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In New York: The Miss is a Hit

7 minute read
Gregory Jaynes

“I’m so tired. I’m so tired of smiling. ”

—Miss Kentucky 1936

It was one of those clear days with a high sky and the tease of a cool front coming through, the kind of day that falsely moves the elderly to wrap up like Admiral Byrd. Autumn was nigh, and with its approach had come a metronomic ritual of this time of year: the crowning of a fresh Miss America. The pageant had taken place in Atlantic City, as always, and then Miss America had traveled to New York City, as always. On this splendid day, bearing baggage filled with finery, she had checked into the Plaza, the starting block on a twelve-month run.

Right off, Vanessa Williams, the 56th Miss America and the first black, was subjected to considerably more attention than Miss Americas in the recent past. The press, perpetually smitten by a “first” in anything, had in hand another Sally Ride, so to speak—a barrier breaker. Absent now were the questions about the “ideal man.” Hell, this was political! Williams, in turn, showed the inquisitors that “First Women” these days come with a sting. “I was chosen because I was qualified for the position,” she said. “The fact that I was black was not a factor.” She took her leave then and went about her business, the business of being Miss America.

For this, the first week, that arrangement meant answering mostly obvious questions. David Letterman asked her how many contestants were in the pageant, and Williams replied 50, as any of 45 million television viewers who saw the pageant could have told him. At a radio station, she was asked whether she was close to the other contestants, and she said it was difficult “to get close to 49 other women in one week.” Having said that, she got into an elevator with a local newspaper reporter who asked whether she had acquired a fur. “Yes,” said Miss America. “We got it at a wholesale house. It’s a dyed mink with a fox collar.”

The reporter then identified herself as a member of Friends of Animals. The subject was dropped. After coronation, the snipers come out.

The Miss America pageant has been around so long now that the hoopla usually subsides after a day or two, and Miss America is largely forgotten—unless she shows up in your town—till she crowns her successor the following fall. This Miss America was besieged for days, however, and she thought with good reason that it was probably because she was black, as well as frank, not because, as she would have it so, that she was being recognized for her talent. After all, her talent, singing and dancing, had got her this far, and now her color seemed to be at the heart of everything.

To Williams, 20 and a Syracuse University student, being Miss America was a practical proposition. She wanted the scholarship money ($25,000), and she wanted the exposure. She wants to be a star. She says until this year she had not given a thought to competing in the pageant. But the executive director of the Miss America Greater Syracuse pageant put the bee in her bonnet, explaining the benefits, and off she went, becoming Miss Greater Syracuse, Miss New York and, ultimately, Miss America, who now, upon leaving David Letterman’s studio at NBC, received a hand-delivered letter from the William Morris Agency proposing representation. Back at the Plaza, there was another hand-delivered letter from David Merrick, the producer, proposing a discussion of her stage career. (No one uses stamps in this town any more.) Things seemed to be going Williams’ way.

This first round of offers appears to come with the territory if a Miss America expresses thespian designs. With the exception of Bess Myerson (1945), winners seem to find sustaining a career in the public eye more difficult than gaining the title. Rosemary LaPlanche (1941) is not much remembered today, though she made 84 movies, including Strangler of the Swamp and Devil Bat’s Daughter. Lee Meriwether (1955) has had roles enough, but her name has failed to attain the tip of the national tongue. Mary Ann Mobley (1959) made those Elvis Presley films, and has had trouble shaking the image ever since. Mobley’s runner-up, Anita Bryant, is another story altogether.

None of these histories is lost on the present Miss America, who says she has always been ambitious and driven, and no one more than she knows the risks. “I am sacrificing a year,” she says, sounding fully aware. The tone of self-confidence brings back other voices that sounded that way at the beginning and sounded different at the end. “I wanted to get into show business,” said Venus Ramey (1944). “I thought the contest would be a good entree. It is, all right: an entrée into oblivion.”

The yearlong reign is not much fun, according to many a former winner. You address Rotarians, Lions, Kiwanians, Junior Leaguers, and you appear at Miss America preliminaries. Here a blueberry festival, there a strawberry festival, and the odd hog-calling contest comes into the picture too. And you represent the sponsors of the pageant. This year that would be Gillette, American Greetings Corp., McDonald’s and Nestlé. Jacque Mercer (1949) once told an interviewer: “You could take an orangutan, and, with a year’s training, it would be a perfectly adequate Miss America.”

Yolande Betbeze (1951) recalled to Miss America Chronicler Frank Deford just how silly the year could become. She was sent to Paris with a vial of water from the Hudson River. To symbolize Franco-American friendship, she was to pour it into the Seine. She remembered that “all the damn water ran out of the vial on the plane over, and I had to refill it with water from the faucet in my hotel.”

Well, so much for spilled milk. Vanessa Williams thinks this achievement will give her a leg up in the career of her choice, and who is to say it will not? Next to her picture in the high school yearbook, it says, “See you on Broadway.” On Friday, her last day in the city, she had already got as close to it as Rockefeller Center, where she was posing for an official photograph. There was some discussion over whether her dress was tomato colored or Chinese red, but nonetheless it was decided that it blended well with a spray of chrysanthemums that was used as background.

In a corner, Eleanor Ross, one of two traveling companions provided by the pageant, was expressing mild astonishment at the size of Miss America’s bill back at the Plaza. When she learned that morning it was $265 a night, excluding tax, she thought it was $265 for both her single room and Williams’ single room. Informed it was $265 each, she gasped.

On Friday afternoon, Miss America had her hair done. On Friday evening, she packed. Dresses made from material that cost $120 a yard went into this bag or that. She said she thought the pace was slowing, and that she had prayed it would. She was asked whether she had thought about spending the next four seasons trying to forswear a right held dear by commoners everywhere: the right to appear in public wearing a frown.

Showing teeth a dentist would adore, she said, “It makes me; people are delighted to see me. It snaps my energy, becoming a celebrity overnight, having people be thrilled to see me would remedy a down feeling, I think.”

And then they were off, flying People Express out of Newark, headed north to Portland, Me., two passengers on a no-frills flight, dragging along a crown.

—By Gregory Jaynes

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