Miss America 1958 Marilyn Van Derbur

Miss America 1958 Marilyn Van Derbur

Pageant Winners > Miss Americas > Marilyn Van Derbur, Miss America 1958

Miss America 1958 Marilyn Van DerburMarilyn Van Derbur, Miss America 1958, remains one the most respected Miss Americas ever.  Her road to the national crown was serendipity according to the book Miss America: In Pursuit of the Crown, which details how Van Derbur was literally drafted into the Miss University of Colorado Pageant by her sorority sisters when she was called out of a sorority meeting for a long distance phone call.  Marilyn nearly panicked. 

After she reluctantly agreed to go through with it, the girls inquired what Marilyn intended to do for her talent.  "Talent?!", Marilyn gasped.  "What in the world would I do for talent?!  "You'll think of something," her sorority sisters giggled as they rushed off.  Marilyn ended up deciding to memorize one piece - a simple medley of "Tea for Two" and "Tenderly" on the organ - an instrument she had never played.  "It was the only piece I I knew by heart - but I could do it backwards and forwards."

Somehow she pulled it off at the local pageant, the Miss Colorado  pageant, and soon after at Miss America.  She was crowned by another beautiful blond titleholder, South Carolina's Marian Ann McKnight.  The morning after her crowning, she was whisked off to New York City to appear on the top-rated The Steve Allen Show, where to Marilyn's shock, the host informed her seconds before they went on live television that they were about to play Night and Day together!  Par for the course, Van Derbur handled the moment like a good sport and went on the air with Steve Allen playing the piano and Marilyn smiling broadly and pretending to play along on the organ.  As she recalls, "I acted as if I were in complete control."

The beautiful, intelligent daughter of a wealthy pillars of Colorado society and an excellent student and athlete, Marilyn epitomized the well-bred, well-educated lady Miss America was expected to be, and she quickly came to be regarded as one of the most beloved and respected of titleholders.  After crowning her successor, Mississippi's Mary Ann Mobley, Marilyn graduated from the University of Colorado with Phi Beta Kappa honors, married her college sweetheart attorney Larry Atler and gave birth to their daughter, Jennifer.

The extensive experience she had gained speaking throughout her reign as Miss America launched a career in educational/motivational speaking and  film-making (she has produced two dozen films).  A highly sought-after speaker addressing thousands of people each year, she served as a guest lecturer for General Motors for sixteen years, as a youth speaker for United Airlines, and won numerous awards including being named "Outstanding Woman Speaker in America".

Marilyn Van Derbur, Miss America 1958, book Miss America By DayIn 1991, while addressing a small group of women in what she thought to be a private setting, Marilyn admitted that she had been violated by her father throughout her childhood. Unbeknownst to Van Derbur, a reporter was in the audience taking notes. Accounts of her remarks were published and Marilyn found herself deluged by request for media interviews.  Initially horrified to have her private ordeal a matter of national headlines, she nevertheless realized that her testimony could be a significant help to other women attempting to live with such abuse, and help others heal. As a public debate over "is she telling the truth?", "Is she making this up?", "Are these 'false memories'?" ensued, her older sister Gwen stepped forward to corroborated Marilyn's account.  When Marilyn's experience was featured on the cover of People magazine, the heretofore stigmatized subject of childhood sexual abuse was brought firmly into the spotlight for national dialogue.

In 2003, Van Derbur published "Miss America By Day", her account of story of "how she was sexually violated by her prominent, millionaire father from age 5 to age 18", for which she earned the Writer’s Digest Award for “Most Inspirational Book. The revelation that a tremendously respected former Miss America had been the victim of incest was met with a huge outpouring of public sympathy - and a flood of contact from women across the country with similar stories.  Overnight, Van Derbur became an advocate on the issue and an inspirational model of hope for sexual abuse survivors worldwide. Due to her public service on behalf of the issue of sexual abuse, she was awarded the “Exceptional Achievement in Public Service from the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Washington D.C.”*

“I wrote the book, not because I want someone to learn more about me but so readers can learn more about themselves. And so that loved ones can better understand the brutal recovery process and never again say, “just get over it.”   -- Marilyn Van Derbur, www.missamericabyday.com

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Marilyn Van Derbur, Miss America 1958, is awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.

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* Source: www.missamericabyday.com

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