18 March 2016
Göran R Buckhorn writes:
It is Tuesday 4 July 1939. It is a warm, nice day and the one-year-old Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club is holding its first race for women on the Schuylkill River. The Schuylkill Navy, the governing body of the rowing clubs in Philadelphia, led by Commodore John ‘Jack’ B. Kelly, famous three-time Olympic champion and father of film-star-to-be, Grace Kelly, has allowed the girls an ‘exhibition race’ in the double sculls in the Peoples Regatta on this Independence Day – three women’s crews have signed up to compete.
A year earlier, on 4 May 1938, seventeen young women, most of them in their twenties, met to found a rowing club for women, Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club (PGRC). They had been called to the meeting by Ernestine Bayer, age 29, wife of the Olympic oarsman Ernest Bayer, who was a captain and coach of Pennsylvania Barge Club.
Ernestine, known to everyone as ‘Ernie’, and Ernest had married on 28 January 1928, when she was 18 and he 24. They kept their marriage a secret as Ernest was afraid that their matrimonial status would exclude him as a contender for a seat in the American coxless four that was going to compete at the Olympic Games later that year. It was as Lew Cuyler writes in his entertaining biography on Ernie, Ernestine Bayer: Mother of U.S. Women’s Rowing (2006): ‘…coaches and other athletic professionals of that era believed that sex sapped the strength of athletes’. Sex or not, Ernest Bayer’s four took a silver medal at the 1928 Olympic rowing event.
For many years, Ernie would come along to the Pennsylvania Barge Club with Ernest when he was training with his friends on the Schuylkill. Sitting on the dock waiting for him to return, she thought it looked lovely to be out rowing on the river. When she asked Ernest and his friends why there were no women rowing or why there was not a rowing club for women, they found her questions hilarious: a rowing club for women – they had never heard such a ridiculous thing.
None of them probably knew that women’s rowing in America was not a ‘new thing’. Already in 1875, Wellesley College had established a rowing programme for women, and in 1892 four women had started the first women’s rowing club in the country, ZLAC, in San Diego, California. (The club’s name came from the four founders’ first names, Zulette, Lena, Agnes and Carolyn.)
Then one day, Raymond Parker, a colleague of Ernie’s at the bank where she worked, told her that a building at Boathouse Row would be available for rent, as the Philadelphia Skating Club was moving to a new facility. Maybe that could be a building suitable for a rowing club for women?
Ernie called a meeting on 4 May 1938 and invited female co-workers from the bank and some of the girlfriends of her husband’s teammates to form a club. The women set a yearly fee of $25 plus an extra $5 initial fee to be able to rent the building. Ernie was elected the club’s first president.
On 8 May, The Philadelphia Record published an article about the new rowing club on Boathouse Row. The members of the new club, the newspaper wrote ‘were secretaries, saleswomen, nurses, models, typists, and just plain ladies of leisure’. Ernie, the president, was described as ‘the attractive dark-haired wife of an Olympic oarsman’.
Then hell broke loose.
Almost all the members at the clubs along the Boathouse Row were livid. How dare these women trespass on their river, which for more than one hundred years had been a bastion of manliness, the oarsmen thought. But Ernie was unmoved.
Of course, it did not help the women’s situation that the local newspapers had journalists and photographers popping up at their club the whole time to interview and take pictures of the young, attractive women in their shorts – photographs that showed up on full-page spreads in the papers. The media’s interest of the novelty of female rowers also took away the attention from the men’s activities on the river.
All this hullabaloo put Ernie’s husband, Ernest, in a difficult spot. Torn between the old, manly rowing tradition on the river and his support for his wife’s wishes to row and race, reluctantly at first, he took the bull by its horns and signed up as PGRC’s first coach. Ernest borrowed a training barge from the University of Pennsylvania to teach the ‘girls’ to row. Ernie also recruited another coach for the women, Fred Plaisted.
Fred Plaisted was a well-known Boathouse Row character. He was born in 1849 near Portland, Maine, and won his first professional race when he was 17 in San Francisco, winning $500 in gold. During his long life, it is said that he rowed in 400 races. After having coached college crews at Bowdoin, Harvard, Yale and Columbia, Plaisted moved to Philadelphia around 1918 to start a boatbuilding business. And then in the beginning of July 1939, when he was 90 years old, he was at PGRC to help out at the women’s first race on the river.
The news about the women’s race in the Peoples Regatta in 1939 not only reached the public, also gentlemen of the press had gathered at PGRC’s address at East River Drive to ask questions and take photographs. One of the photographers was 23-year-old David Scherman, who worked for Life magazine. After graduating from Dartmouth College in 1936, Scherman bought a Leica camera, took some pictures of Manhattan, showed them to an editor at Life and was hired as a photographer on the spot.
Now, three years later, Scherman was at the Boathouse Row to take pictures of the young ladies at their oars. He shot some brilliant photographs of both Fred Plaisted and the women rowing, but though I have been going through the content lists of the issues of Life magazine from July to December 1939, nowhere are Sherman’s July 1939 PGRC images listed and no articles about young women rowing and racing on the Schuylkill in the summer of 1939 were ever published in issues of Life magazine.
At the regatta, Ernie, at bow, won her first rowing race in the double sculls, together with her 18-year-old colleague from work, Jeannette Waetjen. In all honesty, the race was not much to write home about – the three crews had a hard time steering their boats and sometimes they were totally off rhythm and their sculls clashed – but Ernie and Jeannette got praise in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, ‘Victory by the Waetjen-Bayer duo was a fitting debut for the girls….’
The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote in a report of the regatta: ‘The oarswomen members of PGRC deserve a big hand for their efforts. They did their best and no one fainted from exhaustion or went into hysterics’. The paper also wrote, that the women’s races that day ‘forever ended the male domination of rowing on the Schuylkill’. That the male domination on the river should end after one single women’s ‘exhibition race’ has to be taken with a grain of salt. The result from the women’s races that day on the Schuylkill was not among the results from the Peoples Regatta published in National Association Amateur Oarsmen 1940 Guide, nor was PGRC listed among the rowing clubs in America in the publication. However, a small step for equality on the water, it was the beginning of women rowing in the United States.
With no rowing in the autumn issues of Life, what the magazine did entail are reports on the War that broke out in Europe in September 1939. A World War in Europe was something that David Scherman could not pass up. He teamed up with Lee Miller, a model turned photographer, and off they went to different conflicts and battles on the European War scene. One of Scherman’s most famous photographs during the Second World War is taken at the end of the War, with Miller in Adolf Hitler’s bathtub in Der Führer’s flat in Munich. (See the photograph and read Scherman’s own words how it came about – here.)
Fred Plaisted passed away in 1946, at age 97.
Ernestine ‘Ernie’ Bayer continued to row far into her 90s. I had the enormous pleasure to meet her in January 2003. She died in 2006, at age 97.