The Who2 Blog

Flimflam Ham and the Birthday Babe

Perhaps you’ve been wondering what skinny old Federalist Alexander Hamliton and skinny old golf champ Babe Zaharias had in common.

Besides height, that is. (Both were 5’7″.)

The answer: Both may have lied about their ages to seem like prodigies in their respective fields.

Hamilton we’ve covered in some detail before. Many biographers suspect him of shaving two years off his birth year (1757 instead 1755) because he liked to seem ahead of his time. (He started serving on George Washington‘s staff in 1777, so the switch could have made him 20 instead of an elderly 22.)

Now we find out that Babe Zaharias is accused of the same thing. She named her birth year as 1914 in her 1955 autobiography, This Life I’ve Led, but since then most scholars have decided the right year is really 1911. She also, apparently, tossed 1913 and 1915 in there occasionally, which accounts for the continuing confusion you see online.

Here’s biographer Susan Cayleff on the topic in her 1995 biography, Babe: The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias:

“On her 1932 Olympic application she wrote 1913. She claimed 1914 in This Life I’ve Led… By her midforties, she was claiming 1915. On a visa application she declared the date 1919… Babe thought youthfulness would render her athletic accomplishments all the more dazzling. If a twenty-year-old excelling at the Olympics in 1932 was heralded, then an eighteen-year-old — or better yet a seventeen-year-old — might be worshipped.”

Or maybe Zaharias, like actress Sarah Bernhardt, just got a mischievous kick out of muddying the waters.

The irony, of course, is that Zaharias needed no help to be dazzling. Besides her 1932 Olympic gold medals in javelin and hurdles — she also tied for first in the high jump, but was given the silver because she had the gall to go over the bar head first — she played about five dozen other sports, plus the harmonica. Quoting the Texas State Historical Assocation on her many talents:

She did a brief stint in vaudeville playing the harmonica and running on a treadmill and pitched in some major league spring-training games; she also toured with a billiards exhibition, a men’s and women’s basketball team called Babe Didrikson’s All-Americans, and an otherwise all-male, bearded baseball road team called the House of David.

Not long after that she took up golf and won 82 tournaments as the main draw of the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

No one knows for certain why Hamilton or Zaharias might have lied about their ages, of course, and in Hamilton’s case it’s not even clear that he did lie. (Who2 accepts the traditional 1757 date, in the absence of hard evidence to the contrary.) But it seems to be a trend. Even the super-accomplished can’t help gilding the lily now and then.

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