Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Miss America, 1935

Henrietta Leaver, better known as Miss America 1935, was born Henrietta Applegate on this day in 1916 in Monongahela, Pennsylvania.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, way back in 1854, that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Over the course of the last century, that famous remark should probably have been amended to state that "The mass of men and women lead lives of quiet desperation." It's probably as true today as it was in 1854; however, with another new reality TV show hitting the airwaves every day it seems, one could also add to Thoreau's sentiment, "The mass of men and women lead lives of quiet desperation -- punctuated, in some cases, by 15-minute fits of fame."

Henrietta Leaver grew up in a quietly desperate setting. Her mother, Celia, was just 15 years old when she and young George Applegate, an itinerant steel mill hand, eloped to Wellsburg, West Virginia. Where Henrietta was born not a year later, said reporter Evelyn Burke, "there wasn't a silver spoon anywhere near her clothesbasket bassinet." Applegate skipped out on the little family shortly after Henrietta was born, and within the year Celia had remarried, to George Leaver, a steel mill die caster. Little Hen was provided with his name, and dancing lessons when the family could afford them.

Over the next several years, as George Leaver followed the work, the family moved from Monongahela to Cleveland to Washington, Pennsylvania to Charleroi and back again to Monongahela. In between, following the birth of her sisters Betty (who died at age 2) and Norma Jean, Henrietta occasionally stayed with her grandmother and step-grandfather in Sarasota. By the time Henrietta was 15, the Leavers divorced, and Celia Leaver and her two girls moved in with Celia's mother, who had returned to Monongahela.

With the family in rough financial straits, Henrietta Leaver dropped out of McKeesport High School after her sophomore year to take a job in a 5-and-dime store. The Depression was on, however, and Henrietta soon found herself a victim of "downsizing," only able to count on a weekend's work here and there at the store.

Her family now on the welfare rolls, she took the advice of a family friend in August 1935 and entered a "Miss McKeesport" bathing beauty competition at a local movie theatre, wearing a borrowed polka dot one-piece. To her authentic astonishment, she won, prompting her to enter, the following week, the "Miss Pittsburgh" competition at Pittsburgh's Sky Club. Beating out 33 other girls who vied for the title, Henrietta's prizes included a new bathing suit and all expenses paid to attend and compete in that grand-old forerunner to today's reality show, Atlantic City's annual Miss America contest.

In Atlantic City, the 19-year old high school dropout and 5-and-dime-store salesgirl beat a field of 53 hopefuls, singing "Living in a Great Big Way" and doing a tap dance in the pageant's first-ever talent competition. At her post-competition press conference, the blue-eyed, brown-curled girl breathlessly told the reporters, "Please don't say anything about finding a million-dollar baby in a five-and-ten-cent store. All I want is a job!"

The newspapers were captivated by this living Cinderella, whispering that a Hollywood film contract could be on her horizon. Henrietta got herself a manager, George Tyson, and began to cash in modestly with endorsements and public appearances.

It turns out, however, that Vanessa Williams was not the first Miss America to engender controversy through a display of public nudity. The pride of McKeesport returned to Pittsburgh to pose, wearing a bathing suit, for a sculpture by noted area sculptor Frank Vittor (the same fellow who rendered the larger-than-life statue of Honus Wagner now located outside PNC Park in Pittsburgh), and was shocked to find at its unveiling that Vittor had rendered her in the nude. As Williams would later do, Leaver immediately protested her unexpected exposure while sponsors and guardians of morality expressed their disapproval; but since Vittor was known for sculpting presidents and not for publishing a smut 'zine (here the comparisons with the Williams affair break down a bit), he had the artistic community on his side. An international panel of artists and critics scrutinized Vittor's sculpture of Miss Leaver, entitled "American Venus," and pronounced it a "true and beautiful work of art."

Miss Leaver ultimately withdrew her objections, and was shortly thereafter also named "Miss American Model of 1936" by a group of 200 retail store buyers convening in Los Angeles.

From her moment in the sun, she returned to circumstances that may also be described as quietly desperate -- quietly desperate on a day-to-day basis, by all accounts, though probably happy enough on the whole.

It is possible that her notoriety made her slightly uncomfortable, as she forfeited her Miss America title before the end of her one-year reign when she eloped with her teen sweetheart, John Mustacchio. She divorced Mustacchio in 1944, testifying that he treated her like a "beautiful piece of furniture," subsequently remarrying twice (to Messrs. Nesser and Thomason) and settling into obscurity. She did, however, maintain her 36-25-36 figure well into her 50s, a point of pride that no doubt enabled the one-time beauty queen to reflect upon her fifteen minutes of fame with some confidence as the years wore on. She passed away, a beloved mother and grandmother, in September 1993.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

How does the "Pride of McKeesport" live in Monogahela? She was from McKeesport not Monongahela.

9:28 AM  
Blogger RSchuler said...

According to a journalist who did a profile of her back in the 30s, Henrietta Leaver was born and spent several years of her childhood, on and off, in Monongahela, before she settled with her mother and grandmother in McKeesport. She was "The Pride of McKeesport" because that's where she lived when she won the "Miss McKeesport" contest and later, the "Miss America" title.

Hey, at least McKeesport is only a few miles up river from Monongahela -- it's not like I said she was from Blawnox!

2:11 PM  
Blogger ruth said...

Henrietta Leaver dated my uncle Henry Jones of Allenport. His very opinionated sisters were very opposed to such a union & guess it ended with his death - she was at the hospital when he died & sisters were afraid he would leave his portion of the 'Jones Estate' to her. Didnt happen tho -

5:55 PM  
Blogger Suzy said...

I was talking to my 92 year old mother today, who is still very sharp minded and she told me about Henrietta living in a huge home in Dravosburg,Pa across the river from Mckeesport.
This must have been after she married.

2:49 PM  
Blogger oddly_enuf said...

Henri was a long time family friend ... we lived in suburban Columbus Ohio. I knew her most of my life and she was energetic and fun to be with. She was beautiful on the outside but far more beautiful on the inside. Henri's vibrant personality and terrific sense of humor combined to make her a delight to be around. I was very lucky to grow up knowing her ... she and my Mother (also beautiful but never titled!) were both wonderful influences and role models for life.

8:19 AM  

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