Learn About New York Native Eleanor Holm

Actress and Olympic gold medalist athlete. She competed for three different swimming teams for the United States at the Olympic Games, and she gained notoriety for having won the gold medal for one team while being barred from another. She was only thirteen years old when she won her first swimming competition as a champion swimmer. She participated in the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, Netherlands, as a member of the United States Women’s Swimming Team, but she didn’t win any medals. 

She was once more chosen to compete at the 1932 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, California, where she won the Gold Medal in the 100-meter backstroke event. In the first semifinal swim, she set an Olympic Games record with a time of 1:18.3, and she went on to defeat Australian swimming champion, Bonnie Mealing, in the final. She once more made the 1936 Olympic team for the United States, but after a night of drinking on the ocean liner taking her to Europe for the games, she was discovered unconscious.

Eleanor Holm maintained she did not lose control and that President of the United States Olympic Committee Avery Brundage’s decision to expel her from the team was the result of a personal vendetta against her. She established a lucrative entertainment career after moving back to America, appearing in four films and in musical productions that highlighted her swimming prowess. She had three marriages, the second of which lasted from 1939 to 1954 with theatrical producer Billy Rose. In 1966, she received her induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

History

She is the cousin of NBA player Bobby Holm and the daughter of a firefighter. Holm was born in Brooklyn, New York. She started swimming when she was very young. She was chosen to compete in the 1928 Summer Olympics after winning her first national swimming championship at the age of 13. In her event of choice, the 100-meter backstroke, she placed fifth. She was skilled in a variety of other strokes as well, taking home multiple American titles in the 300-yard medley competition.

Holm won the gold medal in her preferred competition at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles but defending champion Marie Braun was forced to withdraw from the final because of an insect bite. She was one of the 14 girls identified as WAMPAS Baby Stars in 1932, along with Gloria Stuart, Mary Carlisle, and Ginger Rogers. One of her first tasks at Warner Bros. was to travel across the nation in early 1933 with a trainload of actors and Busby Berkeley chorus girls to promote the film musical 42nd Street and to show support for the newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt at his first inauguration in Washington, DC.

She married Art Jarrett, a fellow Erasmus Hall High School alum from Brooklyn, the following year on September 2, 1933, following a quick five-month romance. At the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, he led the band and sang. She competed under the name Eleanor Holm Jarrett and earned a spot in the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. Learn more about NYC’s sports Achievements and Iconic moments. Visit What Are the Most Iconic Sports Moments and Achievements in New York City History?

Eleanor’s Drinking Party

The team doctor discovered Holm in a condition resembling a coma following a drinking party on board the SS Manhattan as it was sailing to the Olympics. The Olympic team doctor’s diagnosis, according to David Wallechinsky in The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics, was alcoholism. The superiors took offense at her carousing, especially the snarky American Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage. 

Even so, the good times carried on during a layover in Cherbourg, France, where Holm easily won a few hundred dollars while playing the dice. Holm was allegedly setting a bad example for the rest of the team, so the chaperone stormed off to Brundage. Officials informed Holm the following morning that she would not be participating in the Games due to excessive drinking and curfew violations.

Aside from the famous historic events of New York, Holm’s actions made international headlines at the time. One of the rumors going around claimed that Holm was extremely drunk and on the verge of unconsciousness. Holm vehemently refuted that account of what happened, settling for just a few glasses of champagne. She added that there was no prohibition against alcohol and that many of her fellow athletes had been partaking as well. 

Numerous accusations were made against her, and Holm did not refute them. U.S. Avery Brundage, president of the Olympic Committee, promptly kicked her off the team. Although Holm acknowledged drinking a few glasses of Champagne, she later insisted that Brundage’s decision to fire her was motivated by personal animosity.

Olympic teammates of Holm unsuccessfully requested that her dismissal be reversed. Holm was the overwhelming favorite for the 100-meter backstroke competition, but she was forced to watch from the stands as Dutch swimmer Nida Senff won the gold. Years later, Holm revealed to Olympic sprinter Dave Sime that Brundage harbored resentment toward him because he had approached her, and she had declined.

Eleanor Holm’s Career

Eleanor Holm, Circa 1936, American Eleanor Holm

She acted alongside 1936 Olympic decathlon champion Glenn Morris in the 1938 film Tarzan’s Revenge before joining another fellow Olympian, Johnny Weissmuller, in the music, dance, and swimming extravaganza Aquacade at the New York World’s Fair in 1939–1940. The show was about the idea of entrepreneur Billy Rose.

Following a very public affair, Holm and Rose would marry after her divorce from Jarrett in 1939. The adulterous activities would be depicted on film in the 1975 Barbra Streisand musical Funny Lady and Rose was married to renowned Ziegfeld comedian Fannie Brice at the time). In 1954, Holm and Rose got divorced. 

Twenty years later, she married retired oil executive Tom Whalen, moved to Miami, and got married. Despite keeping a few mementos from her time in the water, including the red, white, and blue bathing suit she wore to the 1932 Olympics, Holm decided to switch from swimming to tennis. Holm was honored by being inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1966. On January 31, 2004, she passed away in Miami, Florida, from renal disease. She was 90 years old.