Fog blanketed the shore when Mercedes Gleitze plunged into the stark obsidian water at Cape Gris Nez, France, before dawn, October 1927. The “Oyster”–a newly invented waterproof watch by Rolex–that she wore ticked with each stroke she took as she swam toward England.
A typist from London, Mercedes Gleitze captured newspaper headlines in America as one of a handful of women athletes vying to be the first woman to successful swim across the Channel.
American reporters became captivated by Gleitze, the “beautiful London stenographer” when she first attempted the swim in 1922. At the time, only a handful of men—the most seasoned and accomplished athletes—had successfully swum the strait. Most people believed that women lacked the physical strength and endurance to swim through the rough Channel waters. Reporters were fascinated by women athletes who attempted the swim and American sportswriters reported faithfully Gleitze’s attempts.
Gleitze possessed not only striking beauty but she embodied the determined and dedicated spirit that many believed defined “real” sport. Reporters continually emphasized her working-class roots and that she saved her money annually to embark on the swim. She failed in her attempts seven times over five years before finally succeeding.
American headlines captured the drama surrounding Gleitze’s swims. In 1926, after swimming 11 hours, Gleitze was nearly delirious from cold and repeated jellyfish stings. Her trainer, fearing she might drown from exhaustion, rowed out and “lassoed” her hand with a slipknot, hauling her aboard the boat, despite her protests.
Her “plucky” perseverance earned her a prominent place among respected American athletes and she was one of the handful of women athletes featured–for her athleticism–on collector’s cigarette cards.
On October 7, 1927, she became the third woman and the first Englishwoman to successfully swim the Channel unaided. Her post-season swim lasted fifteen hours and fifteen minutes and was splashed across the front front pages of major American newspapers the following day.
Though her October 7 swim was heralded as triumphant in America, some in Britain–especially those skeptical of women’s athleticism–doubted the validity of her swim. Noting that it occurred late in the season with few witnesses, the English Channel Swimming Association refused to recognize her swim as legitimate.
Undaunted by Association’s doubts, Gleitze vowed to vindicate her name by embarking on another swim. News of the upcoming “vindication swim” filled the newspapers across Europe and America for the week prior to event. Glietze, always smiling and spirited, won the hearts of the American public.
As the media stirred up awareness and audiences awaited Gleitze’s swim, entrepreneur Hans Wilsdorf, a founder of Rolex watch company recognized a distinct opportunity. The previous summer, Rolex had launched its first waterproof wristwatch, the “Rolex Oyster.” At the time, Rolex was striving to prove itself as a reliable brand name. Wilsdorf realized that if Gleitze could be persuaded to wear a Rolex on her well-publicized “vindication swim,” the company would gain unprecedented media coverage–without directly advertising.
He provided Gleitze with a complimentary Rolex Oyster wristwatch which he asked her to wear during her late-October Channel swim and, if the watch withstood the swim, he asked her to write a testimony about its performance.
The first advertisement came informally. Watching as Gleitze was battered by churning waters for more than ten hours, a reporter noted that, “hanging ‘round her neck by a riband on this swim, Miss Gleitze carried a small gold watch which . . . kept good time throughout.”
The real promotion of Rolex began after the swim. Gleitze, sent a testimonial to Wilsdorf:
You will like to hear that the Rolex Oyster watch I carried on my Channel swim proved itself a reliable and accurate timekeeping companion even though it was subjected to complete immersion for hours in sea water at a temp of not more than 58 and often as low as 51. This is to say nothing about the sustained buffeting it must have received. . . . The newspaper man was astonished and I, of course, am delighted with it.
One month after her vindication swim, Rolex purchased the entire front page of the Daily Mail, filling it with an advertisement that featured Gleitze and Rolex together.
Recognizing the significance Gleitze played in Rolex’s development, the company recently designed ads featuring a model reenacting the legendary swim (see House and Garden ad above). The 2010 ad takes some liberties with the swim that made Rolex famous. In real life, Gleitze wore the gold Oyster watch around her neck, not on her wrist as the ad depicts. Rolex’s recent ad downplayed the difficultly of the 1927 swim by picturing the swimmer as poised and pristine. In reality, Channel swimming is arduous, messy and wreaks havoc on the body. To help insulate against cold, swimmers covered themselves head-to-toe with “Channel grease” (a noxious-smelling mixture of lanolin and lard), their bodies grew swollen from multiple jellyfish stings, and most chafed and bloated from prolonged immersion in salt water. Knowing this, Rolex’s initial advertisement featuring Gleitze appeared a month after her vindication swim.
After conquering the English Channel, Gleitze continued to attempt to swim across dangerous straits around the world, including the Irish Channel, Hellespont, the Straits of Gibraltar (which she attempted six times before succeeding), the Dardanelles, and she became the first to swim from Cape Town to Robben Island and back. American newspapers highlighted that Gleitze donated much of the money she earned from swimming to charity, establishing the Mercedes Gleitze Homes for Destitute Men and Women.
Recently, Irish filmmaker Clare Delargy produced Mercedes: Spirit of a New Age (2013). The documentary, which features interviews with Gleitze’s daughter, Doloranda Pember, as well as some of Gleitze’s contemporaries, resurrects the story of this inspiring and indomitable swimmer.