Gertrude Ederle’s Channel Swim

Last week, we learned about Gertrude Ederle’s early life, her Olympic achievements, and her first attempt to swim the English Channel.  This time, her second attempt and the rest of her life and legacy.

So, for her second attempt, Ederle decided not to have the WSA sponsor her again, instead coming up with the $9,000 herself.  She secured contracts with both the New York Daily News and the Chicago Tribune.  These papers sponsored her in return for having the first interviews with her upon her success.

In 1926, when Ederle made her second attempt, many other women were attempting to swim the Channel too.  In addition to Ederle, Lillian Cannon, Clarabelle Barrett, and Amelia Gade Corson tried.  Ederle said her “resolve was strengthened by the fact that competitors were trying to do the same thing” (1).  Cannon was sponsored by the Baltimore Post; the Post tried to create a rivalry between Cannon and Ederle, since both women were training in France at the same time.

being greased upOn August 6, 1926, Ederle began her trip from Cape Gris-Nez, near Calais in France.  Ederle was outfitted with a red two piece bathing suit that she had created with her sister, a red diving cap, and yellow goggles.  Burgess had used motorcycle goggles in 1911to help protect his eyes from the salt water; Ederle did the same, edging hers in paraffin wax to make them more watertight for her eyes.  Ederle also coated herself in a combination of olive oil, lanolin, and Vasoline to help insulate her from the cold water, and from possible jellyfish stings.

Ederle took off from Cape Gris-Nez at 7:08 in the morning.  The weather started out alright, but grew increasingly rough.  Around the six hour mark, the cross currents were incredibly dangerous.  At hour twelve she was just exhausted and with the bad weather, Burgess asked her if she wanted to stop. “What for?” was her response.

Ederle’s attempt was followed by two boats.  The main tug boat had her father and her sister, Meg, on it, as well as a reporter from the New York Daily News.  The reporter wouldn’t let other reporters on the boat, and so other reporters hired a second tug so they could follow.  At a few points in the crossing, the second tug came in very close to Ederle, nearly hurting her chances for success.  This second tug also “led to accusations in the British press that the two tugs had in fact sheltered Edele from the bad weather and thus made her swim ‘easier’” (2).

Ederle said that she was kept motivated “by several encouraging telegrams that her mother had sent from New York, and which her supporters read to her during the swim” (3).  She sang “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” to herself, to the beat of her stroke.  Anything she could do to push herself she did.  She paused every so often for food, “beef broth and bits of cold chicken – extended to her from the accompanying boat on a long pole” (4).

After fourteen hours, thirty-one (or thirty-four) minutes, Ederle came ashore in Kingsdown, Kent, near Dover.  Ederle’s trip had been about thrity-five miles due to the rough weather; the crossing is actually only a twenty-one mile trip.  (The trip from France to England is considered a rougher, more dangerous trip than the trip from England to France.)   The first person Ederle met in England was a British immigration officer, asking for her passport.

Ederle’s record for swimming the English Channel stood until 1950, when Florence Chadwick did it in thirteen hours, twenty minutes.  (Ederle never considered her record beaten though, since she had swum so much farther due to the rough weather.)  Of the other women who were also trying the swim in 1926, Barrett and Cannon did not succeed.  Corson did succeed three weeks after Ederle, but was fifty minutes slower.

800px-Gertrude_Ederle_parade_NYWTSIn Kingsdown, there were “screaming spectators, flares, and searchlights … waiting for her” (5).  Ederle’s father had bet Lloyd’s of London that his daughter would succeed, making $175,000 on the bet.  On return to New York he handed out free frankfurters in his neighborhood to celebrate.  When Ederle returned to New York, she was greeted by massive crowds at the dock and in all the streets.  She was given a ticker-tape parade and over two million people lined the streets.  New York’s Mayor Jimmy Walker congratulated her at City Hall.  She was invited to the White House to meet President Coolidge, who called her “America’s Best Girl”.

NY 1926Ederle had at least two songs written for her: “Tell Me, Trudy, Who’s Going to Be the Lucky One?” and “Trudy” by Charles Tobias and Al Sherman (crowds always called her Trudy, though her family called her Gertie).  She had a dance step named for her.  She was nicknamed “Queen of the Waves”.  In New York she was “flooded with book, movie, and stage offers, as well as proposals for marriage” (6).  Ederle played herself in the movie Swim Girl, Swim with Bebe Daniels.  She toured the vaudeville circuit too.

By 1928, though, all of this had drained her health and she suffered a nervous breakdown.  Her manager also didn’t know how to market her after her initial fame, so between that and the onset of the Great Depression, she didn’t wind up making much money, despite all her fame.  She had also never finished school, and was only interested in swimming, and so had a rough transition to adulthood.

In 1933 Ederle fell down the steps in her apartments building, twisting her spine.  She was bedridden, in a cast for four to five years.  She had very limited mobility and was in near constant pain.  She never competed again, but in 1939, at the New York World’s Fair, she did perform in Billy Rose’s Aquacade.

Ederle did have a lasting impact on women in sports though.  When she was coming up, women were slowly being able to swim and compete.  With her successful swimming of the Channel, people could see just what women were capable of.

Ederle had suffered from the measles as a child, and had hearing problems because of it.  She had been warned against swimming affecting her hearing, but just wanted to swim.  Her hearing was permanently damaged during her Channel cross, and by the 1940s she was practically deaf.  While she never learned sign language, she managed to teach swimming to children at the Lexington School for the Deaf.

During World War II, Ederle worked at LaGuardia checking flight instruments.  She quit this job after the war; she could have continued the work if she had wanted to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Despite all the proposals she got when she returned to New York, Ederle never married.  She had one serious proposal, but when she pointed out the difficulties they would have “because of the social limitations caused by her deafness” (7), he left.  She did not want to go through that again, and so never put herself in that position again.  Instead, she lived with a few female friends in Queens, before eventually moving to a nursing home in New Jersey.

In 1965, Ederle was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an “Honor Swimmer.”  In 1980 she was inducted into the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.  Her one ambition in life had been to swim the Channel and she did it.  Over the years, as anniversaries of her swim would come up, she would be interviewed for the papers.  She always granted the interviews, but never wanted to be made pitiable.  “I have no complaints … I am comfortable and satisfied.  I am not a person who reaches for the moon as long as I have the stars” (8).

Gertrude Ederle died on November 30, 2003 in Wyckoff, New Jersey at age 98.  She’s interred in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Every year there is an annual swim, following her 1925 route from Battery Park to Sandy Hook called the Ederle Swim.  In the Upper West Side Manhattan, near where she grew up, there is the Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center.  In 2010, there was a radio play by Anita Sullivan about Ederle, based on Gavin Mortimer’s 2008 book The Great Swim.  So Ederle lives on (even through a yarn colorway).  You can watch a newsreel from her swim on YouTube.

1, 3, 5, 6 – Gertrude Ederle Facts, YourDictionary.

2 – Gertrude Ederle.

4, 7 – Ann T. Keene, “Gertrude Ederle,” American National Biography Online.

8 – Richard Severo, “Gertrude Ederle, the First Woman to Swim Across the English Channel, Dies at 98,” The New York Times, December 1, 2003.

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