Eleanor Holm, 1930s Olympian, Actress, Dies at 91; Was Kicked Off '36 Olympic Team -- February 2, 2004
MIAMI, Feb. 1. ELEANOR Holm Whalen, an Olympic swimming champion who was expelled from the 1936 Berlin Games in a headline-making drinking episode that brought her a second career as a slightly notorious but glamorous show-business figure, died Saturday at her home in Miami.
The cause was kidney failure, said her sister-in-law, Mary Ann Flotron.
By her own account, she would have been 90 at her death, but her sister-in-law said she was 91.
When she boarded the S.S. Manhattan in New York Harbor on July 15, 1936, with some 330 fellow Olympians bound for the Berlin Olympics, Eleanor Holm Jarrett, as she was then known, stood at the pinnacle of the swimming world. She had captured the 100-meter backstroke at the 1932 Los Angeles Games and had set world records in that event and the 200-meter backstroke. She had not lost a race in seven years and was the first female swimmer to be chosen for three American Olympic teams.
But when the ship docked at Hamburg, Germany, she was no longer a member of the Olympic team. The US Olympic Committee and its president, Avery Brundage, had expelled her from the Games for carousing and breaking curfew, an incident that became one of the most publicized flaps in Olympic history.
Her actions seem tame by modern standards, when sports pages have no shortage of accounts detailing drug abuse, criminal behavior and narcissism. But the tale of Olympic partying and drinking that emerged in 1936 enthralled readers who were hardly used to hearing about athletes' lives beyond the playing fields.
Eleanor Holm was born in Brooklyn, the daughter of a New York Fire Department officer, and learned to swim at the pool near her family's summer cottage in Long Beach, N.Y.
She finished fifth in the 100-meter backstroke at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. Having won a gold medal in the backstroke at the Los Angeles Games in 1932, she was favored to repeat at the Berlin Olympics. But that was before she incurred the wrath of Brundage, the powerful American Olympic chief.
Holm was both a world-class swimmer and eminently worldly. She had married Art Jarrett, a bandleader, singer and fellow graduate of Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, in September 1933. She had appeared with his band, wearing a white bathing suit and white cowboy hat with high heels, singing "I'm an Old Cowhand." She had bit parts in several Warner Brothers movies.
Two days after the Olympians' ship left for the Berlin Games, Holm was invited to an all-night party for sportswriters on the first-class deck. Her drinking there and her violation of curfew brought a warning from Olympic officials.
Then, during a stopover in Cherbourg, France, she won a couple of hundred dollars playing dice with sportswriters aboard the ship during the afternoon. That night, she attended another party with them.
In an interview for "All That Glitters Is Not Gold," by William O. Johnson, she remembered the moment: "This chaperone came up to me and told me it was time to go to bed. God, it was about 9 o'clock, and who wanted to go down in that basement to sleep anyway? So I said to her: `Oh, is it really bedtime? Did you make the Olympic team or did I?' I had had a few glasses of Champagne. So she went to Brundage and complained that I was setting a bad example for the team, and they got together and told me the next morning that I was fired. I was heartbroken."
According to "The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics," by David Wallechinsky, the Olympic team doctor had reported that she was suffering from acute alcoholism, but Holm denied it.
Holm maintained that many of her fellow athletes had also been drinking on the voyage because there was no ban on alcohol, and some 200 team members petitioned Brundage to reverse the ban. But Brundage, who ruled amateur athletics in the United States for decades, stood fast.
"I was everything that Avery Brundage hated," Holm said in "Tales of Gold," by Lewis H. Carlson and John J. Fogarty. "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."
She went on to recall: "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."
While Nida Senff of the Netherlands was winning Holm's specialty, the 100-meter backstroke, with American entries finishing third and fourth, Holm joined her sportswriter friends. Hired by the International News Service to file reports on the Games, she became a celebrity presence in the press area, although her articles were ghostwritten.
She also attended receptions held by Hitler and other Nazi leaders. Hermann Goering, the Luftwaffe chief, gave her a silver swastika he took off his uniform. When Holm married Billy Rose, who was Jewish, she had it copied in gold and then placed a Star of David set in diamonds inside it.
After the Olympics, Holm continued in her singing act and was co-featured in the 1938 20th Century Fox movie "Tarzan's Revenge," playing alongside Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion, who was cast as Tarzan.
After her divorce from Jarrett in 1939, Holm married Rose, who had obtained a divorce from the comedian Fannie Brice. Co-featured with Johnny Weismuller and then Buster Crabbe, Holm did 39 shows a week at Rose's Aquacade in the New York World's Fair of 1939-1940.
"I thought I'd never be dry," she recalled in "Tales of Gold."
"My hair turned green from the chlorine, and swimming on those cold October and November nights in New York was awful."
Holm lived with Rose in a five-story, 14-room house on Beekman Place in Manhattan. They were divorced in 1954. She later married Tom Whalen, a retired oil executive, and settled in the Miami area.
She had no children and is survived by two nieces. Whalen died in 1984.
"I don't swim anymore, I just play tennis," she told Dave Anderson of The New York Times in 1984. "But I still have my 1932 Olympic bathing suit. It's blue with a red, white and blue shield on the front. It's long-waisted with a little skirt. And I don't drink Champagne anymore. Just a little dry white wine."