In late summer, 1926, the North Atlantic world was struck by Channel-crossing Fever. Five hearty souls had already swum the waterway dividing England and France, beginning as far back as 1875, so what was all the fuss? For starters, three of the five had made the crossing as recently as 1923. The fad had been building for three years. More important, in 1926 the swimmers lining up along the coast were women. If successful, they would be the first of their sex to conquer the Channel.
Men balked at their presumption. The London Daily News opined, “Even the most uncompromising champion of the rights and capacities of women must admit that in contests of physical skill, speed, and endurance they must remain forever the weaker sex.” George Lacker, a crew manager, insisted, “Such a feat is impossible for a woman.”
Gertrude “Trudy” Ederle paid such talk no heed. She knew she could swim the Channel, and she would, however many attempts it took. Just the year before, in her first attempt, Trudy had swum within six miles of the English shore, but her coach insisted that she had reached her limit and must come out of the water. Some suspected that he sabotaged her swim. Having himself attempted the Channel unsuccessfully (twenty-two times!), Jabez Wolffe might not have been keen to be shown up by a nineteen-year-old girl. After the swim, he told a reporter that “the torments of seasickness, indigestion, inflammation of the eyes, great cold and other disagreeable features may prove too much for any woman swimmer.” It would not be long before he would eat those words.
Channel waters are too cold to attempt early in the season (too cold for mere mortals to attempt even at their “warmest”). Trudy and two other women needed to time their swim just right. Too early could risk hypothermia. Too late could risk losing the first place prize to another woman. Three women–all of them Americans–waited and watched for a sign that the time was right.
Lillian Cannon joined Trudy at Cap-Gris-Nez, France, the approved “jumping off” point for Channel swimmers. A third American Clarabelle Barrett mobilized at Dover, UK, to swim the less popular England-to-France direction. She dove in first, on August 2, and swam a steady twenty-two hours before becoming disoriented in a fog bank. She pulled out within two miles of the French coast. Trudy waded in at 7:08 on the morning of August 4. She had covered herself in grease as insulation against the 60 ͦ water. She wore wraparound goggles sealed with candle wax. She wore a two-piece bathing suit of her own design to protect against chafing.
She began with fair sea and sky, but they didn’t last. At one point, a storm whipped up and churned the Channel into twenty-foot waves. Trudy’s coach hollered for her to come out of the water. Trudy, who was going deaf because of complications from childhood measles, heard well enough to call back, “What for?” Retold in the papers over the next days and weeks, these two words became Trudy’s rallying cry, on par with “Remember the Alamo!” or “Once more unto the breach.” Writing for the New York Daily News, Paul Gallico enthused, “‘What for?’ And thus, with two words, Miss Gertrude Ederle disposed of the English Channel. No wonder it couldn’t lick her. She destroyed it utterly.”
So much for male superiority. Trudy shattered the men’s record, beating it by more than two hours.
Her record swim didn’t stop Channel Fever. Swimmers, both men and women, came down to the beaches, greased up, and braved the chilly, jellyfish-infested waters. On August 23 alone, five different swimmers made the attempt. (None succeeded.) Before the end of summer four more swimmers conquered the Channel, including another woman (the first mother to achieve the feat), and three men, all of whom beat Trudy’s time (one by just ten seconds, a second by two hours, and the third by more than three and a half hours. Among women, Trudy’s record would stand for twenty-five years.)
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Leave it to Will Rogers to make comic hay out of the Channel-swimming mania. 1926 found him in Europe the entire summer. He crossed the Channel in an airplane (a big deal for an American at the time) and shared his view of the water from above:
Looked over the edge of the plane all the way across the Channel, watching crowds of American Women swimming it. One old lady was a great Grandmother and she had three generations of daughters swimming it with her. You could see crowds of men standing on the shore waiting for a smooth sea to cross it in a boat.
In fact, Will made his flight, in late June and early July, too soon for the August swims. But no one expected strict accuracy from Will Rogers.
While in Europe, Will appointed himself a “self-made diplomat” and pretended to send reports to “his president.” He addressed them in “code” to CALCOOL (President Calvin Coolidge) at Whitehousewash or (even better) Whitewashhouse. In one he wrote: “England’s House of Parliament…closed today to give some of the lady members a chance to try and swim the English Channel. I wanted to have my wife try it, but the Channel is all booked up for the next month.”
Will stayed on in Europe through the summer, performing in Cochran’s 1926 Revue and filming a series of short travelogues in European capitals. Channel Fever obviously cooled with the temperature, as indicated in Will’s “report” of September 12 to “CALCOOL”: “All Channel swimming was called off today on account of rain and a wet track.”
His commentary on the Channel-swimming craze of 1926 is genuinely funny but is it irredeemably sexist? Is his talk of great grandmothers and daughters, women parliamentarians and his own wife, just another iteration of: “Such a feat is impossible for a woman,” even after the feat has been accomplished? Are the “crowds of men standing on the shore” putting the men in their place or ridiculing the women for trying to show them up? Does the joke belittle the achievement?
Will gave us a hint of his stance in his first comments on the subject–which also happened to be one of his first “daily telegrams” to the New York Times, dated August 8. Just four days after Trudy’s swim, Will seemed to say that some of the women hopefuls were giving up and going home, the prize of being first having already been won. He wrote with a noticeable (but not unprecedented) lack of humor: “Hordes of other Channel swimmers are leaving for their respective homes. If they will only go to work when they get there Gertrude Ederle will have accomplished much more than her original feat.” Ouch! Will knew that his wife, Betty, was essential in keeping him and his family grounded and operating at full throttle. He believed every family deserved the same, but he didn’t appreciate that women might have their own goals that did not require being subsumed to the family’s.
Ultimately, Will was a humorist, not an activist. He dropped his reactionary first response and looked for the humor in the Channel-swimming craze of 1926: men got their comeuppance; women surprised even themselves.
Then he milked it for all it was worth.
- Dahlberg, Tim. America’s Girl: The Incredible Story of How Swimmer Gertrude Ederle Changed the Nation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009.
- Gragert, Steven K., ed. There’s not a Bathing Suit in Russia & Other Bare Facts. Stillwater, OK: Oklahoma State University Press, 1973 (1927).
- Mortimer, Gavin. “When Gertrude Ederle Turned the Tide.” www.telegraph.co.uk, April 27, 2008.
- Rogers, Will. Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to his President. New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1926.
- Smallwood, James M. ed. Will Rogers’ Daily Telegrams: Volume 1: The Coolidge Years: 1926-1929. Stillwater: Oklahoma State University Press, 1978.
- Images: Wikimedia Commons except book cover (https://www.abebooks.com/book…/letters-self-made-diplomat-his-president/first-editio…)
For Further Reading:
- Macy, Sue. Trudy’s Big Swim. New York: Holiday House, 2017.
- Adler, David. America’s Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle. New York: Gulliver Books, 2000.