In the post-Prohibition ’30s, U.S. swimmer Eleanor Holm discovered you didn’t have to pull a Tonya Harding to stir a scandal.
Brunette and glamorous, she was ready to party when she joined Helen Hayes and her playwright husband, Charles MacArthur, in a first-class lounge of the SS Manhattan as it steamed to the ’36 Berlin Olympics. Champagne was served, and Holm, a 22-year-old backstroker who had won a gold at the ’32 Games, filled her glass. What seemed innocent fun to her struck the team chaperons (themselves drinking nearby) as a shocking breach of conduct. They ordered her to the athletes’ quarters, and by the time the boat docked, she had been thrown off the team by the American Olympic Committee and its president, Avery Brundage.
Sixty years later—when drugs and steroids are the issue—Holm remains convinced she did nothing wrong. “It’s not like I was hiding it,” she says as she sits in her comfortable North Miami condo surrounded by walls covered with more than 70 swimming medals. “All I did was drink a couple of glasses of champagne. I was married, singing in a nightclub with my husband’s band. I was not exactly a child.”
She does remember weeping when the Olympic opening parade passed without her. “It hurt,” she admits. “I could have brought home another gold.” She did, however, wind up a Hearst International News Service correspondent for the Games (her column was ghosted) and was seated, she recalls, in a box near Hitler’s. “Being kicked off the team made me a bigger star than I really was,” she says of her later years as queen of the touring Aquacade water show and a short movie career (she was Jane in 1938’s Tarzan’s Revenge). Widowed after three marriages (one to showman Billy Rose, whom she stole from original Funny Girl Fanny Br ice), she’s content to play cards and work on charities: “It’s what all old ladies do.”
She still works out on a treadmill and gets in occasional golf or tennis. “The kids are crazy the way they train today,” she says, and she never so much as dips a toe in her condo’s hourglass-shaped pool, explaining, “I’ve spent too much time in the water over the years.” And she takes pleasure, she says with a hoarse laugh, at the higher, but not exactly drier, life she enjoyed thanks to “that old poop, Mr. Brundage.”