Gertrude Ederle

First woman to swim the Channel

Gertrude Ederle, swimmer: born New York 23 October 1905; died Wyckoff, New Jersey 30 November 2003.

In the gathering darkness of an August evening in 1926, a young New York woman named Gertrude Ederle staggered ashore at Kingsdown, just south of Deal in Kent. She was the first woman to swim the Channel - and would become, albeit briefly, a heroine of her age.

Ederle's feat was all the more remarkable because of the conditions: a choppy sea, treacherous cross-currents and driving rain. Smeared in sheep grease and accompanied by a small boat, she set off from Cap Griz Nez near Calais at 7.05am. Had she been able to swim in a straight line, she would have reached England after just 21 miles. That 6 August, however, she was driven on a north-westerly course; when she stumbled onto the beach at Kingsdown 14 hours and 31 minutes later, she had covered no less than 35 miles.

Ederle began her epic journey by singing the 1910 number "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" to the rhythm of her stroke. Then her minders in the boat then held up signs with words like "One Wheel" or "Two Wheels", reminding her of the red roadster car she had been promised by New York's Daily News if she made it. And she did - two hours faster than any of the five men who had swum the Channel before her. The record stood until 1950.

She returned to New York as a Roaring Twenties celebrity to match the baseball idol Babe Ruth, the boxer Jack Dempsey or the aviator Charles Lindbergh, who the following year made the first solo flight across the Atlantic.

On 27 August, two million people attended a ticker-tape parade in her honour through the city's financial district, at one point forcing her to take refuge in the Mayor's private office when boisterous admirers stormed City Hall. She received book offers by the dozen and countless marriage proposals. Someone even wrote a song about it, "Tell Me Trudy, Who Is Going to Be the Lucky One?"

There was a visit to the White House, where the President Calvin Coolidge called her "America's best girl", expressing his amazement that a woman "of your small stature" could swim the Channel. It was an odd remark; at 142lb, Ederle was solidly built, almost plump.

The next few years were a whirl. She earned a reputed $2,000 a week, after signing up for a vaudeville tour. In Hollywood, she starred in a brief movie about herself. As an icon of women's emancipation, she received many speaking offers. The pressure brought her close to a nervous breakdown.

Swimming had been Ederle's favourite pursuit from early childhood. She called herself a "water baby" and insisted on swimming even after doctors had warned it would worsen a hearing problem that later in her life turned into total deafness.

By the early Twenties she had set a host of women's records, and in 1924 she won three medals at the Paris Olympics, including a gold in the 400m freestyle relay - and might well have done even better had she not been nursing an injured knee. The Channel became the ultimate challenge; in 1925 Ederle's first attempt ended in failure after 23 miles and almost nine hours in the water. A year later, she fulfilled her ambition, in spectacular style.

By the mid-1930s her fame had faded. Though never poor, she had attained celebrity before celebrity brought fortunes. At the outset of the Second World War, she took a job working at La Guardia airport, checking aircraft flight instruments, living quietly in the New York borough of Queens.

Later she taught swimming to deaf children, and endorsed a new model bacteria-free swimming pool. Her feat, however, was never quite forgotten, as reporters unfailingly sought interviews on the major anniversaries of her swim. "I have no complaints," she said in one. "I am comfortable and satisfied. I am not a person who reaches for the moon so long as I have the stars."

Rupert Cornwell

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mechanical Design Engineer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: MECHANICAL D...

SQL DBA (2005/2008/2012, projects, storage requirements)

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits package: Clearwater People Solu...

Copywriter - Corporate clients - Wimbledon

£21000 - £23000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Copywriter - London As a Copywrite...

Horticulture Lecturer / Tutor / Assessor - Derbyshire

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: As a result of our successf...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried