Blogs > Cliopatria > Barron H. Lerner: Review of Gavin Mortimer’s The Great Swim (Walker, 2008)

Mar 4, 2008 10:22 pm

Barron H. Lerner: Review of Gavin Mortimer’s The Great Swim (Walker, 2008)

[Barron H. Lerner, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine and public health at Columbia University, is the author of When Illness Goes Public (Johns Hopkins 2006). ]

It was hard not to think of Roger Clemens and steroids as I read the early pages of “The Great Swim,” Gavin Mortimer’s entertaining new book about four American women who tried to swim the English Channel in the summer of 1926. Unless you count the grease that they applied to their bodies prior to entering the water, there wasn’t a performance-enhancing agent to be found. These women were the real deal: gifted athletes in pursuit of a noble goal.

Who were these women, all of whom were accomplished long-distance swimmers? One was Lillian Cannon, an attractive blonde “flapper” and lifeguard from Baltimore; Mille Gade, a New Yorker originally from Denmark whose two children made her the only mother in the competition; Clarabelle Barrett, a swimming teacher and aspiring singer from New Rochelle, New York; and Mortimer’s favorite, New Yorker Gertrude Ederle, who is probably the only one of the four not entirely forgotten to history. Ederle was an undisputed athletic talent, who had won three swimming medals at the 1924 Paris Olympics at age 18.

Mortimer has done his legwork. Using a series of previously untapped primary sources and interviews with surviving family members, he vividly recreates a series of swims that truly created worldwide attention. As of 1926, five men had swum the channel but no women. Not surprisingly, given the era, most “experts” gave them little chance of succeeding.

The swimmers spent the early summer months preparing either at Cape Gris-Nez, a seaside town on the coast of France, or in Dover, England. Swimming from France to England, all agreed, was the easier route due to more favorable tides and currents. Indeed, Gide stayed in Dover but took a boat across the channel in order to swim back to England.

Having spent much of my youth reading books about sports heroes, I knew that Ederle had been the first woman to successfully swim the channel. But until reading Mortimer’s book, I had no idea of the complicated strategizing that was required for her effort. Swimming the channel meant paying meticulous attention to the tides, fighting against the current and even spending periods heading away from one’s target. In Ederle’s case, unexpected tide changes caused extreme exhaustion, brief sinking spells and calls from her team that she should quit. But Ederle, still only 19 years old, persevered and landed in England on August 6, 1926 after being in the water for 14 hours and 39 minutes. She had swum the channel two hours more quickly than any of the successful men.

Ederle was, justifiably, the toast of the globe. When she eventually returned to New York later in August, a crowd estimated at hundreds of thousands welcomed her. A photograph in the book shows an enormous parade celebrating the “conquering heroine.” In all his years of welcoming the great, Mayor Jimmy Walker said, he had never seen as enthusiastic a reception.

But Mortimer is careful not to be overly romantic. The last portion of the book tells what happened to Ederle in the years after her triumph. What started as a story of athleticism and achievement becomes one of public relations. Unfortunately for Ederle, her lawyer made a series of bad judgments, perhaps costing her millions of dollars. The best he could do for his client was to feature her in a cross-country, low-budget swimming demonstration. Meanwhile, critics of Ederle unfairly claimed that she had cheated. When New York welcomed triumphant pilot Charles Lindbergh in June 1927, Ederle went almost unnoticed at his celebratory parade.

I won’t reveal if any of the other women succeeded but their stories also had as much to do with hype as actual accomplishment. Spin has been around for a long time.

“The Great Swim” concludes with one of those “whatever happened to” chapters that we historians love. Happily, Ederle lived long enough to undergo public redemption and retrieve the fame that she richly deserved.

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More Comments:

Nancy Dushensky - 10/31/2010

Yes, she is a distant relative of mine. Her father was Nathan and I don't believe she ever married. I can check further. May I ask,why do you ask?

Berna Ferguson - 2/10/2009

Does anyone know how I can get further information on Clarabelle Barrett. I believe her father was the Nathan F. Barrett. Did she marry, children? Any info, sites would be helpful