Message from Jo-Carroll Dennison (Miss America 1942)
on the 100th anniversary of the Pageant
September 7, 2021
I’m Jo-Carroll Dennison, Miss America 1942.
Now in my 98th year, the eight decades that have passed since I won the Pageant have been filled with wondrously fascinating experiences. I was in the movies in Hollywood, … on the stage in New York, … and on television in both places. I worked behind the camera in production all over Europe and Israel, and back at home on the first live television drama Lux Video Theater in Los Angeles.
But, whenever I’m introduced to a stranger, whoever they may be, nobody talks about the many adventures I have had. Invariably, they say, “She is a former Miss America, you know.” And to this day, people are fascinated and eagerly say, “Oh, really? What year?” Then they ask "What state?" and I proudly answer, Hale Center, Texas!" And they cluster around, asking more questions and saying “wait ‘til I tell my wife I met Miss America.” I pull in my stomach and try to look tall … but they are not interested in me, really. They are interested in seeing a live former Miss America.
Back in 1942, the Pageant was mostly about looks. Yet, I never thought I had won because of the way I looked, but rather because of the way I felt about myself. With this in mind, I flat-out refused to wear my bathing suit on the stage after the Pageant, beginning with my very first tour stop at the Faye Theater in Philadelphia. I’m so delighted that the Miss America Organization has embraced this principle, and now focuses on the totality of each candidate.
I was fortunate to win the Pageant, particularly in the first year of World War II. As Miss America, I toured the country visiting military bases, defense plants, and boatyards. The military men who came to see me as I performed on various stages, or danced with them, or just met, beamed and applauded and cheered. But, I could tell they were not responding so enthusiastically simply to a pretty girl, or for that matter to an individual person. Miss America was a tangible symbol of the country they had enlisted to defend. THEIR country. It was their vision of democracy that made their hearts pound and their bodies tingle.
The women who by the thousands had left their homes to work in the war effort greeted me with the same enthusiasm they had towards the American flag or the Statue of Liberty.
And in their differing ways, I found that “Miss America” stirred something special in all their hearts. Something inspiring and humbling.
I recently finished my autobiography ... Finding My Little Red Hat … and in looking back over my life I saw that my many marvelous adventures and experiences would not have happened to me had I not won the Miss America Pageant. It was being Miss America that made the crucial change in the path of my life.
I am glad to have lived long enough to see how women’s fight against inequality, sexual harassment, and abuse has finally come to the fore. And I hope that future Miss Americas can help further the progress of healing the divisions in our country along racial lines, fight voter suppression, and motivate us all to respond to the specter of climate change.
As in the 1940s, Miss America has an opportunity to represent values that unite and heal.
So, I lift my glass to the future Miss Americas. May they continue to be a force for good!