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

Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
Life and Style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Graduate Pricing Analyst - 6 months / 1 year analytical experience

£20000 - £25000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Project Manager (retail, upgrades, rollouts)

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Project...

Hourly Paid Teachers

£20 - £25 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: randstad education are curren...

Technical Project Manager - Software and Infrastructure - Government Experience

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Central Lon...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits