Encyclopedia Womannica

Olympians: Eleanor Holm

Episode Summary

Eleanor Holm (1913-2004) was a swimmer turned socialite perhaps remembered best for the Olympic Games she didn’t compete in.

Episode Notes

All month, we're talking about Olympians. Tune in to hear incredible stories of women who either were in the Olympics or likely should have been!

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Local Legends, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Grace Lynch, Maddy Foley, and Brittany Martinez. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Carmen Borca-Carrillo, Taylor Williamson, and Ale Tejeda.

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Episode Transcription

Hello, from Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today’s Olympian was a swimmer turned socialite who is perhaps more remembered for the Olympics she didn’t compete in, than the one where she won gold. Let’s talk about Eleanor Holm.

Eleanor Grace Holm was born on December 6, 1913 in Brooklyn, New York. She was the youngest of seven children to parents Franklin and Charlotte. Each  summer, the family  vacationed at their cottage in Long Beach, New York. It was during these  summer visits that Eleanor developed a love for the water. As a young girl, her mother would tie water wings to her arms before she went to play in the ocean. Eleanor recalls lifeguards swimming out after her and pleading with her to stay closer to shore. The lifeguards would then give her a few pointers on how to swim. Eleanor realized she’d scored free swimming lessons and began intentionally swimming out too far so she could learn more from the lifeguards.  

Her scheme  paid off. Eleanor grew to become a gifted swimmer, winning her first national title at the age of 13. 

At the age of 14, she was selected to compete in the 1928 Summer Olympics. Eleanor had an impressive first showing at the Olympics. She finished  fifth in her dominant event – the 100 meter backstroke. Eleanor continued to improve after her Olympic appearance. She won several Amateur Athletic Union titles in the 300-yard medley event and set multiple world records.

Eleanor made her second Olympic appearance in the 1932 Summer Games in Los Angeles. This time around, Eleanor made the podium.  . She won the gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke while setting a new  record time. 


While in Los Angeles, Eleanor  went  to multiple screen tests f the major film studios:Warner Brothers, MGM and Paramount. She was one of 14 women selected by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers for the Baby Star campaign.  The campaign was meant to highlight a handful of young actresses on the cusp of stardom. Other 1932 Baby Stars included Ginger Rogers and Gloria Stuart. 

Eleanor fully embraced Hollywood life. At the age of 19, she signed a contract with Warner Brothers and married singer and bandleader Art Jarrett. During the day, Eleanor kept up her swimming training. At night, she performed with Art’s band. Her performances were memorable, including one where she sang “I’m an Old Cowhand” while wearing a white bathing suit, white cowboy hat, and high heels.  

Eleanor’s Hollywood partying did not deter her swimming career – at first. In 1936, Eleanor was the favorite to win the gold medal in backstroke in the upcoming Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. , But in the end, Eleanor would not compete.

While en route by ship to Berlin, Eleanor and other members of the U.S. Olympic team were invited to parties by the onboard sports journalists. On the second night of the trip, Eleanor violated curfew and was found drunk. Her behavior was brought  to the U.S. Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage who  expelled Eleanor from the Olympic team. Brundage went a step further and also barred Eleanor from future competitions.

Of the scandal, Eleanor said, "The regulations stated that all team members should continue the same training preparations that we were accustomed to having in the States. 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."

Over 200 team members petitioned for Brundage to lift the ban but the pleas fell on deaf ears. Eleanor was heartbroken as she watched Dutch swimmer Nida Senff win the gold medal in the 100- meter backstroke.  

After being expelled from competitive  swimming, Eleanor became  a high-profile socialite. She appeared in the 1938, Hollywood feature film Tarzan’s Revenge alongside fellow Olympia Glenn Morris. The following year , her husband filed for divorce,  claiming that her expulsion from the 1936 Olympics and an extramarital affair had caused him embarrassment. Eleanor later remarried  entertainer Billy Rose.

During the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Billy opened ‘Billy Rose’s Aquacade’. The Acquacade took place in an 11,000-person amphitheater and featured over 500 dancers, actors and swimmers. Eleanor was the star. The show was a hit during the fair and Eleanor performed in a grueling 39 shows a week. 

 In 1945, Eleanor and Billy divorced. The details of their divorce became tabloid fodder and was called “the war of the Roses.” Eleanor walked away from the marriage with $30,000 per month and a lump sum of $200,000.  Eleanor then married an oil- drilling executive, Thomas Whalen, and settled in the Miami area.

In 1966, Eleanor was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. She kept a low profile for the rest of her life but gave an interview in 1984 where she told the New York Times, ''I don't swim anymore; I just play tennis. 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.''

On January 31, 2004, Eleanor died of renal disease in Miami, Florida. She was 90 years old.   

Despite the controversy  she generated away from the pool, Eleanor Holm was a highly talented swimmer. She won  29 Amateur Athletic Union titles and set seven world backstroke records. Many believe her transgressions at the 1936 Olympic Games were minor and the punishment unjust. .

All month, we’re talking about Olympians. 

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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!