The First Woman (Part II)

Tuesday 06/29/10

Ms. Ederle returned from England to both cheers and jeers. Much of the reaction split along the schism that prevailed in 1925 related to ideas of a woman’s proper place in the world. The cheers celebrated Trudy Ederle’s massive effort as a testimony to women’s athletic potential and an example of the true grit of the female gender. The jeers lamented the coarsening of the female ideal, the threat that athletic endeavour presented to potential motherhood, and the prospect of an emasculated race of men. And the simmering tiff with Jabez Wolffe fanned the negative flames. In her influential monthly column in the Washington Post, Dorothy Greene wrote, “the whole matter is not worth a fiftieth of the publicity which it has received, and we are tempted to agree that ‘woman’s place, though it may not be in the home, is certainly not in the English Channel.’”

The swimmer, though still young, was no longer a child. The WSA had shaved a year off of Ms. Ederle’s age, but she was actually nineteen and ready to strike out on her own. Helen Wainwright once again led the way. She accepted an offer to be a spokesperson for American Tobacco Company. She appeared in a magazine ad proclaiming, “We swimmers have to keep in strict training. When I first got started a veteran swimmer advised me that I could smoke Lucky Strikes without affecting my wind or throat. I tried them and found he was right. They’re great! They have never affected my throat and they taste fine.”

Like Ms. Wainwright, Trudy Ederle didn’t smoke. Unlike Ms. Wainwright, she refused to endorse any product she wouldn’t use. Still, the lure of independence offered by turning professional beckoned and she knew the WSA was disinclined to sponsor another Channel effort. Forgoing amateur status, she and several of her compatriots, including Helen Wainwright, took positions as iconic swim instructors at large hotels in Florida. And, a motoring enthusiast, Ms. Ederle found a product she could endorse—the Reo Roadster. She was well on her way to financing another attempt at the English Channel on her own.

The true financial breakthrough came from the newspaper industry. It was becoming obvious to publishers that stories which lent themselves to serialization sold papers. The Scripps-Howard chain had already snatched up Lillian Cannon with exclusive rights to the story of her coming attempt to swim the English Channel in the summer of 1926. Joseph Medill Patterson of the Chicago Tribune-Daily News immediately did the same with Trudy Ederle. According to Gavin Mortimer in The Great Swim, “On May 29 Ederle, accompanied by her father, signed a deal with Patterson’s organization. She would write regular dispatches from France and Patterson would pay her $5,000 with an additional $2,500 if she was successful.” Joe Patterson sent Julia Harpman and her husband, Westbrook Pegler along to ghost-write the dispatches and to protect the newspapers’ exclusive.

For this attempt, Ms. Ederle hand-picked a support team in which she had complete confidence—her father Henry and her sister Margaret. Henry Ederle provided a loan and helped negotiate a contract with Bill Burgess for ten thousand francs including a retainer to guarantee that he train Trudy and no one else. Margaret helped her design a new pair of eye goggles that they hoped would work better than those the year before. Rounding out the team, Joe Patterson hired Joe Corthes and the tug Alsace to provide escort exclusively to Ms. Ederle until she achieved her goal. Mr. Patterson considered the cost of three hundred francs per hour a small price to ensure that no other Channel swimmer had access to the vessel.

For this iteration, Ms. Ederle chose to make home base in France. On June 10, 1926, she and her entourage checked into the small Hotel du Phare in the little village of Cape Gris-Nez. This was no resort. It lacked electricity and running water. According to Tim Dahlberg in America’s Girl, “If someone insisted on a bath—which seldom happened—Mrs. Blondiau and the chambermaid would heat water in huge iron vessels on the kitchen range and carry them upstairs to the tub on the second floor.”

On reaching France, the first order of business was to confront Bill Burgess for violating his contract and agreeing to coach Lillian Cannon as well. Gavin Mortimer relates, “Burgess apologized and explained that … Cannon’s newspaper had paid him twenty thousand francs, and what with the collapse of the French economy because of its war debt to America, he needed the money to prop up his garage business. Of course, if Gertrude’s newspaper were to match what Cannon was paying him, he would be delighted to coach only her.” Eventually, Ms. Ederle grimly agreed and laid down her own set of rules. She insisted that he not try to convince her to use the breaststroke, that he not try to interfere with her stroke rate, and that he absolutely had no authority to pull her from the Channel unless she, herself, requested.

About this time, Jabez Wolffe was looking for work. The public tit-for-tat with Gertrude Ederle had soured his reputation and none of the women aspirants cared to contract with him as a coach. He had heard of an American swimmer named Clarabelle Barrett. She was renown not only for her open water swimming prowess, but also for her size. She was six feet two inches tall and weighed two hundred and twenty pounds. Rumour suggested that she had sailed from New York on July 3, but three weeks later she had yet to appear at Cape Gris-Nez. Lacking newspaper or other financial support, she was conducting her undertaking on a shoestring. She had taken quarters in Dover and planned to swim from England to France. This left Mr. Wolffe fruitlessly prowling the environs of Cape Gris-Nez searching for large women on the chance he might meet Ms. Barrett and offer his services.

The weather and temperature combined to thwart most attempts at swimming the Channel until late in the season. Finally, on August 1, Clarabelle Barrett began her assault from Dover. The New York Times, thanks to its London-based correspondent, Alec Rutherford had the scoop. As Gavin Mortimer says, “It was a tale of indomitable resolution in the face of relentless adversity, a story guaranteed to stir the hearts of Americans.” As so many before, she came excruciatingly close to her goal before fog and tide beset her. Nearly cleaved by a passing steamer in the fog, she finally gave up after twenty-one hours and forty-five minutes.

News of Ms. Barrett’s near success spurred Trudy Ederle to action. On August 6, she entered the water in France covered in three layers of olive oil, lanolin, lard and vaseline until she looked like a “basted chicken.” She was wearing the goggles she and her sister had created which were sealed the night before with a serendipitous amount of candle wax. She was also wearing a shocking two-piece bathing suit, designed and sewed by her sister, to eliminate the horrible chafing associated with women’s swimsuits of the day.

Onboard the accompanying Alsace were Henry and Meg Ederle, Ishaq Helvi, and John Hayward of the London Daily Sketch. Mr. Hayward traveled in his capacity as the official British witness. Julia Harpman allowed no other reporters on the tug. As told by Gavin Mortimer, the remaining stranded newsmen were furious. They understood that, “She was within her rights to protect her paper’s exclusive, that they understood as fellow reporters, but she had intentionally deceived them by allowing them to believe they would be welcome on the official escort tug. Now, at the eleventh hour, she was marooning them on the beach and sailing away like some eighteenth-century pirate.”

Three hours later, the beached reporters had caught up with the swimmer as she made good progress in the calm sea. They had cleverly seized on the realization that Lillian Cannon was not swimming that day. Ms. Cannon allowed them to borrow her chartered vessel, La Morinie, and sailed with them to watch Ms. Ederle conduct her swim.

By mid-morning, the weather started to turn. The wind began to blow from the southwest and the waves began to get rougher. Bill Burgess began to worry. Glenn Stout in Young Woman and the Sea records that, “He thought now of the packet he had stashed in the pilothouse, the papers he had drawn up. Burgess had been afraid that the weather would turn and that he might have to stop the swim and take Trudy out of the water, but all he had heard for the last two months, from Trudy and Meg and Henry Ederle, was that once Trudy started to swim, she would not stop, and no one, absolutely no one, was to touch her and take her from the water, no matter what, unless she called for help herself.” The papers were a release for Henry Ederle to sign absolving Mr. Burgess of responsibility.

As they approached the Goodwin Sands, Bill Burgess and Joe Corthes, the tug pilot began to fear for the safety of both the swimmer and the boat. They called Mr. Ederle into the pilothouse and explained that the responsible course was to return to France. The alternative was to swim into the current for a time to circumnavigate the sandy barrier, but the current was too strong, the wind too stiff, the waves too tall, and the light was beginning to fail. Henry Ederle chose to keep going. His daughter was swimming strongly and even seemed to be enjoying herself. He was not going to thwart her wishes. With a snort, he signed the release.

This sparked a loud argument among the seasick passengers. In the confusion, someone whose identity is lost to history leaned over the rail and shouted, “Come on out, girl! Come on out!” Trudy Ederle famously rolled on her back and shouted back, “What for?” Effortlessly, she had created a catch phrase to spark the imagination and inspire Americans for some time to come.

As Glenn Stout writes, “In an instant the unconquerable Channel was subdued, and the weather, while still atrocious, didn’t matter anymore. With each stroke of her arms and kick of her legs Trudy was taming the Channel. There wasn’t any question about it, not any more. Trudy wasn’t coming out of the water, and if she didn’t come out of the water, she was not going to fail.”

Finally at 9:40p, she walked out of the water onto a Kingsdown Beach that was alight with the bonfires and flares of the people assembled to greet her. She was the sixth person and the first woman to have swum the English Channel. She also owned the record. She had bested Enrico Tiraboschi’s time by almost two hours.

After visiting her grandmother in Bissingen, Germany, she and her family returned to New York City to a ticker tape parade. The incessant press of gargantuan crowds and whirlwind tour of events took their toll. She broke down in exhaustion and rested for a day before returning to her rigorous schedule of luncheons and meetings.

Before her manager could lock down the various lucrative offers that flowed her way, Mille Gade Corson became the second woman to successfully swim the English Channel. Although Ms. Corson was one hour slower, she was a mother of two children. Shortly after this, Arnst Vierkotter set a new crossing record of twelve hours and forty minutes.  The pile of offers meant for Ms. Ederle were withdrawn and replaced with smaller ones.

Still, Trudy Ederle made a decent living capitalizing on the fame of her historic conquest of the English Channel. Later in life, she taught deaf children to swim. She died at the age of ninety-seven in New Jersey having never married—her one opportunity probably sabotaged by deafness. Before she died, she told a reporter, “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.”

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