Articles

George Young, Yesterday’s Hero

At 17 Canada’s boy wonder swam his way into a fame that tore his life to shreds. Once offered a $250,000 movie contract, now he hasn’t got a dime — only a hidden heartache.

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN September 1 1949
Articles

George Young, Yesterday’s Hero

At 17 Canada’s boy wonder swam his way into a fame that tore his life to shreds. Once offered a $250,000 movie contract, now he hasn’t got a dime — only a hidden heartache.

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN September 1 1949

ON JANUARY 16, 1927, George Young, 17-year-old son of a Toronto cleaning woman, defeated 102 of the world’s best swimmers in the $25,000 Wrigley Marathon; he was the only contender to cross the 20-mile channel between Santa Catalina Island off the coast of California, and Point Vincente on the mainland.

Shortly before dawn, after 15 hours and 46 minutes in the water, he reached shore at Miramont Club beach, raised his arms to 5,000 spectators and touched off a story that, before it ended, involved the frustration of a city, the snubbing of a mayor, a bitter front-page feud, a legal tangle involving a battery of lawyers, banks and trust companies, and a red-hot controversy that, 22 years later, can still be fanned into fist fights.

The story of George Young illustrates a lot of things; but, most of all, it. illustrates the cruel fickleness of the public, who one day can hoist a man to world fame as the greatest living model of sterling youth, filial love, clean living and courage, and the next, tag him with the sports fan’s term of derision: “a bum.”

George Young got. himself into a round of vilification, ridicule, lawsuits, financial tangles and assorted headaches by simply doing his best at the sport he loved.

At 39 George Young works a night shift in a Philadelphia roundhouse. He seldom speaks of his fleeting fame.

Today, wherever men gather over a bottle of beer, someone is almost sure to call him a quitter or a phony. Most of these people have never met him. Many couldn’t swim the length of a tank without water wings.

Those who have swum wdth him and worked with him know that he isn’t a quitter or a phony. Professional swimmers, and others connected with the sport, unanimously regard George Young as one of the greatest swimmers the world has produced. Not a few consider him the greatest swimmer.

At his peak Young w'as once offered a $250,000 movie contract and a $5,000 a week personal appearance tour. Actually he made more than $60,000. But when I visited him in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, he was working as a machinist in the roundhouse of the Pennsylvania Railway for about $50 a week. He still looks back to the time, but less and less frequently, when he shot like a rocket across the front pages of the continent and soared to the giddy heights of fame.

George Young’s background was that of an average kid of Toronto’s poorer districts. His widowed mother had tried to give him a respectable bringing-up on her slim earnings as a domestic worker. He had made a name for himself as an outstanding Canadian amateur swimming champion, under the tutorship of Johnny Walker, swimming instructor of Toronto’s West End YMCA.

When news of the big California swim being sponsored by chewing gum magnate Wm. Wrigley, Jr., reached Toronto, George and a pal, Bill Hastings, then Canadian high-diving champion, decided to go down there so that George could give it a try.

After a futile attempt to raise funds, they got enough from their mothers to get by, and started off on Bill’s motorcycle; Bill driving, George bundled in the sidecar.

George was a solemn-looking kid with fat chops and a barrel-like chest, looking fairly uncomfortable and not very likely to set the world on fire.

They reached Los Angeles early in December with a couple of honeymooners who had picked them up somewhere in Arkansas after the motorcycle had collapsed, and went directly to the home of Henry (“Doc”) O’Byrne, a Toronto man. It came out later that Mrs. Young had signed an agreement giving O’Byrne 40% of anything George earned.

Few people would have given a bent nickel for George’s chances. He was in with the toughest competition in the world. Many rated the Catalina as a more difficult swim than the English Channel. The water was frigid and the channel swept by powerful tides.

There was no official record of anyone having swum it. It had taken a 15-man team, swimming in relays, more than 23 hours to do it. Yet Young was to swim it in 15 hours and 46 minutes. His performance was one of the greatest swimming feats ever recorded.

Young’s feat was so sensational that, later, when he was dropped from the public pedestal, some people refused to believe that he actually swam the Catalina. But a Wrigley representative sat in Young’s rowboat together with his oarsmen, 10 or more passenger-laden boats followed close by with their searchlights on him, and a tugboat accompanied him for the entire swim.

He went into the lead in the first stage of the marathon, his long, powerful glide soon hopelessly outdistancing, at an average of 44 strokes to the minute, early sprinters doing 60 to 70.

After the 1927 win. Shy George at mike with Irene O'Byrne and manager “Doc" O'Byrne.

Young was never headed after overtaking Chicago’s Norman Ross, one of the top distance swimmers of the U. S., who later publicly declared George to be one of the greatest swimmers of all time.

Although the airline distance was about 20 miles, to take advantage of the currents Young swam closer to 30. He had to get through a 200-yard patch of heavy oil and two fields of kelp, a weed that at low tide lies on top of salt water like a cake of shredded wheat.

There was another hazard that has no official rating, but which was very real to George. It was a shark he saw swimming along with him early in the race. Californians had explained that the sharks in the channel did not attack humans, but George remained unconvinced and for every moment of his swim he was scared nearly out of his grease.

Norman Ross was taken out at 2:40 a.m. beaten man. Pete Meyer, who came closest to Young’s feat> succumbed to the cold a mile and a half from the mainland. Charles Toth and Henry Sullivan, both of whom had swum the English Channel, were forced to give up. Mrs. Martha Stager of Portland, Oregon, and Margaret Hauser of Long Beach, California, got within a few miles from shore but were defeated by the cold and tides. Clarabelle Barrett, a Pelham N.Y. schoolteacher was taken out at 1:11 a.m.

Radio reports began to come through that a 17-year-old Canadian lad was still in there and looked as if he was going to finish. Crowds gathered at Miramont Club beach and lit beacons. A mile from shore, in view of the beacons, George began to fight the outflowing tide. He fought it until the flow eased, just holding his position for more than an hour, while the crowd tried to make him hear their shouts of “Come on, George!” He made shore at 3:41 a.m.

Mention George Young to teen-agers today and you get nothing but a blank stare. Yet few news stories about an individual have ever approached the George Young story. Chicago, Boston, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles papers carried his story on the front page, most of them in screaming eight-column headlines. Editorials said that he had inspired hope in the sick and compared him with heroes of Greece. A Chicago Journal editorial stated flatly, “His picture should hang in every boys’ club in North America.”

George was Mother's Boy No. 1 of North America. After picking up $10,000 at the Ex in 1931 he posed with his mother and coach Walker.

Prime Minister Mackenzie King wired that all Canada was rejoicing in the honor he had brought to his mother and to his country. The Assembly of the Legislature of California, in session, offered its congratulations.

Back in Toronto the excitement approached mass hysteria. Controller Wemp wired: “Toronto is proud of George Young and every encouragement should be put forth to have him return here instead of being gobbled up for the honor and the glory of the United States.”

The idea of George not only being a Canadian, but the best of all possible Canadians, a Torontonian, made the citizens nearly swoon with pride. Women practically wept at the thought of him.

But George was only 17. Girls, to him, were something that weren’t to be compared to mothers. When Associated Press reporters asked him the routine questions, he said, quite honestly, “I put everything I had into this race for my mother.” He became Mother’s Boy No. 1 of North America.

He was offered a private railway car and a private yacht. San Francisco offered to hold a “George Young” day, and the city of Los Angeles lent him a canary-colored Rolls Royce and two traffic cops. He was given a screen test. He caused such a riot of admirers on a downtown Los Angeles street that there was serious concern that it would be misinterpreted as a run on a nearby bank.

George Young became the big news and the big attraction of North America, and he stood to make a pile of money on top of his $25,000.

Yet, at the peak of his fame, things were happening which were fated to turn his brilliant success into a personal tragedy.

On the night of the swim, Bill Hastings had dived fully clad into the sea to welcome his pal ashore, had watched George being whipped away in an ambulance, and had suddenly found himself standing around San Pedro alone in a wet suit. From then on, he found himself on the outside looking in.

Whenever he tried to see George at his hotel he couldn’t seem to get past Doc. O’Byrne. Bill shrugged his shoulders and prepared to sit the situation out.

But a Los Angeles newspaper reporter, in search of fresh angles, buttonholed Bill and started asking innocent-sounding questions. The next edition of the paper carried a story about George living in luxury while his pal roamed the streets with $7.50 in his pockets. It caused a bitter misunderstanding between the two boys.

In the hotel room to which Bill was now urgently invited, everybody got mad. The meeting ended with Bill nearly knocking O’Byrne out of the room.

Then Came “Aunt Bella”

From then on it was open warfare. Bill was convinced that O’Byrne was muffing the whole deal and that if he could pry George away from him and Ralph Levy, the two of them could make real dough. (Levy was an advance publicity man whom Sid Grauman of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre had sent to George to help him get around. Two days later, he became Young’s manager. O’Bryne remained as trainer and Levy got his cut from O’Byrne.)

Some experts still call him the greatest swimmer of all time? A flaring fame, then tears and jeers.

Bill Hastings had good reason to believe that there was big money available for himself and George. He had already lined up a contract, dependent on George and himself getting together, for 48 weeks on the Keith-Albee circuit at $5,000 a week.

Back in Toronto, Mrs. Young decided her place was with her boy. She headed for Los Angeles with Johnny Walker and her sister, Miss Isabella Young, the allegedly interfering “Aunt Bella” who became such a well-known figure to newspaper readers during the disputes to follow that “So’s your Aunt Bella” was added to the list of catchphrases of the day.

Although George was making appearances at Grauman’s Egyptian theatre and the Paramount, the sports writers warned O’Byrne that he was losing thousands of dollars every day by not lining up some really fat contract for George while he was hot.

O’Byrne turned down one offer of a $250,000 movie contract from Carl Laemmle Jr. because he wanted $300,000. C. C. Pyle, noted for the big cheques he’d obtained for footballer “Red” Grange and tennis star Suzanne Lenglen, said that the Young party had already missed the boat.

Wm. Wrigley Jr., acting on his own initiative, clapped George’s $25,000 into trust for him until he was 29, set a lawyer to the task of trying to straighten things out, then washed his hands of the affair.

Wiien the battle reached its height there were three clearly defined teams in this incredible scramble. Bill Hastings had acquired a manager of his own, a movie bit player called Townsend-Paul, and a lawyer. Opposing this trio were O’Byrne, Ralph Levy and Young himself. In the middle were Mrs. Young, Aunt Bella and Johnny Walker.

The key to the whole situation was Mrs. Young. And it now appeared that she had not known what 40% meant when she signed George away to O’Byrne in the days before the Catalina Marathon.

When the Mrs. Young group approached Los Angeles, George was sent to San Francisco. A lawyer was dispatched to the town of Barstow to intercept her, but she went on to Los Angeles.

Long-distance calls between the were arranged for George and his mother by the Los Angeles and San Francisco papers. And George, the Mother’s Boy No. 1, was accused in print of refusing to see his own mother.

But eventually the long-awaited meeting did take place only to be broken up by O’Byrne and Levy who wrapped their arms around Mrs. Young, cried “Don’t let them take your boy away from you,” and carried the day.

Bill Hastings threw in the towel and lel t for Toronto.

Two Banquets in Toronto

Seventeen-year-old George came out of the whole thing a bit dizzy. He got bad publicity out of the verbal brawling. The Granada Theatre, in San Francisco, where he had been making personal appearances, canceled his contract. George headed for home.

He was given the greatest reception Toronto had ever accorded a celebrity. About 150,000 people jammed Queen Street to see him ride from Sunnyside station to downtown Toronto. At the city hall there was such a frenzied mob of worshippers that all nurses and doctors from the public health department were called to help fainting and trampled women and children. George was finally asked to leave the hall to prevent a panic.

The city had formed a George Young Advisory Committee; and the George Young Trust Committee had already collected from Sir Edward Kemp $5,000 toward the $5,200 house with which George was later presented.

Outside of one small incident everything went off fine. He was invited to a civic banquet in his honor, but when he found that Bill Hastings was going to be there George refused to go. Then, to patch things up, he gave his own banquet and invited Mayor Foster, but Mayor Foster refused to go. For all that, it was a royal and happy homecoming.

But George’s real troubles were only starting. The Canadian National Exhibition decided to stage another Wriglcy marathon in Toronto that same year, 1927, so that Canada could watch its favorite son make the other swimmers look silly. The distance was set at 21 miles, the prize at $30,000.

George went into training. Toronto began to talk of little else than the coming swim. By exhibition time excitement had reached fever pitch. The day of the swim, thousands jammed the exhibition waterfront to see George do his stuff.

Torontonians will never forget the shock which hit the city when it was learned that George had been taken out. He had folded at five miles. It seemed impossible.

When it became apparent later in the day that (lie swim was going to he won by Ernst Vierkoetter, the “Black Shark of Germany,” a great swimmer who was unfortunate enough to look like a Prussian officer in a grade C movie, the agony became even greater.

When Toronto recuperated it began to wonder about George Young. Several things began to be believed by some sections of the population. First, that he had never swum the Catalina; he had been towed or carried in a boat. Second, he had no guts, the boys said. As long as he was winning he was fine, hut let anyone pass him and he folded up.

No hero has ever dropped farther or faster.

Young and O’Byrne split up and George went back with Johnny Walker. The next year no one finished the C.N.E. swim because of the extremely cold water. Young was pulled out in three hours.

It became almost an annual tradition in Toronto to hear, “George is out.” It became a sardonic catch-phrase. Although, in between the big swims, he swam and won match races with Norman Ross, Vierkoetter and Marvin Nelson, the edge had been taken off. When he finally won a big swim in 1931 it was too late for the public who want their winners to win everything, every time.

In 1932 George married Margaret Ravior, a Philadelphia girl who had won three C.N.E. women’s swims, and, in 1935, went to Philadelphia to live. As far as the public was concerned, the story of George Young was finished.

That still is the end of the story as a stark recital of facts. But what was the inside story? What really happened to crack the pedestal of Canada’s boy wonder?

Certainly Young had taken terrible punishment in some of the marathons —yet he’d kept on swimming. G. N. Duthie, C.N.E. sports director, has seen Young fight agonizing cramps for three quarters of an hour. When he won at the Ex in 1931 George passed out the minute he crossed the finishing line. Duthie caught him and was prevented from going in himself only by someone holding onto his feet. He held on, keeping George from going to the bottom, until the lifeguards arrived.

A Mile With Paralyzed Legs

O. P. Sullivan, official doctor at all C.N.E. swims, says he doesn’t know to this day how, in many swims, George kept going at all. Ina three-mile swim with Marvin Nelson, Young swam the last mile with both legs paralyzed.

But there’s no question that in many swims George’s heart just wasn’t in it. He frequently had to be prodded and browbeaten to stay in. Johnny Walker used to threaten to brain him with bottles and oars if he so much as touched the boat.

Why had George lost some of his will to win?

Part of the reason lies in a heavy correspondence file in the office of a Toronto legal firm. The bottom letters of that file are dated 1927 and cover the disbursements of George’s earnings after Catalina.

Honeymooners: $1,000 Please

The record is tangled, but a few facts emerge.

Young’s earnings, according to a statement of the Los Angeles First National Trust and Savings Bank, apart from his prize money, came to $26,740.78. Young says he saw about $400 of this in cash. When expenditures were added up he had nothing left and owed O’Byrne $2,472.75. His bills totaled more than he had made.

O’Byrne had publicly dropped his claim on 40% of the prize money and entered into an alternative contract with George and Mrs. Young whereby he got 25% of all Young’s earnings for the next five years. This led to a court case which ended nine years later with O’Byrne collecting about $3,500.

George, like most people who excel in any one thing, hadn’t paid much attention to anything else. School to him had always been just something to keep him out of the water. He was about the world’s worst businessman. He proceeded to get into worse tangles.

He got mixed up in a business deal and found that a company called Radio Advertising Service had got judgment against him for $750. He found that he owed the Los Angeles First National Trust and Savings Bank $500 for looking after his accounts. He forgot the U. S. income tax department and found that he owed them $1,300. He was told that he owed an “extraordinary fee” of $500 to the SecurityFirst National Bank of Los Angeles.

At Sunnyside Pavilion on August 15, 1934, just before plunging into a race, he was served with a summons in the case of O’Byrne vs. Young and promptly lost it. O’Byrne won his case by default.

The honeymoon couple who had given Young and Hastings a lift to Los Angeles threatened to sue George for $1,000. Everyone seemed to be clamoring for money from him.

He couldn’t touch his $25,000, and in the meantime he couldn’t get a decent job. As fast as he got one, someone complained to the management that they were giving a “wealthy” man a job and keeping some poor guy out.

He was told by Toronto’s West End YMCA that $25 a week as a swimming instructor was too much. In 1938 visitors to the C.N.E. automotive building were startled to see the famous Catalina Kid sweeping up Wrigley chewing gum wrappers and cigarette butts.

By the time the Catalina prize money came through there were assignments against it. When the trust was terminated in 1939, Young’s mother and his wife, Margaret, to whom he’d assigned his interests, collected about $14,000, out of which they spent $3,000 to fix up the gift house where they were all living. (It was later sold.)

George bought Margaret a $1,000 ring.

George often found himself doing mental arithmetic when he should have had his whole heart and soul geared to the six or seven miles of bitter-cold water ahead.

And here was something else, something abstract but very important.

Young was affected more than the Ians will ever realize by his failure to live up to their impossible demands to win all the swims for them. In spite of his deceptive size, he had always been very sensitive.

Tommy Walker, son of the famous coach, tells of the time when George, as a boy, had beaten him across the bay at Toronto. Walker still remembers George’s acute unhappiness when they came out of the water. He was about as miserable as he could get because he had beaten a good friend.

Because of all these things swimming had ceased to be fun for George Young. It had become a grim, sordid, desperate business.

Socks in Swimming Cups

Today, at 39, George is a hefty, rather awkward-moving man 5 feet 8% inches tall, weighing 218 pounds, with a paunch and enough grey hair to show. He doesn’t smoke or drink and, in spite of a bit of extra beef which could soon be worked off, he’s in good shape.

And the man who was once offered a $250,000 movie contract hasn’t got a dime.

Sober George didn’t hit it off with Margaret, his fun-loving first wife, and they were divorced. Margaret has custody of their 11-year-old son whom George supports.

Young now lives in the top threeroom flat of a frame house in northeast Philadelphia’s pleasant Pennypark district and is happier than he’s been for a good many years, partly because he has no money to worry about, but chiefly because of his second wife, Glay, a friendly and vivacious English girl whom he met in Kirkland Lake, Ont., soon after the Catalina swim. She can’t swim a stroke.

Glay is George’s staunch champion. She occasionally writes peppery letters to sports writers who get too ecstatic over some swimmer that George has beaten. She keeps his undarned socks in one of his old swimming cups.

George still walks around with his hands cupped and his wife has a picture of him sleeping in the position of the crawl, breathing to one side.

He reads a bit and plays golf. The neighbors get him going now and then about ...  he stood the world on its ear, but...not particularly anxious to talk about it.

He’s seen a lot of suffering, physical and mental, and it shows in his eyes. He gets migraine headaches.

Looking back on the Catalina marathon, George says: “I was in wonderful shape. All my amateur swimming had built up a reserve. There was only one prize. The first one in got it. And there were no pushovers out there that day. When the race was over, I felt fine. But I found out later that it took plenty out of me. Months later, a loginess came over me that I wasn’t able to shake for a long time.”

Did he enjoy being a hero? It was pretty wonderful feeling, he says, all that money and excitement, especially for a 17-year-old kid in his circumstances.

“I found out, when the returns were in, that the financial side of it wasn’t as glorious as I thought,” he adds now “but all that acclaim made me feel like a million dollars anyway.

“Sometimes now, when I’m going down the street, strangers stop me and say: ‘Aren’t you George Young?’ It’s good to be remembered. That’s something money can’t buy.

“The trouble is”—George has a habit at times like this of resting his head on the back of the chair and closing his eyes—“you’ve got to win all the time. It’s funny, how the public can be.”

In spite of its many unhappy moments, he’d do the same thing all over if he had his life to live again. His only regret is that he couldn’t have won oftener. “I tried too hard to live up to the expectations of my friends, and 1 guess I let my emotions run away with me. You can’t be ‘on’ every day.

He Can’t Afford the Pools

“I’ve no desire to go back to Toronto. The only things I miss are a few good friends and the Toronto waterfront. But I tried to get work in Toronto for too many years and got turned down too often to want to go back.

“For years I swam and competed at the Exhibition swims. I was partly responsible for their large crowds, but to this day they’ve never said thanks in any form.

“They’re like a lot of Toronto business people: they get as much out of you as they can for nothing, then the old brush-off.”

(Comments C.N.E. sports director Duthie: “We would have liked to have helped George. But, if we were to be fair, to do it for one would have meant doing it for everyone; and that would have called for a budget that we simply couldn’t meet. We are sorry if George feels any bitterness toward the Exhibition. He was most co-operative to work with and, irrespective of his feelings toward us, we will look back upon him as the greatest swimmer the world has ever seen.”)

George never goes swimming now because Pennypark is a long way from water and he feels he can’t afford the admission to the tanks. But he says he’d still like to go into the big swims.

“If I were to take time off from work to get into shape,” he says sadly “my bills would be somewhere around $500 and what working man can afford that?”

So George Young is going to work at the roundhouse at 2 p.m. every day and getting home around midnight and telling himself to forget about swimming. He does, too, except for just one lingering ambition. He’d like to swim the 29 miles from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Toronto.

“I think,” he says, and his eyes are far away, “I could do it.”