Her Swim Made Rolex Famous

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.

Rolex advertisement, British House and Garden, October 2010.

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.

Mercedes Gleitze, publicity photo, ca.1926.

Mercedes Gleitze, publicity photo, ca.1926.

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.

Mercedes Gleitze American cigarette card.

Mercedes Gleitze, cigarette card.

 

 

 

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.

Front page of the Boston Daily Globe, October 8, 1927.

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.

Mercedes Gleitze, swimming the English Channel, 1927. Courtesy Christie's.

Mercedes Gleitze, swimming the English Channel, 1927. Courtesy Christie’s.

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.

rolex ad enhanced

Front page of the Daily Mail, November 24, 1927, 1.

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.

About Marilyn Morgan

Hi, I’m Marilyn Morgan and welcome to my research blog. For over nine years I've worked as an archivist at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women at that Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and I am committed to inspiring, supporting, and disseminating academic research, especially related to women’s issues in popular culture. My own research investigates 20th-century and contemporary American history, popular culture, and material culture, especially advertising; consumerism; marketing to women; socially constructed gender roles; cultural aesthetics and beauty pageants; cosmetics; women and sport, media treatment of women athletes; youth culture; body image; dieting; gendering of sport; women’s swimming; eroticization of women athletes; and beach culture.
This entry was posted in advertising, bathing suit history, bathing suits, popular culture, swimming and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Her Swim Made Rolex Famous

  1. Maryann says:

    Wow….talk about pure determination and persistance. She was an amazing woman. Interesting to learn how her challenge made such an impact on how Rolex gained their impressive status. Good article.

    • Thanks! She certainly had an indomitable spirit. She’s fascinating on many levels. This post is just a teaser. Clare Delargy directed and produced an extraordinary documentary about Mercedes Gleitze. I had the privilege of accompanying Delargy Productions and crew to a filming location in Cushendun–the spot from which Mercedes attempted to swim the Irish Channel. It gives you chills just to see! Clare’s film covers the entire remarkable story. I highly recommend it!

  2. Kimberly Hall says:

    This is a great story and captures our culture and the complexity of social change on several levels. It reminds me of how quickly cultural acceptance of gender roles can change when a message is backed by a powerful, high-level force, such as a large corporation or even the government, as in the case of the acceptance of women taking on men’s roles in WWII. Thanks for depicting this story for us, especially the physical and mental demands involved, along with her persistence over a period of years. I look forward to seeing the documentary!

    • It’s so wonderful to be able to share her story–and this is just a glimpse into her inspiring life. Glad you enjoyed it. And you raised such an important point about the difficulty and complexity of changing any deeply engrained social expectations. Yet, at the same time when the message of change emanates from a group holding power (or is prompted by economic motivations), it occurs far more fluidly. I guess that’s part of why I find women like Mercedes so fascinating and inspiring: entrepreneurs profit from her yet she is outspoken in her own right and most definitely an agent of social change.

  3. Christine says:

    i love that watch. classic dive watch as a back up to use navy tables with ;-) i did not see the campbell’s mention… off i go

    • It’s it gorgeous? Ever since I learned about Mercedes and the effect her swim had on helping establish Rolex as not only dependable but one of the more exclusive upscale watch companies, I’ve secretly wanted one :)

  4. Donal says:

    Hi Marilyn,

    I noted in the article you said the CSA refused to recognise Mercedes’ EC solo swim. However the Channel Swimming Association list Mercedes first 1927 swim in their database as successful. I was wondering where you found this assertion? I’m not arguing, just trying too understand. The CSA have always asserted the integrity of their records books as justifying their primacy in Channel Swimming and they were only founded in 1927, the same year, with only three successful swims listed including Mercedes (http://www.channelswimmingassociation.com/results/solo-swims-from-france-to-england-1-way). I’m just trying to understand the story more.

    By the way, I don’t know if you knew, but there is video of Mercedes on the British Pathe archive website: http://www.britishpathe.com/workspaces/rgallagher/Mercedes-Gleitze-2

    • Hi Donal, First, thanks so much for reading and for your comment. Your question is a great one. Please bear with the length of my answer–I’m including a bit of backstory. When Mercedes first completed the English Channel swim in early October 1927, many doubted her claim because it was so late in the season and so few had witnessed it. Further complicating matters was the issue of the “Channel swimming hoax” perpetuated around the same time by British woman, Dorothy Logan, who had claimed to make the swim (without witnesses) in record time (beating Gertrude Ederle’s time). Because she flouted the CSA rules by not having witnesses, she signed an affidavit attesting to her honesty. After she convinced officials, she confessed that she’d lied. She purported that she perpetuated the hoax in order to call attention to the need for stricter regulations and rules.

      Whatever Logan’s motivation, she generated skepticism for other swimmers’ claims, especially those, like Gleitze, who had only a few witnesses. According to CSA archival records located in the Dover Historical Society,* CSA officials didn’t feel they could simply record Gleitze’s successful swim b/c of the scant witnesses. So the CSA asked Gleitze to sign an affidavit verifying she completed the swim unaided. Gleitze refused on principle and was quoted as saying, “the best thing to restore the prestige of British women Channel swimmers in the eyes of the world would be for me to make another Channel swim,” and thus she embarked upon what became known as the Vindication Swim.

      Because that swim was undertaken past Channel swimming season and she swam so efficiently for so long in the bitterly cold water under such extreme conditions, the CSA consented that she must have successfully completed the Oct 7 swim and then included it in its records retrospectively. This can be verified through a plethora of British and American newspapers as well as at the archives.

      Thanks for mentioning the footage on the British Pathe archive (brilliant site); I’ve seen it and it’s fantastic. You might be interested in this: a wonderful film scholar, Ciara Chambers, has recently written a thoughtful and thorough scholarly article on Mercedes and her swim. Earlier this year filmmaker Clare Delargy made the wonderful documentary: Mercedes: Spirit of a New Age that incorporates a great deal of never-before-seen footage and photographs as well as interviews with Mercedes’s daughter. If you’re interested in Channel swimming, you would appreciate this film. It also addresses the doubts surrounding Mercedes’s first swim that led to her Vindication Swim.

      *(as an aside, if you’re interested in swimming records, it’s worth noting an archivist there compiled a database of sanctioned and unsanctioned swims based on CSA records). Thanks so much for your comment and best.

      • Donal says:

        Thanks very much for the comprehensive reply Marilyn!

        I’m an Irish Channel swimmer & swim blogger myself and I wanted to cover the basics of Mercedes’ Vindication swim but I wasn’t clear on that point. It has much relevance for Channel swimmers now, in light of some recent high-profile swims such as the importance of Official Observation.

        Here is Ireland Mercedes is best known amongst Channel swimmers for her Mull of Kintyre and first North Channel attempts, (only finally successfully done last year by South African UK based swimmer Wayne Soutter). Actually Doloranda Pember was here at the Global Open Water Swimming Conference last weekend.

        Do you have a link for the Ciara Chambers article? I did search and saw she is Irish but no results for the article.

        The current best source of combined successful Channel information I use is Julian Critchclow’s database (http://home2.btconnect.com/critchlow/ChannelSwimDatabase.htm) and of course the individual association records.

        I know of Clare Delargy’s movie, there was one showing in Ireland but I haven’t heard any more of it yet.

        • Hi Donal, What’s your blog? I’ll link to it. I was lucky enough to be in Ireland last May. I spent a day with Clare, Doloranda, and Ciara in Cushendun, filming at the sport where Mercedes left for the North Channel attempts. It’s breath-takingly beautiful, but goodness, what a grueling swim! Doloranda gave me scans of some lovely photos of her mom. She’s writing a biography about her, too. I will send you the link to Ciara’s article (I’m not positive it’s out–it may be coming out) tomorrow. I apologize for any delay–she sent me the material at work and I’m a bit rushed and scattered. I’m having shoulder surgery on Monday and have been completely swamped. It seems that everything is happening at once right now. As you may have noticed, I’ve not even updated this blog since spring. I have a few wonderful posts (some with great 1920s footage) nearly ready to go but have been to busy to sort them out and post. Thank you for inspiring me to make more time (post-surgery).

          Clare is based in Belfast–that’s where the screening occurred this spring. She is incredibly talented and a lovely person. I think I’ve seen Julian’s database a while ago; I interviewed Mike Oram years ago when i was in England, doing dissertation research. He’s a treasure-trove of knowledge and so generous with his time. He is fascinating. Everyone involved in open water distance swimming is! Do send a link to your blog and keep in touch.

          • Donal says:

            Thanks again Marilyn. Sorry for taking up so much of your time. And yes, now I’ve subscribed I’m awaiting Part 2 of the last post. Given the amount of people we know in common, I’d be sure I was talking to a Channel swimmer. (If you need to be able to reach a lot of Channel swimers , I guess you know about Nick Adam’s Goggle Group, but I’m also the co-founder of the newish forum marathonswimmers.org/forum). Like many of them I love the history and culture aspects also.

            You should have an incoming link from my blog this morning but just in case it’s (http://loneswimmer.com).

            BTW, given your interest, and whom you already know, if you haven’t already spoken with her, I highly recommend Channel Swimmer & Sociologist Karen Throsby, University of Leeds, who has been researching channel swimming culture and has an interest particularly in the area of gender and weight. I think Karen would also like your blog as I am. Karen was formerly at Warwick Uni and her research page is at

            http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/staff/academicstaff/throsby/homepage/channelswimmer

            We’ll stay in touch. Get back writing!

  5. Pingback: Mercedes Gleitze and the Vindication Swim | LoneSwimmer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>