Clare Delargy’s documentary Mercedes Gleitze: The Spirit of a New Age, tells the extraordinary tale of British swimmer Mercedes Gleitze. In a career that spanned from 1921-1932, Mercedes became the first European female to swim the English Channel, the first swimmer to complete the Straits of Gibraltar and completed 51 endurance swims, with half of them lasting longer than 26 hours. Mercedes’ incredible journey was to make her one of the first international sporting celebrities of the modern age.
Filmmaker Clare Delargy explains her own journey into the documentary. “I first heard of Mercedes Gleitze some years ago on a visit to my husband’s family in Cushendun. My mother-in-law happened to mention her name in passing and spoke about the excitement surrounding her visit to the village when Mercedes attempted to swim from Scotland to Ireland. Her family had a real involvement in the matter because her uncle and cousin had been on the pilot boat that accompanied Mercedes on at least one of the attempted North Channel crossings. The story intrigued me and later I came across a reference to Mercedes and her English Channel success in a Sunday newspaper and then I needed to find out more.”
Mercedes’ success was built on her early dreams of becoming a professional swimmer while working as a stenographer in London. Her determined spirit is evident early on in life in her escape attempt from Germany as a 17 year old after her family’s repatriation during the First World War. Clare points out that “to leave her home in Bavaria and make her way across Europe in chaos just as the war was ending in the hope of making it back to England was extraordinary. Furthermore, in then attempting to swim the English Channel Mercedes may have revealed the innocence of youth but her strength of character and fearlessness were truly awesome.”
This strength of character and a “will to want to succeed” was to play its part in what became known as Mercedes’ Vindication Swim. After successfully swimming the Channel on 7th October 1927, there were those who questioned the validity of her achievement. Indeed, the English Channel Swimming Association refused to recognize her record as legitimate. Mercedes refused to let the doubters negate her achievement and repeated the feat. In doing so, she garnered a new wave of admirers who were in awe of her courage and determination in the face of adversity.
The documenatry combines newsreel with a wealth of personal archive to tell the story of Mercedes’ amazing life. Clare tells how “after Mercedes died her family came across her books of cuttings and photographs in the attic. As Doloranda and Fergus, two of her children explained to me, before then they knew virtually nothing about Mercedes’s life as a young swimmer, her achievements and her celebrity. As Doloranda began to read through her mother’s records she was becoming acquainted with a young woman whom she had never known and a life filled with surprises and achievements. It was a privileged moment when I first went to meet Doloranda and see all her mother’s press cuttings and photographs. Subsequently I contacted various archive agencies worldwide to establish if any other still or moving images existed of her and the responses that came back were just amazing.”
As the title of the films attests to, Mercedes embodied the spirit of a new age. “Mercedes Gleitze was a fearless pioneer, “Clare says, “swimming many of the most challenging stretches of water in the world including the English Channel, Straits of Gibraltar, Cape Town to Robben Island, the Hellespont. And bear in mind too that she was not just the first woman but the first person in history to swim the Straits of Gibraltar. But ultimately she was a wonderful role model for a new generation of young women challenging the status quo and taking on the old order.”
Since completing the documentary Clare began to develop Mercedes’ story for cinema. With the support of Northern Ireland Screen, Delargy Productions have now produced a screenplay based around Mercedes’ Vindication Swim on the English Channel and her subsequent attempt to become the first person ever to swim from Europe to Africa which she succeeded in achieving in 1929. The first draft has been written by Daisy Waugh, granddaughter of Evelyn Waugh.
Mercedes Gleitze: The Spirit of a New Age screens on Sunday, 20th September 2015 at 13.00 at the IFI as part of its Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.
Tickets for Mercedes Gleitze: The Spirit of a New Age are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie