Elizabeth Barstow Alton didn’t know the meaning of the word “quit.”
Born before women had the right to vote, she was a force of nature in designer shoes and a stylish hat. For decades, Alton put her stamp on the Miss America Pageant: She was the first woman elected to its board of directors, was a fierce advocate for pageant contestants, and was known for holding her own against the organization’s male majority.
Her influence extended beyond the Boardwalk. She waged a skillful campaign to establish a state university — Stockton University — for her beloved South Jersey. Fifty years later, she’s recognized as “the founding mother of Stockton.”
“The word ‘no’ was not in her vocabulary,” said Karen Elizabeth Alton, 48, her granddaughter and mentee. “She never took ‘no’ for an answer.”
Until, that is, she had no choice — which is what happened in 2004, when a publishing house rejected the manuscript she had submitted about her memoir-worthy life. The publisher wanted to hear about “old” Atlantic City, yes, but not so much about the Miss America pageant. Where, they asked, were the salacious tales about the speakeasies, the scandals, the crooked politico Enoch “Nucky” Johnson and his cronies?
But that was not Alton’s story.
“I’d never seen defeat on her face before,” said her granddaughter, about the moment her grandmother shared with her the publisher’s verdict. “She was 98. She was nearing the end of her life. She was devastated.”
When Elizabeth B. Alton died in 2006 at age 100, Karen Alton vowed to get the memoir published, no matter how long it took.
This year, she has at last succeeded: Beauty Is Never Enough by Elizabeth B. Alton was recently published by the South Jersey Culture and History Center of Stockton University. An insider’s deep look at decades in the evolution of the Miss America Pageant, the memoir is available at the Sunset Outpost in Margate, and online through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. And the timing of its release could not be better: This year marks both the 100th anniversary of the first Miss America Pageant (Margaret Gorman was crowned in 1921) and the 50th anniversary of Stockton’s founding. (This year’s competition will be streamed live at 8 p.m. Dec. 16 on Peacock.)
(Alton’s contributions are well-noted at the university: An auditorium on the main campus in Galloway Township is named after her, as is a student lounge on the Atlantic City campus and a crew boat. She also wrote about the founding of the school in her earlier book, The Stockton Story.)
The book was a natural publishing choice for the school, said Tom Kinsella, a Stockton literature professor and director of the university’s history center.
“The book really is the memoir of a 1940s-’50s-’60s woman who was doing her brand of feminism, which is not 2021 feminism. She was facing the difficulties of working in a man’s world,” Kinsella said.
“I wanted students to be able to go back and see what an intelligent, hardworking woman faced at that point,” he added, noting that 11 students worked for almost four years to help turn Alton’s manuscript into a 464-page book. “She struggled through and said, ‘Men got in my way, but I didn’t let them stand in my way.’ ”
For Karen Alton, bringing her grandmother’s dream to fruition was both a labor of love and a thank-you to the woman whose effect on her has been profound.
“My life shaped itself due to her impression on me,” said Alton, who lives in California and Margate. “She was very strong. She was very independent.”
The elder Alton always seemed destined to shine.
Early in her book, she describes the heady experience of being selected at age 13 to take part in the 1920 Atlantic City International Rolling Chair Parade, the precursor to the Miss America Pageant. Little did she know the impact it would have on her life.
Born into an affluent, property-holding family, Alton grew up well-versed in social graces and enjoyed opportunities denied to many women at the time, said her granddaughter.
Education was one — she attended Syracuse University. The important men in her life also enthusiastically recognized her intellect, abilities, and agency: Her father enlisted her assistance in some of his business endeavors, even handing her the reins when he took ill. And her husband, unlike other married men at the time, never expected her to seek his permission before undertaking a new endeavor. She was active in the New Jersey Federation of Women’s Clubs and got to know influential people (driving solo all over the state at a time when it was rare for a woman to be behind the wheel). She knew those connections would come in handy later.
But at the heart of her story — and which much of her book chronicles — are her decades with the Miss America Pageant. She was invited to be one of the pageant hostesses, basically chaperones, and eventually chaired the hostesses’ committee. From there, she developed a well-organized system that governed the conduct and activities of the contestants. In time, she was elected to the pageant’s board of directors — the first woman to hold that position — and eventually became its first female vice president.
Alton shares rich tales from behind the scenes: thwarting unwelcome male guests, including one who tried to get a covert view of the dressing room; creating a prayer corner for contestants; backstage pandemonium, including wardrobe malfunctions; her disdain for discrimination, in decades past, against Jewish guests in some hotels; and much more.
There are also passages in the book that make it clear that Alton felt she and other women were often not listened to by the male majority, that her years of experience were at times ignored. But she wasn’t one to pipe down.
“She could not just sit by and let things go,” her granddaughter said. “To her, doing the right thing was more important than being popular.”
Her top priority working with the pageant was always the contestants. To her, Miss America was much more than a beauty competition, Alton said.
“It was about these women going to school and getting scholarship money,” she said. “Doors were opened for successful careers that may not otherwise have been opened for these girls.”
Modern readers may find interesting the elder Alton’s conflict with members of the National Organization for Women (NOW), which tried to hold a protest during the pageant, arguing that the contest objectified women’s bodies. In her memoir, Alton regards the organization’s viewpoint as limited.
What bothered her, said Stockton’s Kinsella, was the way NOW depicted pageant contestants “as blonde bimbos — all about the body. But Mrs. Alton just as vehemently felt they were smart women” who were canny enough to avail themselves to “millions of dollars in scholarships. She was very proud of that.”
Alton’s passionate belief in the value of education fueled her campaign to establish a state college in South Jersey, appealing to state officials’ and politicians’ hearts and minds. Stockton’s Kinsella said Alton skillfully employed the visual aid of a map, clearly showing the lack of any state college in the southern part of the state. She recruited to the cause local businessmen, who testified how a university would help build a stronger workforce. And she launched a letter-writing campaign from students and their families who pleaded for a college closer to home that they could afford.
Finally, in 1971, Stockton opened its doors, its first classes held at the Mayflower Hotel on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
“If she hadn’t built that groundswell, I don’t think it would have happened,” Kinsella said.
Growing up, Karen Alton didn’t realize how ahead of her time her grandmother was, or what a large influence she had on her life. But she believes her grandmother had a plan.
“She knew she was shaping my future,” said Alton, who is a member of Stockton’s Foundation Board. “She would always talk about education, and how carriage and grace are so important. She mentored me. That was the way she was raised.”
Her lessons, big and small, still resound.
“She was dressed to the nines, every single day,” Alton recalled “When she was in her 90s, she said to me, ‘Karen, you feel depressed? I don’t recognize that emotion. But if you feel depressed, you put on the best outfit you have in your closet that day. Don’t give in to not feeling good.’ So when I don’t feel good, I make sure I dress to the nines.”
Alton believes that somewhere, somehow, her grandmother knows that her dream of telling her story has finally come true.
“My mission in life is to honor her legacy,” Alton said. “By getting this book published with the blessing of Stockton, that’s what I’m doing. I’m getting her story out — because it’s a good one.”