Workmanlike biography of the first woman to swim the English Channel demonstrates that fame is fleeting and a moment of youthful glory is no guarantee of a glamorous life.
Associated Press sports columnist Dahlberg (Fight Town: Las Vegas—The Boxing Capital of the World, 2004), aided here by his subject’s niece and by business writer Greene, bases much of his account on newspaper clippings in the personal archives of Gertrude Ederle (1905–2003), supplemented by her unfinished, unpublished memoirs. The authors begin with Ederle’s failed Channel crossing in 1925 and her disappointing performance at the 1924 Olympics (only one gold medal and two bronze). The details of her preparations for the cross-Channel swim in the summer of 1926 and the challenges of the feat are entertainingly recounted, but the narrative begins to falter after that. Dahlberg presents Ederle as an agent of change, citing her design of a body-hugging two-piece silk bathing suit in an era when women wore heavy wool “swimming costumes” that concealed their bodies, and noting the enthusiasm with which feminists greeted her achievement in breaking the men’s speed record for a cross-Channel swim. She was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City and had a brief career in vaudeville before the public lost interest in the shy, stocky, hearing-impaired young woman whose genuine talent for swimming was difficult to capitalize on. Not only was Ederle’s manager a poor businessman, but there was little interest in swimmers for stage or screen. Adding to her difficulties, she broke her pelvis in a fall in 1933. Ederle’s decline into obscurity was halted briefly when Billy Rose hired her for his Aquacade at the 1939 World’s Fair, but the woman who had been named top athlete of the year in 1926 was not even on the ballots in 1944.
Contrary to its expectation-raising subtitle, a sad story of no compelling current import. For more historical context, see Gavin Mortimer’s The Great Swim (2008).