The Olympic Games start this weekend and Brooklynites will no doubt be rooting for hometown star Lia Neal, the most recent Brooklynite to join the elite list of Olympians. 17-year-old Neal is only the second African-American female swimmer from the United States to make Team USA. Neal will swim the 4x100-meter freestyle competition on Saturday, July 28.
With the announcement of Neal making the team, I wondered about other Brooklynites who were selected for the Olympic Games. Brooklyn has had its share of Olympians including basketball stars Michael Jordan and Stephon Marbury, and boxer Riddick Bowe. A few have performed for other countries such as runner Carl Kaufman who represented Germany in the 1960 Games. Rifling through the collection, I found another Brooklyn-bred athlete who made history at the Olympics as the first female swimmer to be chosen for three American Olympic teams.
Eleanor Holm in 1954
Eleanor Holm, born in Brooklyn 1913, learned to swim and dive at the age of ten at her parents' summer house in Long Beach. When she was 13, she won her first title and went on to hone her skill while attending Erasmus Hall High School. In 1928, she joined the USA Olympic swim team in Amsterdam, earning 5th place in the 100-meter backstroke. By June 1932, she held world records in two backstroke events which she won in Rye, NY. That same year, she would go on to win the gold medal for the 100-meter backstroke and break a world record in both the 100-and 200-meter backstroke in the Los Angeles Olympics.
At age eighteen, upon her return from the 1932 Olympics, Warner Brothers signed her to a seven-year film contract. She landed many bit parts, but after only nine months she quit because the studio wanted her to swim in movies, which would make her a professional and disqualify her from Olympic trials. Holm said in an interview with Sports Illustrated, "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."
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1932
In September 1933, she married fellow Erasmus alumnus, Arthur Jarrett. He was a well-known singer, songwriter and actor. Holm sang with his band in nightclubs and vaudeville shows throughout the country--wearing a white bathing suit, white cowboy hat and high heels.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 16, 1936
By 1936, Mrs. Holm-Jarrett was one of the most famous athletes in the United States. In seven years, she did not lose one race and was expected to bring home a gold medal in the Berlin Olympics. However, on the way to Germany, aboard the ocean liner SS Manhattan, she was invited to a party in the first-class area, where she drank champagne with journalists. When curfew was called--at 9pm--she refused to turn in and asked her chaperone, "Did you make the Olympic team, or did I?" The chaperone promptly went to Olympic officials and told them Holm was setting a bad example for the team. When the ship reached Germany, Holm was fired. Around 200 teammates petitioned for her reinstatement, but officials stood by their decision after a doctor examined Holm and diagnosed her with chronic alcoholism--a claim she vehemently denied. Instead of returning to United States, she was hired by the International News Service to report on the games.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 1936
Upon her return to the States, she was quoted as saying, "I'll never be happy again. It broke my heart." This was surely one of the greatest furores in Olympic history.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 20, 1936
Her Olympic dream destroyed, she went back into show business. She joined theatre producer Billy Rose's Aquacade, a touring water show which was the main attraction for the Great Lakes Exhibition in Cleveland in 1936-37 and the 1939 New York World's Fair. Taking a break from the Aquacade in 1937-38 she starred as Jane in Tarzan's Revenge, opposite fellow Olympian, Glenn Morris.
In 1937, Art Jarrett filed for divorce from Holm because he claimed she was having an affair with Rose--an allegation she fervently denied. At the same time, Rose divorced his wife, comedienne Fanny Brice. On November 14, 1939, Holm and Rose were married.
Her marriage to Rose would last thirteen years and end after she found out that Rose was having an on-going affair with Milton Berle's ex-wife, Joyce Matthews. Newspapers coined the two-year, drawn-out, and brutal divorce, "The War of the Roses."
Brooklyn Eagle, January 8, 1954
The marriage officially ended on February 28, 1954, with Rose forking over $30,000 per year in alimony payments plus $200,000 in cash over a ten-year period. Billy Rose married Matthews in 1956 and they divorced in 1959.
Holm signing divorce papers in Nevada. Brooklyn Eagle, 1954
After her divorce from Rose, she went on to marry one more time to oil-executive Thomas Whalen and moved to Miami. Whalen died in 1984. In an interview with the New York Times the same year, Holm said, "I don't swim any more, I just play tennis."
Eleanor Holm lived a rather glamorous, and at times, controversial life. She broke several world records and held twenty-nine National Championships in the course of her career. She never had children, and when she died of kidney failure in 2004 at the age of 91, she was survived by two nieces.