Sunday, June 28, 2009

Michael Jackson and the Sea

On the one hand you have Marc Sanford and Michael Jackson. And on the other you have Trudy Ederle.

Sanford has ridden his relatively limited notoriety into ignominy. Jackson’s fame, over several agonizing decades, killed him.

And then there is Trudy Ederle (aka Gertrude Ederle), the subject of my new book, Young Woman and the Sea, which will be in bookstores in just a few days.

In the wake of her 1926 record setting swim across the English Channel, in which she became just the sixth person – and first woman – ever to swim the Channel, beating the existing men’s record by nearly two hours, Trudy was the most famous woman in the world. She was far better known than Marc Sanford will ever hope to be, and, briefly, better known than Jackson has ever been.

When she returned to the United States she was nearly crushed by fame. Given the biggest ticker tape parade in New York history at the time, she was arguably America’s first celebrity, and in her first 48 hours back she received a full dose of everything it had to offer.

The result? She lay huddled in a fetal position, paralyzed by the attention.

And although Trudy did go one to cash in on her fame with a vaudeville tour, in the end, wisely and to her credit, eventually she withdrew. She was not cut out for the rigors of celebrityhood and - unlike Sanford or Jackson or Lindsay Lohan or any of dozens of other celebrities - she knew it. Within a decade of her achievement she was nearly forgotten, and she seemed to like it that way, following her remarkable achievement by doing something perhaps even more remarkable – returning to her life, living quietly and privately, unconcerned with the fading cheers, content and certain who she was and what she had done. And that was enough, and something Michael Jackson never, ever knew.

She passed away in 2003, age ninety-eight.

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