There She Was

Pageantry, pulchritude, and political correctness has long marked Miss America.

By Jim Waltzer
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 19, 2011

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Margaret Gorman, Miss America in 1921.

Photo by Photo Courtesy of Atlantic City Free Public Library

Every night, they walked the long runway — the statuesque queen in her dazzling duds, and the diminutive page in dutiful pursuit. The throngs beyond the footlights oohed and ogled. Television was not yet ready for prime time, but on the final night of the 1946 Miss America festivities, the newsreel cameras showed up and the Pageant pooh-bah cautioned her dynamic duo.

“Don’t trip,” warned executive secretary Lenora Slaughter, whom one writer described as “wearing velvet gloves over her iron fists.”

Five-year-old Vicki Gold didn’t trip, but she stumbled. Tethered to the train of the reigning Miss America’s bounteous robe, she quickly regained her footing and her plumed tricorne remained fast on her little head. Bess Myerson, moments from relinquishing her crown, glanced over her shoulder to be sure all was well with her young charge.

“She [Myerson] was concerned only about me,” says the former child star, now Vicki Gold-Levi, author and Atlantic City historian/ambassador. (She is a consultant on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.) “She was ethereal . . . breathtakingly gorgeous, extremely smart, and beautiful on the inside.”

It was the outside that had mesmerized the judges at the Warner Theater, where, with Convention Hall still occupied by the World War II effort, Bronx-born Myerson captured the crown in 1945. Now, a year later, the five-foot-eleven-inch beauty was still the showstopper, her tanned face radiant, her multilayered gown and red-velvet robe with ermine trim sweeping the floorboards — Glinda the Good Witch, remembers Gold, at five the cutest Munchkin of them all. For one evening, cavernous Convention Hall (now Boardwalk Hall) was transformed into the Land of Oz.

The Pageant’s origins were less exalted. A quarter century before the Vicki-and-Bess show, Atlantic City’s ever-eager Chamber of Commerce launched a beauty contest in the wake of an earlier world war. Only eight lasses vied for the prize awarded to pigtailed, 16-year-old Margaret Gorman, nearly a foot shorter than Myerson. The contestants had gathered in September 1921 at the Garden Pier, where they stood in tank tops, skirts, and high-top shoes before the judges. Someone suggested that the winner be called “Miss America.”

The promotion filled local coffers as seashore business leaders had met their mission of extending the summer season beyond Labor Day. The following year, the beauty lineup spiked seven-fold, most of the contestants representing cities rather than states. Gorman (of Washington, D.C.) returned to defend her crown and, after donning racy garters to lead a procession along the beach, was dethroned by an Ohioan two years younger. Fifteen-year-old Mary Campbell hailed from Columbus, and sported a dimpled smile and advanced curves. Miss Campbell repeated her success in 1923, as the accompanying Boardwalk “Rolling Chair Parade” expanded and the Pageant was extended to five days. The formula for the future was in place.

Still, rumors of judges on the take and compromised contestants nearly derailed Miss America in the late 1920s and early 1930s; the Pageant, in fact, was AWOL for six of those years until Ms. Slaughter arrived on the scene in ’35 to provide backbone and organization. In 1940, the show moved to Convention Hall, the Boardwalk behemoth that hosted all manner of outsized events.

“My dad always had offices at the Hall,” says Gold-Levi. “It was my home.”

“Dad” was photographer Al Gold, who had shot the inaugural Pageant in 1921 and, by the time his young daughter negotiated the runway with Bess Myerson, was known as Atlantic City’s “Chief Photographer.” By then, the Pageant had matured. Eligibility was for one year only — no more defending champions and two-time winners. Boardwalk floats had grown grand. Contestants displayed their performing chops and waxed cerebral, in addition to filling out swimsuits and evening gowns. Myerson, who played Grieg’s Piano Concerto for her American Idol predecessors, became the Pageant’s first scholarship recipient.

Television quickly educated a larger audience. TV first made Miss America a must-see in 1954 and, the following year, new MC Bert Parks and the final ceremony’s crowning ballad (“There she is, Miss America . . . There she is, your ideal”) became staples of the telecast. If the Pageant suffered from an identity crisis — was it about sex or wholesomeness? — and modern protestors derided it, it nonetheless secured a berth in the national consciousness.

“It’ll say on my tombstone that I was Bess Myerson’s page,” jokes Gold-Levi.

The Pageant lives still, though it has shifted sands. Last Saturday, Jan. 15, it was held at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, 90 years after sinking its feet in the seashore in Atlantic City.

Jim Waltzer is an author and historian. His new book The Battle of the Century is due in May 2011

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