Interviewee: Paul Costello – Olympic Rower (PC) & wife Freddie Costello (FC)

Interviewer: Cherie Snyder (CS) with Ruth Emmert (RE)

Date of interview: March 16, 1983

Interview with the American triple Olympic Gold Medal winner in rowing, who grew up in East Falls and rowed with his cousin John B. Kelly, Sr.


PC: I started out like anybody else; a nobody.  I won one race the first year I was rowing. It takes a little extra um – umpff to make me come back and “I’ll give it another try the next year” – and the next year I think I won 4 or 5 races.

CS: What year did you start, Mr. Costello?

PC: 1919, 1920 in around there.

CS: And how old were you?  

PC: My early 20’s, 21 or 19, somewhere around there, I was. After the first year, only winning one race, it was rather discouraging to think you’re going to go back and try to win some more – if you only won one.  In the course of events I gave a small fortune in gold – 5 gold medals make a beautiful bracelet and I don’t know how many gold bracelets I gave. In the family and the girlfriend you were sweet on at that time and they, but, in today’s market, they just give gold-plated.

RE: Did Freddie get one?  

FC: I got 5 of them.

RE:  Five Bracelets?

FC: Do you want to buy some gold?

RE: Yes!

CS: Mr. Costello, after that first year, when you only won one.  What happened the next year?

PC: The next year I won three or four.  I was motivated terrifically by that.  I had a very fine physique for rowing. But I don’t think of any time, I don’t think of any time, the, that usually I would be delighted sculling along the line – but I had a very beautiful physique built up and I had the right type of ego that I was going to win.   I worked very hard to build my body up.

RE: How did you do that?

PC: Through gymnastics.

RE: Oh, in a gym here?

Costello: At the old Philadelphia Turngemeinde.  That was the biggest German Club in the east. Broad and Columbia Ave.  They had a beautiful pool as I love swimming. And they had a beautiful gymnasium and I love to work out on the parallel bars, the rings, you know, you’re swinging around on the rings and so forth.  I would sit on the floor and climb all the way up to the ceiling, like a monkey.

CS: Can you tell me about the 1920 Olympics?  Was that your first Olympics?

PC: 1920 was in Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium. Jack (Kelly) won the singles, and Jack and I won the doubles.  In 1924 in Paris and I won the doubles with Jack and I was scheduled to run in the singles but we had a really a tough race and it was the same day so I said to Jack “I’m going to scratch it.  I got the gold again and we got another year or two ahead. We can always challenge the champion to rowing.” And then that’s when I challenged the fellow from Canada and the fellow from Australia and they came up, he came up, and the three of us got on the line and I won.  After the first half mile I was third, in the first half mile. Then I made my move and got out in front, kept them back of me and got over the line. Not making it easy but, I mean, it was – I made, after the first half mile, I made my move and when I made my move they were both ahead of me and I got ahead of them.  When I got ahead of them I kept them back of me. They moved, I moved.

CS: Who was Garrett Gilmore?

PC: Garrett Gilmore was a wonderful oarsman.  Garrett was a wonderful oarsman.

CS: Did you ever race against him?

PC:  Yes, fortunately.

CS: Why do you say fortunately?

PC:  I won.  It wasn’t easy.  To make it easy if you do like I did.  The first half mile I didn’t worry too much – I didn’t worry whether I got a good start or not – when I hit the first half mile I made my move.  And when I got out ahead of the other two or three guys that were in front of me there, that’s all I did is stay ahead of them and when one of them made a move I moved with him.  And then you come into the last 400 meters ahead of the island and you can gullet from there on in. It was a wonderful thrill and, as I said before, I’m the only athlete to even win the gold three times at the Olympics.

CS: Didn’t you also break the world record in single sculling and it hasn’t been broken since?  Is that true? The 2000 meters?

PC: I rode a race on the Schuylkill and, I think, for 2000 meters.  It went down as a world record. See that cup upstairs is gorgeous and it can be seen with the proper person to break it out of there.

CS: What was that for? A  World Cup?

PC: World’s Cup.  Championship of the world.

CS:  And what year did you win that?

PC: I won the Gold Cup in ’24 (1924)

FC: Jack Kelly’s name is on it, isn’t it?  All names are on it. It’s a solid gold cup, you know? And it’s in the vault down at Bailey Banks & Biddle and I have never seen it but I have the pictures.

PC: I think you held the cup, didn’t you?

FC: No I didn’t.

PC: I’ll have to take it down and get a photographer and have your picture taken.

FC: Yeah.

PC:  It was under strict bond.  You had it for a couple of days – they had big insurance on that cup because people can become careless. Intimately, with the family and close friends we drank champagne out of the cup.  You saw the picture upstairs – the beautiful-looking cup

CS: Beautiful, just beautiful.

FC: Did you show the girls the picture taken with Frank Sinatra down at Resorts?  That’s where he got that tall cup. When we were guests – you were the goldie among the oldies.  That’s what they said.

PC: Frank gave me a beautiful little gift.

CS: And when was this?

FC:  About two years ago.  We were down for the weekend, and what a gorgeous weekend.  

CS:  Are there any of your rowing partners that are still alive?

PC:  I killed them off.

Snyder: Oh dear.

PC: I didn’t want them to be around.  One of the big races I won was the world championship and that was on the Schuylkill – a fellow from Australia and a fellow from Canada was signing autographs on the – they had this beautiful thing with my picture on it and then on the inside of it was what you were supposed to get to eat – that was the menu – and I was seated about an hour signing autographs – they just stood in line- and I figured it would improve my signature.

CS: You got lots of practice!

PC: I am the only American athlete to win the gold three times.

CS: That’s quite a distinction.

PC:  And I could have made it four.  Could have went out to Australia, no, out to California.  Kelly and I would have won out there.

FC: (has photos): They had all the gold medals from all over the country – United States – flown into the Resorts International.  Like they had, who was the girl who was the famous swimmer? – not Esther Williams, the other one.  And Buster Crabb. And they were all there.

CS:  When was that?

FC: A couple of years ago. This was when Frank presented.  It looks like Paul’s singing, but he isn’t. And this all the Olympic but it goes way back on the stage. There are some of the women who had won. 1979.  

RE: Oh, recently!

FC: And this is the picture of the gold cup.

RE:  Beautiful, just beautiful.

FC:  And this is all out on the boardwalk.  They flew them in from all over – the Olympics.

RE: What an affair!

CS: Born in Philadelphia. 5’10” Weight 152 lbs.

PC: I gave 15-20 pounds away unless the fellows were bigger.  But I didn’t have that extra weight to pull through the water.

CS: You were about to tell us why you didn’t win 4 gold medals.  What happened?

PC: I fell in love. I had to get some money together to get married. You know, when you’re an athlete you don’t care.  You’re rowing and that’s it. I had to step in and get some money. I had to go to work.

CS: What work did you do?

PC: Oh, I worked for the government and I worked for the state. I made most of my money selling automobiles. I was the leading Ford salesman in Philadelphia, Delaware, and Montgomery County.  I sold more cars than any other human being in the world.

CS: That, and three gold medals.

PC: Well, you had to be a salesman.  You can’t sell a car for nothing. I had the city business – the whole city –I got the police cars and trucks. And I had the all the steel plants through admiration of the sales managers.  I spent a little money to make them feel good too. You know, if there was a good show in town I’d buy up a few tickets for the husband and his wife and if they had children old enough to go.   Sometimes before the show I’d meet them at the Bellevue and treat them to cocktails and hors d’ouerves. I didn’t go to the show.

CS: Where was your showroom?  

PC:  I worked out of a certain Ford dealership.  The city – I was the white-haired boy – I had all of the city business.  I had all the big steel plants. I thought I was on my way to be a very wealthy man and then the crash came.  You people would never remember. People were standing on corners selling apples. Plants were closed. It was terrible and so many people committed suicide.

CS: How did it effect you? What happened to you?

PC: I was in the bread line too.  I didn’t have any money. Everything I had I practically-speaking lost.  I lost the house up here on Penn Street. I should never have lost it. I was stupid.

CS: What could you have done?

PC: I could have talked to my bosom friend, John B. Kelly to help me out, you know what I mean, with a few extra dollars if I needed this much or that much.  Put in down in black and white. And Jack, if I asked him, I know he would have helped me.

     It was, and always will be, one of the greatest thrills of my life, if I go back Memory Lane, of all the wonderful people I met.  To win an Olympic championship is not easy. It takes a lot of work and exercise.

     The ’28 Olympics.  The Canadians – the Canooks – two big, husky…Jack Guest and Joe (I’ll have to look in the book).  They were both well over 6’ tall. We got the rumor from the boys from other countries that they were hoping they would get us in the finals if we went that far.  So we get up on the line and I said to Charlie “When the gun goes off, we’re going to go up the line like as though we’re going to row 100 yards. We’re never going to be second.  We’re going to be first. When we get out in front we’re going to stay there. That means we’re going to bang it all the way down. So we won the finals by 10 boat lengths. The Canadians were second and they were two powerful fellas, 6’2” or 6’3.”  They couldn’t get up.

      A fella by the name of Bobby Pierce from Australia – he won the singles championship of the world – he took a liking to Charlie and I – he took a special liking to me in the third Olympics.  They put a beautiful necklace around my head – beautiful roses and so forth – and when I went over, when I rode across to the side, Bobby was waiting, picked me up right out of the double and I said “What’s with the flowers?  He said “You gotta believe it.” So that night we went to a little shindig after the races. Then we were to sail for Europe, sail for Holland the next day to get down to Cherbourg and get on a liner.

     We gave this very famous general – General Boom Boom Boom, he was honorary head of the Olympics, so when we came in the next morning – that evening- at dinnertime we carried the beautiful thing of flowers over and presented it to the big mahoff and he had it over the table and he brought it aboard the boat and it lasted the way home – beautiful – they’d take it down and put it where it could get water and sprayed it – and it lasted the whole trip home.  General Mac Arthur – that’s who it was. General MacArthur; he was the big general. He got a tremendous kick out of it. He had a little gold medal made for Charlie and one for me. On the way back on the boat he presented the medals. I guess we have it somewhere around the house.

CS:  Was that your most memorable Olympic? 1928?

PC:  Yes, three in a row.  If I hadn’t fallen in love with Freddie – John and I could have won out there on the west coast but I had to get some money.

CS: What did Charlie think of that?  Was Charlie mad because you fell in love?

PC: Charlie MacIlvaine?  I guess so.

CS:  What did he say?

PC: In 1928, Charlie and I rowed in the Holland Olympics.  Like I said, we busted the record for the 2000 meters.  It wasn’t Jack Kelly, it was Paul and Charlie.

CS: But what did he say to you when you couldn’t go for your fourth?

PC: When you fall in love, you’re going to get married, you’re engaged you can’t fool around.  You have to get some money together and get a house – maybe not to buy one but to rent one.  We rented a house down here towards the end of this street.

CS: On Penn Street?

PC: We had enough money to furnish it nicely.  Oriental rugs downstairs, at least.

RE: A beautiful home

PC: But when you go down Memory Lane, it was really a thrill – she put the words in my mouth – I would have liked to make it four in a row.  But no-one knows better than I do that I fell in love and I had to get more money. Take life a little more seriously than just paddling up and down the river.

CS: How did you meet your wife?

PC: I met her – I lived up on the next block.  Charlie McIlvaine – it was the day after a big regatta on the Schuylkill – and Charlie McIlvaine said “I’ll pick you up.”

I lived at 3323 W. Penn St.  I said “No, I’m not going out, Charlie.”  He said “The hell you’re not; you be ready.”  So he had a date with Mary Marg Heyden – she was a beautiful girl.  I didn’t have a date. We were pushed up at the head table at the country club, it was. And Freddie had a date. I danced with her and I said we’re going in town.  I had no date. We’re going into town. Go into Child’s – that’s where everybody used to go at night. Between 15th and 16th on the north side.  That was the hangout for all the young people.  Go in there and get a cup of coffee or so forth.  Then one of the boys got talking. Charlie reached Freddie and we got to drive this fellow and his girlfriend home.  So when we drove Freddie down to her house over in Logan, she had her boyfriend in the car. We took him around to Broad Street where he could get a cab or something and then we came right around and Freddie was waiting in the vestibule and we went in town.

    Joe, he did a little paddling on the Schuylkill.  Joe and I became friends but I didn’t know – I knew they lived somewhere in Logan – but I didn’t know how many sisters he had or anything else like that but that’s how I come to meet Freddie.  This fellow – it was the day of one of the major regattas – and he went to one of the country clubs after the thing was over. So that was it. I heard he became the “late” Mr. So and So.

     I dated Freddie, not too much serious, every once in a while I’d had somewhere to go or something was going on and I’d call her “Would you like to go down to the river or something like that?”

CS: What year did you get married?

PC: It’s too far back to remember.  I might as well be truthful.

RE:  How long have you been married?

PC: Freddie could answer that better than me.  I went through quite a career in rowing. Three Olympics.  That’s tremendous. I’m the only one that ever did. And I know we could have made it four.  I know we could have won out in California. Charlie McIlvaine and I. We broke the world’s record over in Holland.  We won by ten boat lengths. You don’t win by ten boat lengths unless you were rowing against someone who was shooting their mouth off that they hoped they got get us in the finals.  So that was it. We could only row two crews at a time. They don’t have a river in Holland, only canals.

Same way in Antwerp.  When we rode over there, you could only row two crews.  That’s tough on all of the oarsmen because, for instance, I might draw one of the best doubles in the regatta the first race, and if Charlie and I finish second we have one more chance.  So it was unbelievable that the lightest double in weight – McIlvaine and Costello – and we broke the world record. The other guys were 10-12 pounds heavier, taller.

CS: Well, what made the difference then? Why did you two win?

PC: Pull.  We had a lot of pull.

CS: Sounds like a lot of determination to me.

PC:  I shouldn’t really say this but I think it is, as a competitive sport, it’s one of the toughest.  See you’re rowing with all your body. You get a terrific amount of power from your legs. Naturally, your arms.  Some people, I guess, they never really get the proper timing and they get discouraged and they stop. It was a tremendous thrill.  I remember our second Olympic was in Paris and Jack and I won the double and they put on quite a show for us over there. And then in the third Olympic, my third time out, of course, and the way we won the finish as though we owned the canal, Charlie and I, and we were, weight-wise, the lightest double of any of the doubles from any country.  The only way you could counter this was to say I won through pull.

CS: Were Charlie McIlvaine and John Kelly your friends?

PC: Jack Kelly? Jack Kelly’s my cousin.

CS: Is he your cousin!

PC: My second cousin.  Jack Kelly, Sr. Young Kell is my third cousin. Grace Kelly was my third cousin.  We used to swing Grace Kelly by her feet and by her hands on the beach. She didn’t want Jack to swing her because he gripped her fingers too tight and so forth and so on and I said “I don’t swing you that way.  I swing you by your ankles and swing you by your wrists so you can’t slip out of my hands.” Princess Grace was a wonderful girl. A terrible tragedy. She was the most pleasant person you’d want to talk to and very attractive.  And, of course, Jack Kelly died much younger than he should, age-wise. I think he died with cancer.

CS: How about Charlie McIlvaine.  When did he die?

PC: He died a few years ago. He died young.  He died down south, down in Florida. Charlie was a hell of a man with a pair of oars.  

RE: What did he die of?

PC: You’d have to talk to one of his sons.  It was one of those sudden deaths and I probably wasn’t in the city at the time.  His picture is over there on the table.

CS:  Now which one?  

PC: This one is Charlie   Jack Kelly. Paul Costello.  And young Kell.

CS: Did the three of you get together as the years went by and talk about your Olympics?

PC: Oh sure.  We were members of the Vespers Boat Club and the Penn Athletic Club.  After we were through with competitive rowing we down to the regattas all the time.  I rowed enough miles to row around the world.

CS: Were there a lot of sports people in the Falls when you were growing up?

PC: Not particularly.  They played baseball and football teams, you know.  College teams. Most of us never went to college. I went to college at night.  But I could have gotten a free scholarship to almost any college.

RE: But you fell in love.

PC:  I fell in love with rowing. The Schuylkill River here in Philadelphia is one of the outstanding rivers to row on. In Holland Olympics you could only row two crews.  In Antwerp, Belgium you could only row two crews. So, after all, if you were rowing the best in the world, maybe the second or third day, you might be way off. If you lose twice, you’re out.  It’s really tough.

CS: Well who got you started rowing here in East Falls?  

PC: The fellow I played football with, Matt Luken.  He was a big fellow, about Jack Kelly’s height and much heavier in weight than me.  He asked me about rowing. I said I row up at the Philadelphia Swimming Club. No, he said, I mean rowing at Boathouse Row. He invited me down and I took a row.  

    Someone told Jack Kelly and Jack Kelly called me on the phone and said: ”I hear you were out rowing.  How did you like it? You can’t join Undine. You gotta join Vesper.” I said “I do?” He said: “Come up to the house.”  I said “I can’t go up to the house. I’m going to school.” He said come up at one. He said I want you to join Vesper Boat Club so I joined Vesper Boat Club and that year I won one race.  

   And it gave me some food for thought.  I said I don’t know what we’re going to row in the next year got rowing in what they call a quad – that’s four men with two oars apiece – and we won, and we won, and we won three or four races in the quad.

    The next year I came out and started paddling a single.  The next thing you know I was competing in a single shell and the next thing you know I was the champion.  

      The fellow, Matt Lukens, was really put together. I was rowing in the senior singles in the same race with him.  I was coming down the river and he was on his way up and he called to me. He said “I hear you’re gonna row against me Saturday.” And I said “If you’re in the same race I think I am.”  He said “You don’t think you can beat me.” I said “I’ll going to say it with oars.” So he was never the same oarsman after that.

CS: You beat him, right?

PC:  Yeah, I won.  I won. I won. A lot of money bet in those days in rowing.  The day I rowed in the singles against Garrett Gilmore, the champion of Canada and the champion of Australia came up – it was a small fortune lost that day.

CS: Because they were all betting on them, not on you?

PC: No, the Australian was quite a sculler and this guy from Canada was champion of Canada, an outstanding sculler, and Garrett Gilmore was a good sculler and myself. Four of us, or five of us were in the race.  The first half mile I made my move to get out and I finally caught up with the guy who was leading out of that group. When he got in back of me that was all I wanted. If anyone made a move, I moved with them.  There

was quite a lot of money lost.  Any one of the four of us could have won. They were outstanding scullers.  That was it. That was for the world championship. That’s the picture on the cup.

CS: How old are you now?

PC: 80 will be enough.  

CS: Can you tell me your birthday?

PC: I really can’t remember that far back.  This fellow Lukens. Blame him on getting me started rowing, not Kelly.  Matt was really put together. A good 6’ tall and he was really in a beautiful physique.  The thing that happened to him was that he rowed too long in the one spot.

CS: What do you mean?

PC: When I rowed against him, he rowed too long in the one spot!

CS: You must be Irish. Are you Irish?

PC: Costello?  Costello is County Mayo. My mother’s name was Hanlon. Hark Hanlon.  As soon as I was in Ireland I went to kiss the Blarney Stone because my mother came from Cork. And I went up and kissed it and another week later I went up again and kissed it.  And then it was hauling your feet from 8 stories in the air. You lean back and they hold your feet.  You hang down and there’s two stanchions to get a hold of. Then you push yourself up and kiss the stone.  You leave go and they grab your wrist and pull you up over the thing 8 stories in the air. So I did go up the second time.

CS: Did you parents come from Ireland here?

PC: No, my father was born in America.  Grandpop was born in Ireland. Near Cork.  He learned to be a machinist. And he came to this country and they moved up to a place called Vermont.  He learned to be a machinist in Ireland. Then he came to this country through an older brother who moved up and then he got him a position. They moved from Vermont to Philadelphia and Grandpop moved down here and he went to work at Dobson’s Mills and became the master machinist at John and James Dobson’s.

CS:  This is your grandfather?

PC: Yes, he was the master machinist.  Uncle Joe Costello and Uncle George became master machinist at the Philadelphia Navy Yard which is a terrific job.  Master machinist of both the inside and outside machine shop.

CS: Where did your grandfather live in East Falls?

PC: He lived on Bowman Street.  There were two twin houses there on Bowman Street – of course they’re very shabby now, but Dobson’s Mills built the twin houses to get Grandpop to come down from up in Vermont.  He came down and moved into the house and all he had to do was pay rent. And I guess as time went on they offered to sell it and he bought it. They’re two beautiful houses. I haven’t seen them in a long time but I guess they’re pretty well banged up.  So Grandpop and Uncle George, he became master machinist at Philadelphia Naval Yard, which is quite a job, and Uncle Joe, he became master machinist at Collins and Eichman out in West Philadelphia.

CS:  What did your dad do?

PC: My father was, when he first got started, he was in the Barnum and Bailey show on the Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City.  He swang Indian clubs and he posed with a black background in white. He also had a nice singing voice and he should have followed the theatrical end of the business and he would have been a star. A handsome-looking man, close to 6’ tall and athletically inclined all of his life. I have some pictures of him all in white with the sword.  And I have him with the Indian clubs, with his face a natural color, and so forth.

CS:  Did your father live in East Falls?

PC: I think he was born in Vermont.  Then one of the brothers moved down to Philadelphia.  After he got down here he got my father’s father to come down here and my father’s father became master machinist at Dobson’s Mill, the largest textile mill in the world.

RE:  Was it?

PC: The largest textile mill in the entire world.

RE:  I never knew that.

CS:  Where did you live when you were growing up in East Falls?

PC: That little row of houses down near Ridge Avenue.  Right this side of Ridge Avenue coming up Midvale Avenue.  These new little brick houses with a nice little porch and that’s where I was born.

RE:  On Frederick Street?

PC: Midvale Avenue.  There’s a row of houses there that were brand new.  And, of course, most of the people didn’t have money to buy them. If they did, they were lucky.   But my mother and my father moved in and paid rent.

CS:  So have you lived in East Falls all your life?

PC: Not entirely.  I moved around a little bit – because I lived out in Ambler and I lived in Germantown.  A buck was hard to come by. Especially if you were on your own.

CS:  I have just one more thing to ask you: How do you think rowing has changed today.  Do you think it’s better or worse? Are the rowers better or worse than when you were rowing?

PC: I haven’t been down to regattas because in the summers we go to Ocean City.

I don’t think, I’m pretty sure, that rowing was the same as when I was rowing.  There was terrific competition among all the clubs along the river. And I think that has died down considerably.  Because Jack Kelly, Sr., he was former World Champion, and Paul Costello, the former World Championship Single Sculler, and it’s hard to remember if there were two fellas – oh, Garrett Gilmore, I think he won the world’s title – Garrett was a very good sculler. (phone rings…end)

END