Still Very Much in the Swim

Onetime Olympic backstroke champion Eleanor Holm reflects on her days of wine and Rose
June 14, 1992

In 1930 a 17-year-old Brooklyn girl named Eleanor Holm gave up a chance to go on the road with the Ziegfeld Follies so she could dedicate her time to training for the 1932 Summer Olympics. Earlier that year Florenz Ziegfeld, the legendary impresario, had spotted her at a swim meet in California and had been dazzled by her vivacity, smile, hazel eyes and curvaceously athletic 5'2" physique. He offered her a spot as a skit player upon her return home.

Although Holm never got beyond rehearsals at the Follies, she mixed swimming and show biz, for better and worse, for years to come. In 1936, by then an established nightclub entertainer, Holm was kicked off the U.S. Olympic team for carousing with her journalist pals on the Atlantic crossing to the Berlin Games, but she went on to become the centerpiece of Billy Rose's Aquacade. The star-crossed Olympian became a crossover star.

She was the seventh and youngest child of Charlotte and Franklin Holm, chief of the Jamaica branch of the New York City Fire Department. They summered in Long Beach, N.Y., where Eleanor began her swimming career at age 13. "I had a lazy right eye," says Holm, now 79 and as splashy as ever, in her North Miami condominium overlooking Biscayne Bay. "My mother used to sit near the end of the pool wearing a bright scarf so I would know where to turn."

Lazy eye or no, Holm qualified for the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics at the age of 15. The youngest member of the U.S. team, she finished fifth in the 100-meter backstroke. She went home determined to win a medal in the 1932 Olympics. By June 1932 she held unofficial world records in two backstroke events, and America had begun to take notice: "Eleanor Holm, whose swimming has not yet marred her pretty freshness with big muscles and fat," wrote TIME magazine, "breaks a backstroke record almost every time she goes for a swim."

Where better, then, for a young, pretty world-record holder to go than Los Angeles, the land of the young, the pretty and—incidentally—the 1932 Summer Games?

Holm looked every bit the star in L.A., where she won not only a gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke, beating runner-up Bonny Mealing of Australia by nearly two seconds, but also the admiration of the Warner Bros, film studio. Eleven days after her victory, Jack Warner signed her to a seven-year contract.

"They sent me to school to learn how to act," says Holm. "I started out at $500 a week, and I was supposed to go to the studio or take an acting lesson from Josephine Dillon, Clark Gable's first wife, every day. There was a great director at Warner then named Mervyn LeRoy, and I did bit parts in a few of his movies. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was there then, and Carole Lombard and Edward G. Robinson. The studio would make me go to their sets to learn how to act. And I was impressed, seeing the stars and the celebrities. So I'd ask them for their autographs!"

But after nine months Holm quit because the studio wanted her to swim in movies, which would have compromised her amateur status. Furthermore, Holm says, "It's funny, but I never really had any ambition to be an actress. God knows the studio tried, but I still have my Brooklyn accent, don't I? And they spent a lot of money for me to lose it! They tried to groom me for light comedy, but the only thing I ever wanted was to win the Olympics."

She trained in the pool at Los Angeles's Ambassador Hotel, where she met Arthur Jarrett, the featured singer at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub. In 1933 they married and started performing in nightclubs and vaudeville shows around the country. "We sang duets," says Holm. "He was a tenor, and for a champion swimmer, I was pretty good. But don't forget, I had a body in those days that wouldn't stop." In more ways than one: While on tour, Holm trained for the '36 Olympics. She would sleep during the day, sing with Jarrett by night, then find a pool for her early-morning workouts.

This unusual regimen and Holm's quick wit made her the darling of sports reporters, who could count on her for good copy. "I train on champagne and cigarettes," she said at the '36 Olympic trials in Astoria, Long Island, admitting in the same breath that that was an exaggeration.

When the SS Manhattan sailed for Germany that July, the 23-year-old glamour girl had not been defeated in seven years and was favored to win the 100-meter backstroke in Berlin. But she was also a celebrity, and she was accustomed to that life-style. She had no patience for the team quarters three decks down, and so she tried to buy her own ticket in first class. When the American Olympic Committee nixed that proposal, she settled for second best: She slept and ate with the athletes and worked out daily in the ship's pool, but she spent the rest of her time on the top deck with her journalist chums.

All this enjoyment stuck in the craw of Avery Brundage, the bluenose president of the AOC. Brundage watched enviously as Holm won the attention of the press and he went virtually ignored. Once, according to at least one account, she stayed up until 6 a.m. with the journalists and had to be helped back to her cabin. Some reports indicate she received a warning afterward from the AOC, but Holm denies she was ever admonished. In any case, one last party the afternoon and night before the Manhattan docked in Hamburg proved fateful.

Holm spent that evening drinking champagne, shooting craps and laughing it up with the press, and a chaperon observed her wobbling back to her cabin at about 10:30 p.m. Brundage later said two doctors who went to check on her at midnight were unable to rouse her. The following morning Holm was informed that the AOC had voted to remove her from the team for violation of training rules.

Holm pleaded with the committee to reverse the decision, to no avail. Brundage said that "it would wreck the American Olympic team." Distraught, Holm considered catching the next boat home. Instead she accepted an offer from William Randolph Hearst's International News Service to stay on at the Olympics as a correspondent for $100 a week plus expenses. Suddenly Holm not only was more famous than ever but had a byline to boot. "I was a bona fide reporter," she says, though she confesses that the prose appearing under her name was written by some of the U.S.'s top sports scribes of the day. "Paul Gallico, Jimmy Powers, Bob Considine, Alan Gould...they would ask me, 'If you were writing a letter to your mother, what would you say?' And I would give them stuff I heard in the women's locker room." Holm's journalistic career only further enraged Brundage, who subsequently banned her from competing in all amateur events in Europe as punishment for profiting from her Olympic suspension.

But she made the most of her Berlin foray. Holm mixed with royalty, and with the Nazi elite, for what that was worth. Hitler wanted to know the real reason for her being kicked off the team. "He asked me through an interpreter, 'What did you really do?' Because no European would believe I was dismissed from the team just for drinking wine," she says. "They had wine on their training tables! He told me that if I had been a German athlete the punishment would have come after the games, not before!"

For the most part Holm had a marvelous time in Germany. "I had such fun!" she told SI in 1972. "You know, athletes don't think much about politics at all." Her only unhappy moments came when the competition started. "It was pretty sad to see all my buddies training and then watching them on opening day," she says today. In her Aug. 14 column she wrote, "I don't know for sure whether I bawled or kept a straight face when those Dutch mermaids beat out our fighting girls in the last three yards of what is to me the Olympics' most tragic event—the 100-meter backstroke race.... I wonder what Avery Brundage thought of that horse-and-buggy time [1:18.9 by Dina Senff of Holland].... I could jump into the Olympic pool with a champagne bottle in either hand and equal 1:18.9."

Upon her return to the States, Holm resumed touring with her husband, became the first person of note to sport a two-piece bathing suit, and turned pro in 1937 so she could sign a $30,000 contract to star in the Aquacade that summer at Cleveland's Great Lakes Exposition. The Aquacade was the creation of diminutive New York producer Billy Rose, whose Broadway credits included the exceedingly difficult to stage and enormously successful Jumbo, a musical comedy-circus. The water show would feature Holm and former Olympic champion and Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller, as well as 150 other swimmers, dubbed aquabelles and aquaboys by Rose. The 5'4" Rose could hardly contain himself when describing what he envisioned to skeptical investors. "We've gotta use Canada for our backdrop, the moon and stars for our props, and Lake Erie for our swimming pool. [And] a curtain of water. I want that water to shoot up 30 feet. And it's gotta dance! It's gotta be bigger and more beautiful and better lit than any fountain in Versailles," he exhorted.

In the Aquacade, Holm appeared to be six feet tall when she strode to the center of the stage in her high-heeled slippers. She wore a silver-sequined leotard and a matching floor-length cape that she would shed, along with the pumps, before diving into the dark, chill water of Lake Erie. "Eleanor was darn near Nijinsky in a bathing cap when she backstroked the length of the pool," Rose later recalled.

More spectacular than that watery extravaganza, though, was the romance that blossomed between Holm and Rose that summer. Never mind Jarrett and Rose's wife of eight years, comedienne Fanny Brice. On Nov. 12, Rose announced he would marry Holm, asserting that Brice spent too much time in the spotlight while he and Eleanor believed a wife's place was in the home. Rose added that Holm had promised to be a wife to him and nothing more once they were married. It would take two years for the divorces to go through—sufficient time for Holm to remain in the spotlight and finish her work in Tarzan's Revenge and star in the New York Aquacade.

Shooting the Tarzan flick was no mean feat, even if the final product was. One day Holm had to stand in a swamp and struggle for hours while Tarzan, played by 1936 Olympic decathlon champion Glenn Morris (who followed Weissmuller as the movie Tarzan), came through the forest to her rescue. Another time she had to race with alligators in a tank. "Their jaws were wired," she recalls, "but they could still hit you with their tails, so that was pretty awful."

Reviews of the film were less than rosy. One critic wrote: "Eleanor is on safari in the jungle.... A swarthy turbaned nabob who keeps 100 wives in a jungle palace marks her for 101. But he reckons without Glenn Morris.... On the bank of his jungle swimming hole Tarzan makes funny motions, meaning 'Can you swim?' Yes, Mrs. Jarrett can swim. Off comes the jumper, revealing a natty white swimsuit and in she dives. Best lines: Eleanor, welcomed by the nabob with punctilious honors, rejoining with full Flatbush skepticism: 'Wuss this alla bout?'...Best all-round performer: Cheetah, the Chimp."

When Rose and Holm married in the fall of 1939, the end of her aquatic career was, at last, blessedly in sight. She would star in the Aquacade for one more season, and she couldn't wait for the final aquacurtain. "I had a wonderful dream last night," she said in 1940, "[that] I woke up and my maid said, 'Your bath is ready.' And I just laughed and told her, 'I'm never going to get in the water again.' "

The early years of the marriage were blissful. The couple lived on Beekman Place in Manhattan, in a five-story town house that overlooked the East River and was filled with paintings by Modigliani, Van Dyck, Renoir and Rembrandt. The Roses bought a 35-room mansion in Mount Kisco, N.Y., furnished it with 18th-century English furniture and dubbed it Roseholm. In the backyard there was a swimming pool, a garden, an oversized cabana with a Swedish bath and full-time masseur, and stables that had been converted into a private movie theater.

Holm added an easy, diplomatic touch to the abrasive Rose's style, and Rose surrounded her with furs, diamonds and stars. "I had wonderful times with Billy," Holm says today. "Bernard Baruch [the New York financier] brought Winston Churchill to Mount Kisco. Holy father! Orson Welles came, too. And Laurence Olivier and Jimmy Durante would be out in the garden picking tomatoes and corn. I was terribly impressed, because I had never considered myself in that kind of class. I was a swimmer. And if they hadn't kicked me off the team, I would have been just another swimmer, believe me."

Billy got a kick out of Eleanor, too. He called her "my champ" and teased her affectionately in his syndicated column, Pitching Horseshoes. "I am married to a very pretty girl," began one piece in 1946. "....Three generals and one stale ambassador had to wail in line because the editors of TIME thought my wife in a bathing suit would sell more magazines [Aug. 21, 1939].... Eleanor Holm was born pretty—why, then, does it take her an hour to makeup?"

He wrote similarly of her on their round-the-world trip in 1949, so it came as a shock when the War of the Roses broke out in 1951.

The scandal began on July 15, when Joyce Mathews, a 31-year-old blonde who had twice been married to and divorced from Milton Berle, slashed her wrists in Rose's office at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City. Mathews offered several explanations for her action, one being that she had been "shaving her wrists." But friends of both of them believed she did the deed after Rose told her he had no intention of divorcing Holm to marry her.

Holm rallied in support of her husband until he was seen in Mathews's company during the following months. In December she named Mathews as the "other woman" in her suit for separation. Rose, ever the Napoleonic competitor, spitefully sued Holm for divorce, also on the grounds of adultery—the only legal grounds for such action in New York State at the time.

Finally, in January '54 over coffee in New York City, the couple agreed to a divorce settlement. Rose offered Holm $30,000 a year, plus $20,000 more a year for a decade, so long as the divorce went through by April 10. Holm flew to Las Vegas and became the ex-Mrs. Rose on Feb. 27.

While in Vegas she took up with Tommy Whalen, a St. Louis native who had been connected with the Mafia, though he described himself in 1954 as a professional soccer player. Whalen had been a suspect in a St. Louis murder in 1941, but he was never prosecuted for the crime. He was a gambler and a nightclub owner and had made a fortune in the oil business in Wyoming. His primary pursuit with Holm, though, was a life of leisure.

They were lovers for 20 years without marrying, because the alimony she was collecting from Rose was too sweet to forgo. They finally married in 1974, eight years after Rose died. Rose had been married three more times after splitting with Eleanor, twice to Joyce Mathews.

"Tommy and I were in love," Holm says. "We used to walk the beaches and go to Europe every year. We took a house in Pebble Beach and belonged to the Del Monte Beach Club, where you'd sit around and get a tap on the shoulder and turn around and it would be Dinah Shore saying, 'Listen, do you have a tennis game? You like to play?' Oh, it was fun. I was mad for Tommy."

Their life-style changed drastically in 1981 when Whalen was discovered to have polycythemia, an illness in which an increase in the total red-cell mass causes the blood to thicken until it reaches the consistency of honey. Holm nursed her husband for five years as the hulking man withered to a shadow of his former self. He died in 1986, at age 76.

Holm still lives in the luxury condo that she shared with Whalen. She manages her own money and is doing well for herself. "I have so many friends who have been left money, and their husbands never taught them anything," says Holm, who went to school to learn bookkeeping after Rose died. "I don't buy anything I don't understand. At my age I want to preserve what I've got. One reason I still have pretty good money is that I sold a lot of diamonds Billy gave me."

Holm drives her new Cadillac around North Miami and surveys her haunts, past and present. She points out the country clubs where she used to play golf and tennis but where she now plays gin and bridge. "I fell—don't laugh—off a treadmill and broke a tiny bone in my shoulder two years ago, so I haven't gone back to golf or tennis," she says, chuckling.

Holm, who made a career out of being beautifully fit long before the advent of aerobics, doesn't like the physical pain that age often brings. "No matter how athletic you've been and how well you've taken care of yourself, there's no substitute for youth," she laments.

She thinks about old friends who are gone now—Buster Crabbe, Weissmuller and, most recently, Sonny Werblin, whose widow, Leah, sang with Phil Harris at the Cocoanut Grove back in the '30s. "I don't know how it's all going to end," Holm says. "I try not to think about it. But I'll tell you one thing: I just don't want any aches or pains. Other than that, I'm perfectly content. I've got a lot of good friends, I have a lot of fun, and I'm laughing: I outlived all those guys who kicked me off the team."

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAHolm's home is filled with mementos, including a "Time" cover. PHOTOPETER A. NYHOLM[See caption above.] PHOTOUNDERWOOD AND UNDERWOODHolm, 15, was the youngest member of the '28 U.S. Olympic team. PHOTOIn 1937 Rose (left) created the Aquacade for Holm and Weissmuller (right).

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)