Eleanor Holm: Bad Girl of the Swimming Pool

Eleanor Holm (1913-2004) is one of that small “school” of swimming entertainers that includes Annette Kellerman, Esther Williams, Johnny Weissmuller, and Buster Crabbe. Her career was limited as compared with those others but it is noteworthy nonetheless.

The Brooklyn native competed in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics, winning a gold medal at the latter. The victory brought her much publicity, and she was courted by all the major movie studios. Warner Brothers signed her. She was voted one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars in 1932, before she ever acted in a movie. Most of her work at the studio involved public appearances to promote the films of other stars. In 1933 she married radio crooner and big band leader Art Jarrett. 

A turning point for Holm occurred en route to the 1936 Olympics on the S.S. Manhattan. While still an international level athlete, and the favorite to win several events, she was by now a celebrity and party girl with an attitude to match. After being caught in a state of extreme intoxication, and then being disrespectful with a chaperone about a reprimand, she was banned from competing that year. This marked the end of her time as a top level athlete, although she would remain a public figure for several years. In early 1938 her first and only movie was released, Tarzan’s Revenge, with fellow Olympic athlete Glenn Morris, and Hedda Hopper, produced by Sol Lesser. After this, she and the movie business mutually parted ways.  Jarret divorced her later that year. She was still only 25 years old.

But there were more triumphs in store for Holm. In 1939 and 1940 she starred in Billy Rose’s Aquacade at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In late 1939 she and Billy Rose were married (Rose had divorced Fanny Brice the previous year). Thus she was with him during the years when he produced such hits as Carmen Jones and Seven Lively Arts, and purchased the Ziegfeld Theatre. Scandal involving Milton Berle’s ex-wife Joyce Mathews presaged trouble for the couple, and in 1954 they waged a spectacular divorce battle. Holm won what was then a huge settlement, $30,000 a month and a lump sum of $200,000 (these amounts would be worth nine times that in today’s money). Several months after this, she married a wealthy oil executive named Thomas Whalen. She was now out of the public eye, but set up for life. In 1975, fellow competitive swimmer Heidi O’Rourke portrayed her in the movie Funny Girl.

To learn more about show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.