Eleanor Holm Whalen, 90; Olympic Star Lost Swim Team Spot for Carousing
Eleanor Holm Jarrett Rose Whalen, the glamorous champion swimmer and actress who earned a gold medal for the 100-meter backstroke at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles but lost her chance to win a second Olympic gold four years later over a couple of glasses of champagne, has died. She was 90.
Holm died Saturday in her Miami home of kidney failure.
Four years after winning her first gold, Holm was certain she was destined for a second at the 1936 Olympics in Adolf Hitler’s Berlin. She hadn’t lost a race in seven years and was the first woman chosen to compete on three U.S. Olympic teams.
But on the way across the Atlantic, her career took a sharp turn.
Along with 330 other U.S. contenders, she slept and ate in cramped quarters below deck on the steamship Manhattan. But the witty, irrepressible Holm went up to first class for her evenings’ entertainment with her adoring newspapermen and celebrity friends, including playwright Charles MacArthur and his wife, actress Helen Hayes.
Holm sipped a few, shot craps, stayed up late and had a generally good time.
American Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage found out about her partying, disapproved and kicked her off the team. He said that she had broken curfew and that her carousing and drinking was setting a bad example for fellow athletes.
“All I did was drink a couple of glasses of champagne,” she told People magazine six decades afterward. “I was married, singing in a nightclub with my husband’s band. I was not exactly a child.” At the time, she was married to Art Jarrett.
Despite a petition signed by more than half the U.S. Olympic team, Brundage, who went on to become the president of the International Olympic Committee, refused to reconsider.
Accounts of the brouhaha, tame by today’s familiar tales of drug use and rowdy behavior among athletes, have differed. But Holm was universally quoted as saying she was “heartbroken.”
Ironically, Holm told The Times in 1984, in her maturity she came to think of Brundage with “grateful hate.”
“He made me more money than I could possibly have made otherwise,” she said. “But deep down in my heart I know I would have won that second gold medal -- and I wanted it.”
Born in Brooklyn, the 5-foot-1-inch wonder was a U.S. national champion by age 14 in the women’s backstroke and was entered in the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. She finished in fifth place and won no medals.
But she continued amassing her more than 70 awards, and in 1930 producer Florenz Ziegfeld hired her after a Long Beach swim meet to appear in his Follies. Still in high school, she enjoyed the high life of a Ziegfeld Girl for three months -- giving it up only to train for the 1932 Olympics.
Here, she handily won her only event, earning the gold with a world-record time of 1:19.4, which stood in the 100-meter for some time.
Holm was placed under contract to Warner Bros. for $500 a week, but despite studio-hired acting coaches and other niceties, she declared herself a spectacular flop as an actress.
She soon married Jarrett, and felt she did better singing with him and his band in nightclubs across the country. After winding up the sets in the wee hours, she would train for the 1936 Olympics, and then sleep through the day.
The ever-quotable young woman continued to delight newsmen with such comments as “I train on champagne and cigarettes” and accounts of winning national championships with a hangover.
“Anybody with any sense knows that you can’t break records and be out partying all night,” she told The Times in 1984. “But I never tried to spoil that image.... All my buddies, the newspaper guys, would say ‘We’re making a big glamour girl of you.’ ”
Holm’s ouster from the 1936 Olympics -- and turn as “author” of ghostwritten news accounts of the Berlin games -- only heightened her appeal.
Showered with lucrative offers on her return to New York, Holm chose to swim professionally in impresario Billy Rose’s Aquacade that he was organizing for Cleveland in 1937.
Years later, Rose’s sister, Polly, described Holm in her 1969 book as “electrifying as she sparkled and streaked through the black water.”
Coached by Rose, Holm made the 1938 film “Tarzan’s Revenge” opposite Glenn Morris in a loincloth, reinforcing the appraisal that she was no actress.
In 1939, Holm divorced Jarrett and married Rose after his divorce from comedian Fanny Brice. The swimmer starred in Rose’s New York World’s Fair Aquacades for the next two years, swimming with fellow Olympian gold medalists Johnny Weissmuller in the 1939 show and Buster Crabbe in the 1940 version.
Time magazine put Holm on its cover in 1939 and called her “the most beautiful athlete in the world.”
Picture-centric Life magazine described her as “one of the all-time photogenic greats.”
After the 1940 Aquacade ended, Holm refused to go near a swimming pool for five years. Later in life, she turned to tennis rather than swimming for exercise.
“I was never dry,” she said of her championship swimming years. “I mean, my skin was like a rhinoceros.”
“It’s just a boring sport to do by yourself,” the member of the International Swimming and International Women’s Sports Halls of Fame said of swimming half a century after her aborted Olympic run. “If you’re not racing or you’re not in a swimming meet ... just to go into a pool and go up and down ... it’s so damn dull.”
Holm’s stormy marriage to Rose ended in a 1954 divorce so vitriolic that the press described it as “the war of the Roses.”
An interior decorator later in her life, Holm was married to St. Louis oil executive Thomas Whalen from 1974 until his death in 1984.
She is survived by two nieces.