Eleanor Whalen, 91, the saucy and irreverent Olympic swimmer who shot to fame in the water only to see her athletic ambitions felled by champagne, died Jan. 31 at her home in Miami. She had kidney failure.
Mrs. Whalen, known as Eleanor Holm or Eleanor Jarrett for much of her career, participated in the 1928 Games in Amsterdam and was a star of the 1932 Games in Los Angeles. In 1932, she won a gold medal in the 100-meter women's backstroke and later set unofficial records in the 200-meter and 220-yard backstroke in other competitions.
She resonated with the public not just as an athlete but as a glamorous society figure whose spicy quips and antics enlivened Depression Era America. A striking brunette, she had married popular crooner-bandleader Art Jarrett in 1933 and became a sensation as she stood before the band wearing a white hat, bathing suit and high heels singing "I'm an Old Cowhand."
This flashy behavior did not impress the formal American Olympic Committee president, Avery Brundage, a former Olympian. Still, Mrs.
Whalen was chosen for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin -- reportedly the only woman at the time to make three Olympic teams in succession.
Then came her downfall as an Olympian. Steaming over to Berlin on the SS Manhattan, she joined playwright Charles MacArthur in the first-class lounge and had several glasses of champagne.
A chaperone saw her and told her to go to bed. "Now, come on," she said years later to a New York Times reporter. "This was my third Olympics. I said to the chaperone, 'No one tells me how to train.' " She added, "I was a plugger, plug, plug, plug, keep in shape, but I never over-trained like the girls now. Well, after 1932, I said to myself, 'Okay, kid, you're a girl, have some fun.' " The next morning, she was dismissed from the team for breaking training rules. Livid, she said unprintable words about Brundage but largely tried to wait out the flap. She went on to Berlin writing about the Olympics for William Randolph Hearst's International News Service.
Soon she knew there was no further hope of making amends with Brundage.
"I've been a sap," she told the press in 1937. Her conclusion: "I decided to cash in."
She received a $30,000 contract to appear in the Great Lakes Exposition show in Cleveland in 1937. She was the ingenue opposite Glenn Morris, himself a former Olympian, in "Tarzan's Revenge" (1938). The film required working with alligators.
"Their jaws were wired," she told Sports Illustrated in 1992, "but they could still hit you with their tails, so that was pretty awful."
Afterward, she sang and swam with Johnny Weissmuller in Billy Rose's Aquacade for the 1939 World's Fair in New York.
She became a fashion icon, with her trademark white hair ribbon becoming a craze among young swimmers. She once challenged fan-dancer Sally Rand to a "curve-and-contour contest." She became a fixture at Cafe Society and a regular in gossip columns as she dated eligible millionaires. She told the columnist Dorothy Kilgallen she preferred small men "because they don't get into so much trouble."
She married Rose in 1939, after he divorced comedian Fanny Brice.
Their stormy marriage, which ended in divorce in 1954, was described in the press as the War of the Roses. She then married Tommy Whalen, a St. Louis man reported to have underworld connections who then reinvented himself as a man of leisure.
According to Sports Illustrated, she and Whalen did not marry until 1974 because they lived well off Rose's alimony payments. They settled in Florida. Whalen died in the mid-1980s.
Eleanor Holm, the daughter of a Fire Department of New York official, was born in Brooklyn. She began swimming at age 12 after her parents bought a summer house on Long Island. "Two things appealed to me about this place -- Long Island Sound and the handsome lifeguards who frequented the beach," she wrote in a serialized account of her life for The Washington Post.
She trained on water wings until she was unafraid of the water.
Noticeably better than other children in swimming contests, she began receiving formal training.
After the 1928 Games, the fetching young swimmer was approached by Florenz Ziegfeld to appear in his Follies. She turned down the offer so she could train for the 1932 Games, but it marked only the first time she navigated the worlds of athletics and entertainment.
She spent her final years playing tennis and golf until she broke a shoulder bone while on the treadmill.
In 1999, she went to the White House for an event commemorating female athletes. The following exchange with President Bill Clinton was published around the world.
"You're a good-looking dude."
"I saw you sitting on that couch, and I'd love to have joined you there."
"Anytime, Mr. President, anytime."