of Fame in 1978, and the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame (for polo, golf, and squash) in 1984.


Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Oglesby, Carole A., ed. Encyclopedia of Women and Sport in America. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx, 1998.

The New York Times (obituary). March 27, 1968.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

More From

You Might Also Like