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In Ederle Bio, A Channel-Crosser's Defiant Spirit

When Gertrude Ederle — the first woman to swim the English Channel and to set a new speed record for doing so — died six years ago at the age of 98, I remember routinely glancing at the photos on the newspaper obituary pages and thinking that she looked quaint.

Certainly her modest tank suits with their "boy leg" cut gave her, to my eye, an air of premature mustiness; so did the old-fashioned name "Gertrude." In more than 20 years of teaching, I'm pretty sure I've never had one "Gertrude" among my students.

My split-second dismissal of Ederle as "quaint" is why Glenn Stout's new biography of her, Young Woman and the Sea, struck me as poignant far beyond the powers of his somewhat lumpy writing style. Because, as Stout makes clear, Ederle, known in her youth as "Trudy," was once the glorious epitome of the modern American girl of the 1920s.

She was sporty, muscular and plucky; she even daringly bobbed her hair. When Ederle made her world-famous swim in August of 1926, she listened to the strains of "hot jazz" as she swam the frigid storm-tossed waters of the channel — the crew aboard a little tugboat beside her spun gramophone records, tunes like "Yes, We Have No Bananas" and "Sweet Georgia Brown."

Ederle, as Stout emphasizes, was forward-looking but no feminist: she took on the English Channel — smearing her body in sheep grease and diving in to master a feat achieved by only five men — simply because there were no swimming records left for her to break. Her supportive father had promised her a red roadster if she succeeded and, indeed, she got that snazzy car, as well as a ticker tape parade down Fifth Avenue.

New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker told Ederle, "When history records the greatest crossings, they will speak of Moses crossing the Red Sea, Caesar the Rubicon and Washington the Delaware, and, frankly, your crossing of the English Channel will take place alongside these."

But Walker's prediction proved to be nothing more than a politician's bloviations. By the early 1930s, Ederle was working as an anonymous swim coach at a public pool outside New York, and in middle age, she was crippled for years by a fall. Her fame had evaporated as quickly as sea spray on a sun-warmed beach towel.

Stout's biography does a good job of fishing Ederle out of the deep waters of historical forgetfulness and setting her in the context of her times — the Roaring '20s, when public fascination with sporting events, as well as with "stunts," had reached new heights.

I cautioned a moment ago that Stout's writing style is lumpy, because he often bloats Ederle's story with chapter-long digressions — about, for instance, Native American swimming techniques, or the chapter devoted to the geological history of the English Channel beginning with plate tectonics 205 million years ago. A leaner biography would have been even more evocative.

Ederle, Stout tells us, began swimming as a child on resort beaches in New Jersey. She suffered significant hearing loss after having measles at age 5, and the silence of the sea clearly felt comforting to her. Ederle once said in an interview that, "To me, the sea is like a person — like a child that I've known a long time. It sounds crazy, I know, but when I swim in the sea, I talk to it. I never feel alone when I'm out there."

After joining the nascent Women's Swimming Association, Ederle began to wow her teammates and coaches, particularly when she got out of pool competitions and onto the open water of the ocean. She won a gold medal in the 1924 Olympics, but on her first attempt to swim the channel in 1925, she became sick and disoriented and had to give up. Stout gives credence to the story that Ederle's channel guide — a resentful old buzzard named Jabez Wolffe — may have put poison in the bottle of beef tea he passed to her as she swam.

Ederle's second try was golden, despite the heavy wind, rain and fog that set in during her 14-and-a-half-hour swim. In the thick of the storm, when deep ocean swells made it hard for the panicked folks on the tugboat to keep Ederle in sight and they wanted her to quit, someone shouted at her: "Come on out, girl!" Ederle, lost in her partial deafness and in the joy of swimming, took a while to respond. According to those aboard, she looked up, eventually smiled and shouted back: "What for?" It may have only been a fleeting moment, but the way Stout tells it, it just may have been the best moment of Gertrude Ederle's life.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.