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THE GREAT SWIM by Gavin Mortimer


by Gavin Mortimer

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-8027-1595-1
Publisher: Walker

Mortimer (The Longest Night: The Bombing of London on May 10, 1941, 2005, etc.) recounts the quest of four intrepid women who in the summer of 1926 attempted to become the first female to swim the turbulent English Channel.

Nineteen-year-old Gertrude Ederle, sponsored by Chicago Tribune owner and New York Daily News founder Joseph Patterson, had tried and failed the previous year. In her 1926 attempt, she was joined by Lillian Cannon, whose conquest of Chesapeake Bay brought her the backing of the Baltimore Post; Mille Gade, who had already completed a swim around Manhattan Island; and Clarabelle Barrett, a 200-pound-plus high-school swim instructor who longed to be an opera singer. Lodged separately with their trainers and backers in the seaside French town of Cape Gris-Nez, the four waited impatiently through July for the unusually chilly, windy weather to break. Even in August, their marathon swims were made in bone-chilling 60-degree water. The absence of today’s high-tech wet suits was hardly mourned by the sponsoring newspaper editors, who saw photos of the competitors in swimsuits as guaranteed circulation boosters. (Ederle’s swim, in fact, was made in what may have been the world’s first bikini.) Mortimer’s prose is not especially colorful or evocative, but his diligent attention to detail makes this an engaging, entertaining read; the vintage news photos he unearthed are also worthwhile. Shy, introverted Ederle was better suited to the channel swim than to the media-stoked fame she experienced afterward. Hounded by well-wishers and ill-served by a greedy business manager, she found her celebrity difficult to manage.

A stirring portrait of courage and endurance, but also a bittersweet tale of the vagaries of fame and fortune.