7/29/11 - fame is fleeting

In today's excerpt - in 1926, the most famous woman in America was Gertrude Ederle:

"In 1926, at the age of nineteen, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim across the English Channel. Only five men had done it before her.

"Few sports stories during the Roaring Twenties rivaled Ederle's quest to conquer the English Channel. Reporters rhapsodized over the 1924 Olympic bronze medalist's audacious bid to bridge a sports gender gap measured by the twenty-one miles separating Cape Gris-Nez, France, and Dover, England. 'I felt that I would sooner be in that tug the day she starts than at the ringside of the greatest fight or at the arena of the greatest game in the world—for this, in my opinion, is to be the greatest sports story in the world,' writer W.O. McGeehan gushed.

"At 7:08 a.m. on August 6, 1926, Ederle plunged into the dark, icy water off Cape Gris-Nez. This was her second attempt to swim the Channel; a year earlier, she hadn't been able to finish. The simple fact that she was trying again, beating three other women swimmers determined to swim the Channel before she did, was itself an accomplishment. Making it to England, however, was something else. By late afternoon, Ederle was being buffeted by pounding swells, pelting rain, and pesky winds. From a nearby tugboat, her trainer, Thomas Burgess, yelled, 'Gertie, you must come out.'

" 'What for?' she asked.

"At 9:39 p.m., Ederle reached Kingsdown on the English coast, where a British immigration official asked to see her passport. The rough weather had lengthened Ederle's swimming course to the equivalent of thirty-five miles, a distance she had covered in an astonishing 14 hours 31 minutes. Her time shattered the English Channel record by 2 hours 2 minutes.

"No woman athlete in American history had ever received the rush of adulation lavished on Gertrude Ederle. When she returned home, Manhattan threw her a ticker tape parade grander than the ones that had saluted the greatest heroes of World War I. Two million people lined Broadway to catch a glimpse of the sports heroine, whom President Calvin Coolidge had dubbed 'America's Best Girl.' New York City mayor James J. Walker compared her feat to Moses parting the Red Sea, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, and Washington crossing the Delaware. Trudy Ederle was bombarded with movie, stage, and commercial offers totaling nearly $1 million. After she received hundreds of marriage proposals, a songwriting duo wrote, 'You're such a cutie, you're just as sweet as tutti-frutti, Trudy, who'll be the lucky fellow?'

"In a matter of weeks, however, nearly all the most lucrative offers had been withdrawn. With few prospects to swim for money, Ederle joined the vaudeville circuit in 1927. She earned $2,000 a week, but after a year she suffered a nervous breakdown from the strain of giving six performances a day. She was also hampered by poor advice from uncouth business managers. By the end of the decade, Ederle was nearly broke. She was forced to slink off the public stage, resurfacing momentarily in 1939 when she swam, along with three hundred showgirls, in Billy Rose's Aquacade at the New York World's Fair. She had been hearing impaired since the age of five and had lost all her hearing by the late 1930s. During World War II, she worked at LaGuardia Airport as an aircraft instrument technician.

"In 1975, Ederle was a nearly anonymous sixty-eight-year-old woman living in a modest apartment in Queens. She never married. Her next-door neighbors had no idea who she was or what she had done. 'Don't write any sob stories about me,' she told a reporter. 'I'm not a millionaire, but I'm comfortable.' The reporter wondered if she had any idea why the world had so quickly forgotten her astonishing feat. 'I would be stupid if I hadn't realized that people couldn't stand forever on street corners playing brass bands,' she said. 'It doesn't really matter if they've forgotten me. I haven't forgotten them.' "


Don Van Natta Jr.


Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias


Little, Brown and Company


Copyright 2011 by Don Van Natta Jr.


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