Pitonof, Rose

Rose Pitonof (April 19 1895 – June 15 1984) was a marathon swimmer from Dorchester, Massachusetts. She spent 6 weeks in Dover in 1912 trying to swim the Channel but poor conditions prevented her even starting

Pitonof was born on April 19, 1895, to Eli Pitonof and Fanny Wolff in Dorchester, Boston. Her parents owned a grocery store together, and Eli served as Rose’s manager until his death due to the outbreak of the 1918 flu pandemic after the First World War.

On September 18 1910, at the age of 15, Pitonof was first woman to have successfully swum a 17-mile stretch around the waters surrounding New York City and was the first person to have completed the course from East Twenty-fourth St., to Coney Island, finishing in four and a half hours without any outside assistance.

Earlier that year, on August 7 1910, Pitonof won the Boston Light Swim, an eight-mile open water event, in a record time of 6 hours and 50 minutes. Seven men started the competition with her, but none apart from her successfully finished. She was the first woman to ever complete the event. Her record stood for several years, and her unprecedented success in the Boston Light Swim was noted in a 1912 Chicago Tribune article titled, “Is There Anything Women Can’t Do?”

After her Boston Light Swim, Pitonof became a Vaudeville performer; “My act was part of a larger Vaudeville program, but I was the headliner. I know for a good, good many years I held a record for attendance. They built a tank of water on the stage, and I would exhibit some of my strokes and dives,” she said.

Pitonof’s performances were not strictly entertainment based. Her demonstrations also included important life saving skills: “In conjunction to Rose Pitonof’s swimming and diving exhibitions, she will demonstrate how to save a person from drowning. Miss Pitonof has, during her young life, saved several from a watery end, and in her performances this afternoon, you will witness an exhibition that will interest and instruct. A crowded house will no doubt greet this little Boston school girl, who has won the title of World’s Champion Long Distance Swimmer.”

During the early 1900s, many people did not know how to swim, and in many cases learning how to swim was actively discouraged among women.

On September 18 1910, Pitonof swam from East 23rd Street to a half mile away from Steeplechase Pier, winning a race against Mrs. Clara Bouton.

On August 13 1911, Pitonof swam from East 26th Street to Steeplechase Pier, earning the woman’s title of Long Distance Swimming Champion of the World. The distance between the two points is 17 miles. It is estimated that Pitonof covered 21 miles during eight hours and seven minutes in the water. She swam mostly breast stroke, occasionally passing underneath piers. Her nutrition for the day was a chicken sandwich and a cup of coffee before she started her swim. It is estimated that a crowd of 50,000 were cheering for her at Coney Island. The annual Rose Pitonof Swim along the same route still commemorates her achievement.

A year later Pitonof headed to England to attempt to swim across English Channel.

On July 27 1912 the press on both sides of the Atlantic reported that an Anglo-American race to be first woman to swim the Channel was underway betwen Rose Pitonoff and Lily Smith. Both stayed in Dover for about 6 weeks, waitng in vain for the right conditions to make an attempt

In August 1912 she was forced to delay her Channel Swim until September due to storms. While she waited for better weather, she swam the Thames River. In September 1912 she was again prevented from attempting the Channel due to heavy winds.

LONDON, Sept. 11. – Rose Pitonoff, the Boston girl, swam sixteen miles in the cold waters of the Thames yesterday in 4 hours and 34 minutes. Starting at Richmond Lock and finishing at Tower bridge at 7:15 last evening, she was as fit as a fish and ready to swim further, but the members of the Sussex Motor Yacht club and the press men who accompanied her urged otherwise, owing to the danger of the Thames. Rose, proud at accomplishing a feat never accomplished by a woman swimmer, intended swimming the English channel, but the weather has been so inclement for two weeks that she was prevented from attempting it. She will sail for the United States in a few days and return for the channel swim next spring. For the Thames performance yesterday all the London bridges were crowded with people cheering the plucky American as she swam past. Miss Pltonoft used the breast stroke always except in the heavy wash of steamers, where the overarm was necessary. She chewed gum continuously. She took no nourishment except two pieces of sugar moistened with brandy. Americans in the crowd yelled; “O you kid; hurrah for the Stars and Stripes.”
Los Angeles Herald, 11 September 1912

On 14/9/1912, age 17, she sailed home Southampton to New York, accompanied by her chaperone Katherine Brown, 38

In 1913 Pitonof made a couple of attempts at swimming from the Manhattan Battery to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. On July 20 1913, the tide was against her, and she was forced to abandon the attempt after two miles. On September 14 1913, just a quarter of a mile away from her goal, Pitonof was taken into the boat due to an attack of cramps. She had been in the water 12 hours and 35 minutes.

On June 28 1916, Pitonof married Doctor Fredric Weene, a Boston dentist. It is rumored that she gave up an opportunity to go to Hollywood in order to marry.

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