A Woman to Know: Eleanora Randolph Sears

Her life was a testament to the idea that women deserved access and opportunities equal to those available to men. — Peggy Miller Franck

Her life was a testament to the idea that women deserved access and opportunities equal to those available to men. — Peggy Miller Franck

(image via The Library of Congress)

Eleanora — known as “Eleo” to her friends — grew up in one of the most important families of turn-of-the-century Boston society. But in her 20s, Eleo forsook high society glamour for athletic prestige.

As her peers attended balls and vacationed on the Cape, the young heiress took up a variety of sports, among them horseback riding, ice skating, shooting, squash, polo, yacht-racing, boxing and even long-distance walking (her anxious chauffeur once tailed her on the 10-hour trek from Newport to Boston, carrying sandwiches in the limo trunk). She excelled in them all.

Her father Fred, a shipping and real estate magnate, was one of the first Americans to play tennis, so soon Eleo decided to make a name for herself in the male-dominated game. By 1914, she ranked among the best 10 tennis players in the U.S, eventually winning championships in both doubles and singles.

Contemporary media dubbed her “the best all-around athlete in American society,” but not everyone was a fan. Eleo shocked sports audiences with her masculine dress and carefree bravado, and multiple clubs reprimanded her for playing tennis in trousers and rolling up her sleeves. She was even once arrested for smoking a cigarette in a hotel lobby (traditionally, only men were afforded the privilege). Women’s groups and sports organizations passed resolutions banning “unladylike behavior,” but Eleo’s pedigree and popularity challenged the status quo. She later became the first female squash champion in the U.S.. the first American woman to play polo on a men’s team and the first woman to ever contest a speeding ticket (she counted auto racing among her many passions).

Though she treated Mike Vanderbilt as her dance partner and male escort to events, Eleo lived later in life as an out lesbian, much to the shock of her blueblood relatives and high-society social circles. She counted Isabel Pell and Isadora Duncan among her many lovers, eventually making her way into the “Sapphic Sewing Circle” of Golden Age Hollywood.

By the time she died at age 86 in 1968, she’d been awarded 240 trophies in her various sports. She was posthumously named to the Tennis Hall of Fame, the Horseman’s Hall of Fame, and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.

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