Photo of 1974 jump via Daily News
Picture this: You walk by the Flatiron Building, one of the most recognizable landmarks in the entire city, and see a man positioning himself to jump off. Today, you’d call 911 without hesitation, but 50 years ago it was annual spectacle.
Ephemeral New York uncovered the story of Henri LaMothe, the “diving daredevil” who performed a stunt around the country where he did his “flying squirrel” dive from 40 feet above ground into a collapsible plastic pool with only four feet of water. On his birthday on April 2, 1954, he climbed to the 40-foot mark on the Flatiron Building and did his signature jump. For the next 20 years, he performed the feat annually on his birthday, decreasing the water level each year. On his 70th birthday in 1974, he dove into a pool filled with merely one foot of water, and many say when he stood up, his back was still dry thanks to his famous belly flop.
Henri LaMothe was born in Chicago and began his career as a cab driver and then a Charleston dancer. When he was 19 years old, he originated the Lucky Lindy (also known as the Lindy Hop), a swing/jazz dance hybrid. In a 1977 Los Angeles Times article, LaMonthe said his diving prowess began with the Lindy: “[I] dove like a plane and landed on my belly on the dance floor.” He continued, “Then came the depression, when jobs weren’t so easy to find, and I started diving into the water for a living.” To be exact, he performed as a diving clown, according to a more recent Times article.
He completed his stunt more than 2,000 times across the country, using his signature arched belly flop as a safety net. “When I’m on the platform I go through yoga, stretching and limbering exercises. Then I wipe out all thoughts and concentrate on the circle and sense my aim, which is what zen is,” he’s quoted as saying in the LA Times. Discover Flatiron notes that “he appeared on ‘What’s My Line?’ in 1958 and was profiled in Sports Illustrated in 1975.” He made it into the Guinness Book of World Records, received a wax mannequin at the Guinness Museum on Hollywood Boulevard, and participated in testing at General Motors to determine how much stress upon impact the body could withstand.
Thought the 1974 dive was his last at the Flatiron Building, LaMothe did continue diving across the country until his death in 1987 at age 83. According to the Times, “His widow, Birgit, said she could recall only one high-diving injury he suffered (to his nose) and only one time he refused to dive at the last minute (in Kansas during a high wind). Otherwise, she rarely worried. ‘He did it for so many years, it didn’t bother me,’ she said.”
[Via Ephemeral NY]
Images: Lead via NYDN; Second via Museum of the City of New York
- NYC’s First Subway Line Moved Passengers Just One Block–Can You Guess Which?
- VIDEO: Driving Around NYC in the 1920s Was a Dangerous Task
- Where Did NYC’s Nickname ‘Gotham’ Come From?
- There’s a Cold War Bomb Shelter Hidden Under the Brooklyn Bridge