What happened to the greatest Jewish athlete ever? Mark Hebscher sums up the story of Ida Schnall

This is the fourth in a four-part series by Mark Hebscher for The Canadian Jewish News. If you missed the first three parts you should start reading here.

DAREDEVIL /ˈderˌdevəl/: A reckless person who enjoys doing dangerous things. (See also-madcap, exhibitionist, showboat.) 

Ida Schnall commanded attention from a very young age. But she was a risk-taker above all. And it took a lot of chutzpah—something that Ida had an abundance of. 

No stunt was too daring for her, especially after she wowed audiences on Broadway by diving 30 feet into a small tank during her dazzling performances in The Passing Show, and the stage production of Undine. These displays led to numerous “fancy diving” exhibitions, and, eventually, an acting gig in Hollywood. 

In 1915, she was offered the lead role in a silent-film version of Undine: the part of the Diving Venus. While in Hollywood, she formed and captained the Feminine Baseball Team of Los Angeles, with other actresses from the Universal Pictures lot. Between games, she shot scenes for her movie, including a one-take epic in which she dove from a cliff 130 feet into the Pacific Ocean, near Catalina Island.  

At age 13, Ida promised her mother she’d never dive from a height greater than 75 feet—and told the film’s director as much. He had Ida practice from a different cliff, and then, on shooting day, took her to the 130-foot drop instead.

Ida wrote to her mother that day, telling her about the dive, and that she didn’t intentionally jump from that height.  

Undine became a smash hit, but not because of the plot. Reviewers and audiences alike were wide-eyed when they saw Ida on screen in a skimpy, see-through one piece. As one reviewer put it: “They should have called the film Undressed.”

From that point on, Ida Schnall became America’s sex symbol. Besides the film, photos of her in various states of undress became quite popular, and the fact that she was voted the world’s most “beautifully formed female” certainly didn’t hurt her reputation, either. Newspapers and magazines wrote stories about her. She did many personal appearances and was brooked for subsequent stage productions of Undine.

After taking some time off to raise her two young sons, Ida got back into the daredevil business in 1921, when the New York Daily News asked if they could photograph her diving off the wing of an airplane going 60 miles an hour. 

In front of a packed crowd at Coney Island, Ida made a perfect dive. As people whistled and cheered, she calmly swam to shore and hopped into a waiting cab.

She had to get home to prepare dinner. 

The next day, one newspaper trumpeted: “Ida Schnall: First of her sex to jump out of a moving plane.” Syndicated columnist Damon Runyon called her “The Queen of Dare-Deviltry.” The Daily Times of Witchita, Texas, called her “The Most Athletic Mother on Earth”. 

She was also the first woman to stride onto a tennis court wearing shorts, which caused a huge sensation. Three decades later, when “Gorgeous Gussie” Moran played at Wimbledon in a short skirt that revealed lace panties, she said Ida was a huge influence on her. Babe Didrikson, the Olympic gold medalist in javelin and hurdles—and future golf legend—acknowledged Ida as one of those who helped inspire her to an athletic life.  

Ida was also a fitness instructor and author, having written several articles in a syndicated series called “Physical Culture: Secrets of Beauty.”

Among her secrets: drink hot water and lemon to cleanse the body.  

In 1930, Ida’s good friend Bill Tilden, the seven-time U.S. Open tennis champion, suggested that she give up her “dare-deviltry” and concentrate on tennis instead. Ida was 40 years old, but still one of the top amateur players in California. In fact, she played with in mixed-doubles events against a youngster from L.A. named Bobby Riggs, who’d go on to play a significant role in the rise of the women’s movement. 

Ida, her husband Will and their boys were now living in Beverly Hills, at 215 South Hamilton Dr., a block from the tennis courts at La Cienega Park. According to her grandson, Ken Carver, she ran the courts and owned a tennis shop on the west side of La Cienega. She became a top tennis instructor, and taught a young Pancho Gonzalez for a time. She continued to play at a very high level and was still a nationally ranked player into her mid 50s. 

By then, she’d also taken up golf, and was a natural. According to her great-niece, Diana Lee Schnall Smith, Ida was playing 18 holes of golf every day—when many women her age sat home knitting sweaters. 

Ida’s great-nephew, Joel Ollander, told me that when she visited Brooklyn in 1950, she did a handstand in front of everybody on the sidewalk, exposing her bloomers. Her grandson Ken Carver recalled many occasions when Ida, in her 70s, would make everyone get out of the backyard pool so that she could perform backflips. 

Will Carver died in 1962 at age 79. They were living on La Peer Drive in Beverly Hills at the time, and Ida was often seen strolling through the neighbourhood carrying an old photo album. 

One day, she saw a group of teenagers outside Whelan’s Drug Store at Robertson and Wilshire. They were talking baseball when Ida interrupted to announce that she had once pitched for the Giants—that is, the New York Female Giants. When a 14-year-old named Bill Josephs said he didn’t believe her, she whipped out a picture from the album, the one from Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! that showed her as the champion female athlete in several sports.

Upon seeing the picture and reading of her accomplishments, Bill said: “I guess you used to be pretty good”. With that, 74-year-old Ida put down the album, dropped to her knees and did 20 perfect push-ups on the sidewalk. 

“Used to be?” And then she got up, barely breathing hard. 

Ida dusted herself off, picked up the photo album, and walked away down Wilshire Boulevard. Bill Josephs never saw her again. 

The grandchildren also remember she loved the Sunday ritual of picking up bagels from a Jewish bakery, then enjoying a day around the pool.

But by then, she was suffering from dementia, and eventually broke her hip due to a nasty fall. She spent her last days in a convalescent home, accompanied by a pet parakeet.

Ida died on Valentine’s Day 1973. She was 83 years of age.

Seven months later, Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes.”

Somewhere, Ida Schnall must’ve been smiling.

Mark Hebscher is the host of the Toronto-based weekly podcast Hebsy on Sports and the author of The Greatest Athlete (You’ve Never Heard Of).