When American Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim across the English Channel, she claimed a historic victory for herself, her country, and women everywhere.
BEFORE MARK SPITZ AND MICHAEL PHELPS, THERE WAS GERTRUDE EDERLE. As sports writer Tim Dahlberg describes in the lively true story America’s Girl: The Incredible Story of How Swimmer Gertrude Ederle Changed the Nation (St. Martin’s Press, $26), 20-year-old Ederle made waves in 1926 when she cut a confining bathing suit into an ersatz bikini, slathered herself with grease, and, on her second attempt, became the first woman to swim across the English Channel. She made it in 14 hours and 39 minutes, two hours faster than any of the five men who had done it before her.
Ederle’s motivation was not money or personal recognition (though she had already won the latter when she took home one gold and two bronze medals at the 1924 Paris Olympics). In fact, she made the journey only at the urging of her sister Margaret. She wasn’t trying to make a political statement, either, but her accomplishment was no less inspiring to the repressed women of that era, who were frowned upon for smoking and might have been harangued for wearing immodest beach attire -- i.e., bathing suits without woolen leggings underneath or skirts attached at the waist. Ederle’s niece, Mary Ederle Ward -- who collaborated with Dahlberg as well as with author Brenda Greene on America’s Girl -- said in a recent interview that Ederle swam out of fierce patriotism, “to bring the glory home to America.”
Ederle may not have swum the channel in search of notoriety, but she proved quite the sensation anyway. She received a congratulatory telegram from President Calvin Coolidge, and the Daily News presented her with the red Buick roadster she’d long wanted. Upon returning to New York City, she was feted with a parade before two million spectators as bands played “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” the song she had hummed to keep herself in good spirits while in the water.
Dahlberg expertly depicts the flurry that surrounded Ederle’s feat and her homecoming. He -chronicles the heavy coverage of her in newspapers, which regaled readers with such details as Ederle’s favorite soda-fountain treat (a strawberry marshmallow frappé) and the special affinity she showed for the bathtub as a child. The year of her record-setting swim, readers of Hearst newspapers voted Ederle their favorite athlete, ahead of home-run king Babe Ruth and tennis player Helen Wills.
Though Ederle herself wasn’t one for words -- “It’s wonderful,” was about the extent of the speech she gave after her welcome-home parade -- her joyful innocence spills from these pages. She seems to have never known a cynical moment, even as her star faded in the years following her fabled swim and her hearing, already poor due to childhood measles, dwindled further. For a time, Ederle traveled with a professional swimming vaudeville act that was popular due to her national fame. She continued to love the water and even taught swimming to deaf ¬children -- something she found extremely rewarding -- but she would never splash across the front pages again. She died in 2003 at the age of 98. Dahlberg gives his guileless subject a deserving resurrection, and the resulting book yields the nostalgia-inducing power of a sepia photograph.