‘America’s Best Girl’: learning more about Maplewood hometown hero

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UNION, NJ — The Union Public Library hosted an Aug. 9 lecture, “‘America’s Best Girl’: The Life and Times of Maplewood’s Gertrude Ederle,” about the famous swimmer from the 1920s. The lecture was held via Zoom in collaboration with the New-York Historical Society, which was New York City’s first museum and the second museum in the United States. In her hourlong discussion of Ederle’s life, NYHS education Vice President Leslie Hayes spoke about the importance of education and in particular education about women’s roles in American history.

“Although New York is in our title, we are an American history institution. We were founded shortly after the American Revolution by the so-called Founding Fathers, who quite frankly had a lot of stuff, having lived through the American Revolution and having lived through New York City being the first capital of the United States. They established the historical society to collect information and stories about our nation,” Hayes said. “We haven’t stopped; we continue to be actively collecting at New-York Historical.

“A few years ago we founded a project called Women and the American Story. It’s an online curriculum designed to help teachers incorporate more women’s stories into the teaching that they do,” Hayes said, adding that everyone, not just teachers, is welcome to explore the website. To view the project, visit nyhistory.org. “If you get into the heart of our story, it’s about celebrating women’s contributions, acknowledging that women have always been 50 percent of the population, and have always done 50 percent of the work and effort in our country.

Hayes explained that this project is especially important, as only 13 percent of historical figures in history textbooks are women. This led her to research several women, including Ederle.

“She covers so many important aspects of life in the 1920s — what it meant to be an American and what it meant to be a woman in the 1920s,” Hayes said. “What I think is really interesting about Gertrude Ederle is that there is no great, one, single biography about her. Which makes her a really great example of a woman who’s been lost to history.

“She hasn’t been completely lost, as many of us have heard her name, but at the same time, in comparison to the other great athletes and barrier breakers, we don’t think of her as often. In that way she’s been lost to history in the sense that not everyone knows her name the way we do Babe Ruth or Amelia Earhart,” Hayes continued.

Ederle was born in 1906, one of six children born to German immigrants in New York City. When she was a child, she had measles, which resulted in her having severe hearing loss.

“One of the things we want to immediately realize about her is, this is a woman who had a disability almost her entire life and yet through that she was able to persevere,” Hayes said. 

Ederle’s father taught her and her siblings how to swim in open water at the Jersey Shore. Her older sister was also a swimmer but was not as successful as Ederle would become. What started as family recreation truly became her life’s work. Ederle dropped out of high school to pursue swimming as a profession. It was several years until her swimming became financially fruitful, yet her parents continued to support her. Before the event that would make her a household name at the time, Ederle won a gold medal at the 1924 Paris Olympics for the 100-meter freestyle relay. She also received bronze medals for finishing third in the women’s 100-meter freestyle and women’s 400-meter freestyle races.

“Many scholars suspect and believe from interviews given throughout her lifetime that her swimming further caused hearing loss,” Hayes said, explaining that Ederle may have been able to maintain more of her hearing if she hadn’t been a swimmer. “But it was her passion and it was her choice and in many ways it was something she knew; she had acknowledged from doctors that swimming was making it worse, but it was her passion.”

Ederle eventually became the first woman to successfully swim the English Channel, a 21-mile trek through icy waters filled with dangerous jellyfish and sharks. She had successfully swum the 22 miles from Manhattan’s Battery Park to New Jersey’s Sandy Hook the year prior. Ederle made that swim in seven hours and 11 minutes, faster than the previous record, which was held by a man. 

Ederle’s first English Channel attempt was on Aug. 18, 1925. She was not successful, and her coach, one of only five men to have swum across the channel, felt that she was struggling too much against the tide and advised her to stop.

It is believed that her first attempt may have also failed due to her wardrobe.

“She wore a loose, heavy, one-piece bathing suit that was continually filling up with water as she was swimming,” according to Hayes’ chapter on Ederle on the NYHS website. “In preparation for her second attempt, Gertrude designed her own outfit. She took a lighter one-piece suit and cut it into two. She also made it tighter so it would not fill with water.”

Ederle attempted again to become the first woman to swim the channel on Aug. 6, 1926. She began the swim near Cap Gris-Nez, France. The water was below freezing, and the waves were estimated to be at least 6 feet. On this attempt, Ederle wore the two-piece bathing suit and goggles that she had personally designed for the swim. She also coated her entire body in grease to help with the cold. During the swim, Ederle would take breaks and accept snacks and water from her coach; however, since the two could not touch without voiding the attempt, when Ederle needed assistance, she would swim up to her coach’s boat and accept food directly in her mouth.

Reporters on a nearby tugboat broadcast her progress internationally.

“There are wonderful stories of people in Dover realizing she was going to make it and rushing out to the shoreline to see her,” Hayes said. “By the time she reached the shoreline there was a huge crowd to cheer her on and welcome her.

“When she got there she could barely stand,” Hayes continued. “She succeeded and she finished in 14.5 hours, two hours sooner than the current record holder.” No one would break her record until 1950.

Ederle was an instant celebrity.

“She embodies everything that the American woman was in the 1920s — this idea of the competitive spirit. America wanted to be the country of firsts, and here she was as the first woman to swim the channel. She was getting an incredible amount of celebrity and fanfare, when we think about what women were facing and the odds that they were up against in American society, just what an incredible achievement,” Hayes said.

New York City honored Ederle with a ticker tape parade that an estimated 2 million people attended. She was also invited to the White House, where she met President Calvin Coolidge, who called her “America’s Best Girl.”

After her successful channel swim, Ederle capitalized on her fame and fortune. She appeared in Hollywood films and starred in vaudeville shows. In 1933, she slipped on the stairs in her apartment building, severely injuring her back. She was unable to walk for several years following her fall and, due to this, never returned to competitive swimming. In the 1940s, her hearing loss became so severe that, by today’s standards, she would have been categorized as deaf.

In Ederle’s retirement, she taught deaf children how to swim. She lived to age 98, dying in Wyckoff on Nov. 30, 2003.

Photos Courtesy of Library of Congress