The History of Pageants: 1940s
World War II and a Jewish Miss America • Out with Swimsuit Queens • in with Pageant Scholarships
During World War II thought is given to discontinuing the Miss America Pageant for the duration of the war, but the decision is made that it strengthens the American spirit.
Lenora Slaughter, the first female director of the Miss America Pageant (and, in our opinion, the most important figure in pageant history), comes up with a brilliant idea – create a scholarship program to help young women attend college. With public attention focused on providing opportunities for soldiers returning from World War II, she faces a daunting challenge raising funds. As she approaches businessmen, she discovers they are uninterested in the idea of scholarships for women. Undeterred, she prevails and raises the first pageant scholarship, a $5,000 award.
Miss New York, Bess Myerson, wins the title and the first scholarship.
In a significant first for the evolving pageant, Myerson becomes the first Jewish woman to be named Miss America. In an ironic historical coincidence, her victory occurs shortly after World War II ends and American GIs free Jewish survivors from Hitler’s ghastly concentration camps.
Myerson is a statuesque beauty who is also a fabulous classical pianist. She easily wins both the talent and swimsuit competitions at the pageant — despite an incident that nearly sank her chances in swimsuit. Contestants are assigned swimwear from the pageant’s sponsor, Catalina. Slaughter notices that the pretty white swimsuit assigned to Myerson is riding immodestly high on her derriere and re-issues Bess a larger, pea green swimsuit.
Unsettled by the baggy replacement, Myerson’s larger sister Sylvia, sleeps in the white swimsuit to stretch out the fabric, fully lets out the shoulder straps, and sews Bess into the white swimsuit to create seat coverage to satisfy the director. Myerson wears the swimsuit beneath her evening gown and talent costume until after her victory, when Sylvia cuts her loose.
After the bikini is introduced in Paris in 1946, in a stunning turn of events, Miss America contestants are issued identical two-piece swimsuits that clearly show their midriffs. Barbara Jo Walker, Miss Memphis (Tennessee), is named Miss America 1947. When asked if she planned to follow in the footsteps of other titleholders who move on to earn Hollywood contracts, she replies that “The only contract I am interested in is the marriage contract.”
True to her word, she becomes the first Miss America to officially marry during her reign. Her judges attend the glamorous wedding where “Miss” America and her OB-GYN resident fiancé marry. Her husband becomes a prominent obstetrician, and in an interesting pageant coincidence, later delivers a baby girl who goes on to become Miss America 1987, Tennessee’s Kellye Cash.
The following year, the two-piece swimsuits were gone and pageant officials issues 1948 Miss America contestants with identical, unflattering, black-and-white striped cable-knit swimsuits. “Oh, they were terrible! Terrible!”, the eventual winner, BeBe Shopp later admits. “We felt like a bunch of zebras on-stage!”
Fortunately for BeBe, pageant director Lenora Slaughter announces that the winner will be crowned in a gown for the first time, rather than the traditional swimsuit coronation. Disgusted that Miss America will not be crowned in the usual swimsuit, reporters dismantle their equipment and leave town in an attempted boycott — until their editors order them right back. That night, Bebe Shopp, Miss Minnesota, is crowned in a gown. As a concession, her runners-up pose in unfortunate zebra swimsuits. 1948 results
In 1948, Yun Tau Chee, Miss Hawaii, who is of Chinese lineage, became the first Asian American contestant to compete in the Miss America pageant, breaking one racial barrier. She was also named “Miss Congeniality”.