The daughter of a fireman, perhaps it’s no wonder that little Eleanor loved the water from an early age.
“I had no fear of the water, and I used to go way out in the ocean, and a lifeguard had to come out and keep getting me,” explained Eleanor Holm in the book, Tales of Gold, of her childhood at her family’s summer cottage in Long Beach, New York.
Winning competitions from the age of 13, Eleanor Holm was selected at the age of 14 to the national swim team to represent the United States at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. Holm placed fifth in her specialty – the 100-meter backstroke.
At the age of 17, the beauty from Brooklyn was offered a chance to travel with the Ziegfeld Follies, one of the dominant entertainment machines of American pop culture of the time, but Holm declined. She was determined to participate and win at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Holm as an adult had a reputation as the life of the party. But in 1932, as she got herself ready for the Olympics, she insists she was very serious, to the point of being a party pooper.
In 1932, when nothing was going to stop me, I used to snitch on the girls if they kept me awake. I’d say to the coaches, “Did you know she was out last night? She didn’t get in until 10 o’clock.” Nobody believes this now.
Holm’s focus paid off. On August 9, the backstroker set a blistering pace to set the world record in the 100 meters. Two days later, with a comfortable, lead, Holm took the gold medal with seconds to spare over Philomena Meaning of Australia.
As The New York Times reported on August 12, 1932, “not once did Miss Holm pay any attention to the guiding line of red flags strung overhead. She stroked rhythmically and perfectly, but her black-capped head was ever turned toward Miss Mealing’s lane. It was not until she was ten meters from the end and well ahead that the Brooklyn girl paid strict attention to her own race. Then she flailed away at the water in a sprint finish that insured her triumph beyond any doubt.”
After her Olympic triumph, not far from the Hollywood hills, a star was born. As she told David Anderson of The New York Times in 1984, ”I was hardly dry at those Olympics when I was whisked from one studio to another – Warner Brothers, MGM, Paramount – to take movie tests. In the years before the next Olympics, I took diction lessons and drama lessons but as it turned out, I was only in one movie. I was Jane in a Tarzan movie. Glen Morris was Tarzan.”
In a 1992 interview with Sports Illustrated, Holm said that she signed a contract with Warner Brothers only eleven days after her gold medal victory. “They sent me to school to learn how to act,” said Holm. “I started out at $500 a week, and I was supposed to go to the studio or take an acting lesson from Josephine Dillon, Clark Gable’s first wife, every day. There was a great director at Warner then named Mervyn LeRoy, and I did bit parts in a few of his movies. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was there then, and Carole Lombard and Edward G. Robinson. The studio would make me go to their sets to learn how to act. And I was impressed, seeing the stars and the celebrities. So I’d ask them for their autographs!”
But after only nine months, Holm was given a difficult choice. Because the studio wanted her to swim in the movies, she felt that would jeopardize her amateur status and prevent her from possibly competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She would later go on to star in movies about herself, as well as in the 1938 film, Tarzan’s Revenge, but in 1933, she got out of her contract with Warner Brothers.
“It’s funny, but I never really had any ambition to be an actress. God knows the studio tried, but I still have my Brooklyn accent, don’t I? And they spent a lot of money for me to lose it! They tried to groom me for light comedy, but the only thing I ever wanted was to win the Olympics.”
Fortunately, in Los Angeles in 1932, she did. Holm did not get a second chance in 1936.