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The last diving horse and first beauty queen: Atlantic City glances back as Miss America marks its 100th anniversary

Several new books take a look back at Miss America and Atlantic City, as the competition faces an uncertain future.

Raindrops formed on the crown of the Miss America Crowns You statue during a rainy winter day, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
Raindrops formed on the crown of the Miss America Crowns You statue during a rainy winter day, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

ATLANTIC CITY ― Annoyingly, the parade is elsewhere this year — Connecticut, to be specific, where the Miss America Organization is trying to pretend that celebrating the 100th year since 1921’s original inter-city beauty pageant on Sept. 8 can be done anywhere but Atlantic City.

You know the song. “There She Is, Miss America” iconically sung by the late Bert Parks as he looked out over the beautifully cavernous and soulful Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. It meant something then.

In the lyrics, the dream of a million girls come true in Atlantic City, which the song rhymes with ”more than pretty“ and “Queen of femininity.”

But the Miss America competition has decamped to Uncasville (rhymes with over-the-hill) and is scheduled to take place again on an unspecified date in December at the Mohegan Sun.

The Miss America Organization has chosen nearby Mystic, Conn., to stage a Sept. 6 bastardized 100th anniversary version of the beloved “Show Us Your Shoes” parade, the campy brainchild of Atlantic City’s gay community who watched on the Boardwalk at New York Avenue and spoofed the pageant with a drag Miss’d America Pageant.

Many Miss America loyalists, including longtime state and local volunteers who will gather in Atlantic City anyway Sept. 6-8, have decidedly mixed feelings about the state of Miss America. (The original Miss’d America drag queens will reunite Oct. 22 in Atlantic City for their own “Easily Offended, Just Leave Now!” event, and the 2021 Miss’D pageant is Oct. 23 at the Hard Rock.)

“So very, very sad that so much history and tradition has been lost,” said Gina Major, Miss Pennsylvania in 1984, writing on Facebook in response to an Inquirer query. “I really don’t know any former state winners who aren’t feeling sad.”

They are stung by years of changes and scandals, breakups with local state franchises, the autocratic regime of Gretchen Carlson and Regina Hopper, and the final straw, the elimination of the Miss America origin story: the swimsuit competition.

“When it left Atlantic City, I knew it was going to die out,” said Daryl Schabinger, who ran the Miss Chicago pageant and served on the Illinois state pageant board in the years it sent three contestants to Atlantic City who went on to be crowned Miss America: Marjorie Vincent in 1990, Kate Shindle in 1996, and Erika Harold in 2001.

“I kind of think the lack of proper leadership has led to this downfall,” he said. “A lot of people going [to the Atlantic City gathering] are those that are former volunteers no longer involved.”

In the competition’s latest incarnation, Miss America CEO Shantel Krebs is pushing the organization’s partnership with a weight-loss and wellness brand, Sane Solutions, while sticking to the narrative that the competition is no longer about appearance.

(Reached on her cell phone, Krebs said, “How’d you get my number?” and hung up.)

‘It’s where I was crowned.’

Pageant people still love Atlantic City, truly.

“It’s where I was crowned,” said Dorothy Benham, Miss America 1977, who dishes both family and pageant secrets in her new memoir, Bastard Queen, from Briton Publishing, one of several new books glancing back at Atlantic City’s idiosyncratic past. “I do feel that’s where it should be.”

Benham will be among those gathering in Atlantic City at the “100 Years of Volunteers” event and will be promoting her book at a welcome reception at The Claridge. In Bastard Queen, the former Miss Minnesota writes about the devastating secret kept from her in her own family, and also gives a funny and revealing backstage look at her own Miss America journey. It’s a wild read.

Benham recalls how her local hostess went running around Atlantic City to find the proper shade of blue eye shadow for her, which would later be removed by show makeup artists at the last minute (she is still grateful), and how she defied the advice of her state pageant officials by sticking with both her talent song, “Adele’s Laughing Song,” and choice of swimsuit (white), and won preliminaries in both.

She captures the magic of Boardwalk Hall with its endless runway, “that glorious, very long runway I’d seen many a Miss America walk, and now it was me.”

From there, the memoir dives into her discovery of her mother’s deepest secret: the identity of “the very important family member cheering me on from far away and crying tears of joy in front of his television set unable to acknowledge his true connection to me to the outside world.”

(Also, on the night of her crowning, she was offered by telegram $1 million to pose nude for Hustler.)

While once being Miss America continues to shape her life, Benham says her interest in the current Miss America competition is waning. “That’s a difficult one for me,” she said. “It isn’t holding my interest like it did when I was young.”

Suzette Charles, who as Miss New Jersey and first runner-up became Miss America 1984 after Vanessa Williams, the first Black Miss America, resigned, said she was disappointed that even the limited Atlantic City festivities were taking place over Rosh Hashanah.

A Modern Orthodox Jew for the last three decades, Charles was the second Black Miss America and is still only the second Jewish woman in the Miss America pantheon (Bess Myerson was first in 1945). “The one thing I do have to say is I’m a little disappointed they choose almost every year to do some Miss America pageant [activity] during Jewish holidays,” she said. Charles has also urged the organization repeatedly to strengthen its connection to Atlantic City. Instead, the organization fled, twice.

Pre-pageant breast implants

Other former contestants continue to be let down by the current state of Miss A.

“Terribly disappointed that Miss America 100th Anniversary will not be in Atlantic City!” Trelynda Kerr, Miss Oklahoma 1983, who competed in the pageant that crowned Vanessa Williams, wrote on Facebook recently.

Kerr’s Miss America journey — as detailed in There She Was: The Secret History of Miss America, the absorbing new Miss America book by Washington Post editor Amy Argetsinger (to be published Sept. 7 by One Signal Publishers, an imprint of Simon and Schuster) — included breast implants paid for by her state organization to get her ready for Atlantic City.

Kerr later came out as gay, “the least likely lesbian you’ll ever meet,” she called herself, and worked on diversity and inclusion for the Miss America Organization.

Bastard Queen and There She Was are two of several new books awash in Miss America and other Atlantic City nostalgia.

Another one is The Last Diving Horse in America, coming Sept. 28 from Pantheon, Cynthia Branigan’s winning look back at seeing the iconic Steel Pier attraction as a child, a breathtaking unpacking of a traumatic memory so often shorthanded in A.C. lore, and then rescuing Gamal from the auction block. And Beauty Is Never Enough, by the late Elizabeth B. Alton, one-time chairperson of the Miss America hostess committee, was recently published posthumously by the South Jersey Cultural & History Center at Stockton University.

Alton’s memoir starts the Miss America history a year earlier, in 1920, with the International Rolling Chair Parade, featuring 500 floats, bathing beauties, lifeguards in navy blue bathing trunks dousing themselves with vinegar. It was watched by 100,000 people.

She also recalls how police had been instructed in the early years “not to arrest any bathing beauties who violated the law with her revealing attire.” It wasn’t until 1924 that Atlantic City allowed women to go without stockings.

Rule Seven

There She Was delves into the pageant’s many scandals and identity crises, its toxic culture and racist history, including the so-called “Rule Seven” instituted by director Lenora Slaughter in the late 1930s, a whites-only rule aimed to keep out Black contestants, “due to the fact,” Slaughter said, according to Argetsinger, “that it is absolutely impossible to judge fairly the beauty of the Negro race in comparison with the white race.”

Although lifted in the 1950s, Argetsinger writes, “a racial status quo lingered for years, thanks to the decentralized nature of a contestant pipeline that funneled through chummy small-town pageants, where organizers could set strict residency requirements or limit entry to invitation-only.”

The book takes the reader on a time-travelly journey that includes gossip about the original pageant on the Steel Pier in which Margaret Gorman, Miss Washington, D.C., won the golden mermaid over second-place Miss Philadelphia Nellie Orr.

Miss New York, Virginia Lee, deemed ineligible before the crowning for being “a professional,” was still claiming she was robbed 72 years later, Argetsinger notes.

The book swings through the glory boomer years of Phyllis George and on to the Vanessa Williams scandal and to the sad, snowy December 2019 pageant in Connecticut, in which contestants brought lots of clothes for what they hoped would be photo opportunities and outings, only to find that the hostess committee that planned all those things in Atlantic City had been “quietly disbanded.”

“Some days the contestants found themselves just sitting for hours on the carpet of a conference room, waiting for the next thing,” Argetsinger writes. One compared the experience to “like wandering into a store that was going out of business.”

Amy S. Rosenberg is the author of the essay “Atlantic City: Everybody’s Big Idea” in another book about Atlantic City, a portrait by photojournalist Timothy Roberts: Atlantic City: The Last Hurrah.