In 2011, CNN caught Diana Nyad lying about being the first woman to swim around Manhattan Island. In response, Nyad did not apologize for—nor even acknowledge—her deception. Instead, she posted a blog entry full of excuses, justifications, irrelevant information—and more lies.
The frequency of the falsehoods makes them difficult to catch. I missed most of them the first time through. I’ve read it again many times since, finding fresh new fictions on each pass. In this post and the next two, I will look at as many of them as I can detect.
Nyad subsequently removed the entry from her blog. But thanks to the Internet Wayback Machine, we can close our eyes, travel back in time, and read along as Diana Nyad revisits a glorious moment while fretting over a disconcerting discovery…
History Rewritten....to my GREAT Surprise! Blog for diananyad.com 6/9/11 When I swam around Manhattan Island on October 6, 1975, I read about my own achievement in The New York Times and other NY publications the next day.
True, so we’re off to a good start.
The paper of record at the time declared that I had both broken the 50-year-old record, for both men and women...AND that I had become the first woman ever to swim around the most famous island in the world.
From The New York Times (presumably the paper of record) on the day after Nyad’s swim:
In 1959, Diane Strubel made the trip in 11 hours 59 minutes.
So much for being the first woman.
Also, it would be tough to break the record “for both men and women” if no women had yet swum around “the most famous island in the world.”
Speaking of “most famous” things—hyperbole, itself a kind of lie, is one of Nyad’s favorite rhetorical devices:
Diana proves that she hyperbolizes better than anyone on the planet.
Many people took the day off work as they heard about my quest. They lined the sea walls and I waved back to them as they shouted encouragement and Bravo’s across the Hudson and East Rivers.
From the same New York Times article as above:
Miss Nyad…slipped into the filth-laden river at 11:35 a.m…. ‘Bye,’ she called to the little knot of bystanders….
…Except for a handful of workmen at various places along the route and reporters who stayed nearby, Miss Nyad swam on alone….
…a few children cheered from the Manhattan shore, and…a couple of yachts circled the party for a while….
So much for roaring crowds.
The athletic details of the day, being the fastest to date, and the first woman, weren’t of any great significance to me. It was much more about the inspiration of the moment.
“It’s all about the inspiration of the moment” is a familiar Nyadic refrain. We heard multiple variations after the Cuba-Florida crossing, and it rang just as hollow then as it does now.
In one sense, though, it’s true: for Nyad, being the first woman doesn’t matter as long as she is (the first, that is).
It’s all about the inspiration (as long as she’s first).
My family, going back to the early 1800’s were all from New York City. My grandparents, my mother, and I myself were all born in Manhattan.
Nyad lulls us with a tincture of truth—she and her mother were born in Manhattan—before she lies about her grandparents’ birthplaces. Nyad gains nothing from this fabrication, yet she does it anyway. Maybe she figures that Manhattan has more cachet than:
- Brooklyn, NY (maternal gf)
- Healdsburg, CA (maternal gm)
- Brentwood, TN (paternal gf)
- Springfield, MA (paternal gm)
Not knowing much about my maternal grandfather, I discovered in my 20’s, while coaching at Barnard, that he (George Warrington Curtis) was not only captain of the Columbia University Swimming Team in his day but that he was also the first person ever to swim across the Long Island Sound.
I’m going to go out on a limb here: Nyad made that whole thing up. I’ll happily eat my swim cap if I’m wrong.
She may have spotted a name that looked like “George Warrington Curtis”—a “George Winslow Curtis” attended Columbia around that time and played baseball (see image on right). I suspect that Nyad saw that name and built a story around it: not just a member of the swim team, but captain; not merely second or seventh to swim the sound, but the very first. It all sounds suspiciously and hyperbolically familiar.
Nyad expands on this tale in a later interview during which her grandfather becomes captain of the track team in addition to the swim team. Nyad says that, after her Manhattan swim,
…I was…looking at pictures of old guys from the 1800s on the Columbia swimming team…. And I came to one, and I said, wait a second—‘George Warrington Curtis,’ that’s my mother’s father’s name. And I didn’t know one thing about him, except some sort of business history. And it says under there, the captain of the Columbia track team…. And the captain of the Columbia swimming team. And then my eyes bulged out—it said “the first person ever to swim across Long Island Sound.”
Nyad knows more about George W. than she lets on. In her 2015 memoir Find A Way, she writes about his business history in some detail. George W.’s great-grandmother, Charlotte Winslow, reputedly concocted the patent medicine, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. It was a cocktail of morphine—Nyad calls it “a pacifying ingredient” in her book—and alcohol. Parents used it to quiet teething babies. According to the FDA, it sometimes quieted them permanently.
Winslow gave the recipe to her son-in-law, Jeremiah Curtis, George W.’s grandfather. This and other patent medicines made millions for the family, enough to eventually entice the con man Aris Nyad into the Curtis-sphere. He gets Nyad’s mother (Lucy Sneed née Curtis) pregnant,* so Aris and Lucy sneak off to Phoenix to wed in December 1953. The stork arrives seven months later.
Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup may not be the best medicine for fortifying Nyad’s “Me lie? Never!” argument. But it’ll be great for the movie.
*I apologize for implying that Lucy lacked agency here. I suspect, however, that Aris saw biological connection as a path to marriage, and marriage as a path to Lucy’s Soothing Syrup-generated inheritance.