This is a story about courage: finding it, losing it, and a remarkable woman’s quest to find it again.
Born in the Florence Arizona men’s prison in 1923, Jo-Carroll Dennison learned to walk (and dance and sing) on a medicine show and later taught herself to trick-ride horses in the circus. She spent her childhood on the road and on the stage. The huckster snake-oil salesman who ran the medicine show tried to rape her at age 12 — she fended him off.
Crowned Miss America in 1942 (at the age of 18), Dennison (aka “The Texas Tornado”) shows us its glories, but also the underbelly of the institution in those days. She spoke up about the year-long indenture of Miss America winners, and was the first to protest appearing for the organization in a bathing suit.
That was just for starters.
Her story goes on to provide an unvarnished view — from inside, looking out — of a starlet’s life in Hollywood in the 1940s at 20th Century Fox. Among her films were Winged Victory and The Jolson Story. Her later work in front of television cameras included the The Frank Sinatra Show, Ed Sullivan Presents, Kraft Theater and Omnibus, Abbott and Costello, and Dick Tracy. Fan mail continues to arrive into her late 90s, complete with requests for signed glossy vintage photos.
During World War II, she entertained at defense plants, hospitals, and service camps. A mixed blessing, her LIFE magazine bathing-suit photo series was the second-most popular pin-up among servicemen after Betty Grable’s.
Her first love was young Blackie Sherrod, who became a famous journalist and sportswriter. He testified that her eyes were speckled like those of a trout. She was invited to dance by Howard Hughes and had a deep love affair with Sydney Chaplin (son of Charlie). She had marriages to Phil Silvers (“for laughter”) and to CBS producer and director Russell Stoneham, with whom she had two sons. Her second marriage inspired the storyline for Redford and Streisand’s dilemma in Arthur Laurents’ The Way We Were. She was the free-spirited liberal and he the conservative pragmatist.
In Hollywood, it was rarefied air. “Normal” life revolved around the party scene at the homes of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Gene Kelly. The gatherings were stimulating. Groucho and Harpo Marx, Ira Gershwin, and George Burns were regulars, but the highlight was being part of the core group for weekly gatherings at the Kelley’s, infused with music (including impromptu piano and song with Andre Previn and Paul Robeson). These evenings of “radical liberal intellectualism” were punctuated with occasional drop-ins like Garbo (to a Tupperware party, of all things), Garland, and Monroe.
Unseduced by the glitter of men in power and their infamous “casting couches,” Dennison shows us that superstars and power brokers are at best mere mortals, and often worse. Eighty years before the Me Too movement, Dennison endures her own version of disrespectful and sometimes downright inhumane treatment of women by boys, men, and institutions: among them charlatans, producers, directors, therapists, and husbands. Of particular note, these included Darryl Zanuck and Harry Cohn (“a tarantula of a man”). Orson Welles had more depth, but was unkind.
In Hollywood of the 40s and 50s, she also finds warm refuge and creative stimulation in close-knit circles of entertainment and literary friends — many of them also men. In magical moments, she encounters mentors that inspire and change the course of her life. Gregory Peck, Lew Ayres, and Matty Fox engaged and encouraged her. Edward G. Robinson invited her to Jewish Seders at his home. Her circle included writers and thinkers such as Norman Corwin, Yip Harburg, Dalton Trumbo, Howard Fast, Heywood Broun, and Ray Bradbury. Having been Miss America was sometimes more a stigma than an asset. But these people gave her a chance, and many served as matchmakers with the literature she’d missed in school, helping forge her into an avid writer and thinker. She became a staunch liberal, as she watched friends and colleagues persecuted under McCarthy’s Red Scare and witnessed the ravages of blacklisting throughout her cultural world.
Following her intuition and inspired by poignant experiences in Europe and Israel, rather than being drawn further toward the flame of the entertainment industry, she ultimately steers away from film roles that would have propelled her to a higher level sf stardom — including an invitation from Charlie Chaplin to be the lead woman in Limelight — but would have required some form of existential compromise. She also screen-tested for Singin’ in the Rain and was invited by famous Italian director Vittorio De Sica to be in his films.
She was reborn in the magical Greenwich Village of the 1950s. Working in the offices of friends Rogers and Hammerstein, and later behind the camera as a production assistant for Lux Video Theater in Los Angeles — the first live television drama — proved far more creatively satisfying than being on the screen. Were it not for the pressure to defer to the needs of men, she would have become the first female producer of live television.
From a young age, Dennison cultivates and respects the guardian angels that appeared when needed most. She first encounters a semblance of God while climbing a tree as a child and again while stuck overnight in a snowy mountain pass, but they never meet in a church. She refers to one preacher “as phony as a circus barker for a Freak Show.”
Among the books her mother read to her as a child, Lassie stood out as fearless, valiant, and trustworthy and a superb “moral arbitrator.” When in a pinch, she asks herself: “What would Lassie do?
Years later, in confronting compromises she had made, she realized was that “to annihilate one’s real self, to stifle one’s natural impulses, is to eventually destroy oneself.”
In search of her little red hat of courage — worn as a child to overcome social pressures in ever-changing schools while on the road with her parents’ medicine show — in 1976 Dennison decamps to picturesque Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende, returning repeatedly over the following four years. Her writers retreat was designed by architect Leonardo de la Canal, who became one of her deepest loves.
This book was born during those sojourns in San Miguel, set aside to mellow, resurrected in the mid-1990s, and then, from her home perched on a mountainside in mile-high Idyllwild, California, tied together and supplemented with new reflections during the global pandemic of 2020-2021. Just as we ponder and tell our own stories, the flow of this one doesn’t follow a tidy straight line. Dennison’s writing dances back and forth across decades as she decodes her life and times.
Whether stroking poisonous Gila monsters, being unexpectedly hoisted high in the air while curled in the trunk of a circus elephant, or finding soulmates among her many domestic four-legged companions, a common thread through this life is a sublime connection with nature. Here she finds her truth and equanimity, both as a child on the road, and then again, beginning in the late 1970s, along creeks and mountain trails in Idyllwild. In those years, mentoring local schoolchildren on the power of voting and then helping hospice patients find peace and connection in their final days were among the most meaningful passages in the tapestry of her life.
Serendipity and intuition are everything in this story. For Dennison, key forks in the road, however small, made all the difference. Through choices born of being true to herself, she crafts a life entirely worth living while threading the needles of anger and fear with love and fearlessness.
Knowing Jo much of my life and working on this project together over the past few years has not only been like having a personal time machine; it’s been like having a time machine complete with a learned guide. Helping her weave together disparate chapters written over nearly five decades, and sifting through boxes of old letters and black-and-white photos together, triggered additional recollections and stories upon stories that we could infuse into the fabric.
The resulting tapestry has a tight and beautiful weave.
Having passed more years than many regal trees — and as the oldest currently living Miss America — Jo continues to consistently rise above adversity, while caring to improve herself, living life to the fullest. Through her odyssey, she earned intense emotional intelligence, and an ability to love without caveats. As a woman of the 20s (the 1920s, that is), I find her completely at home in the moment (the 2020s, that is), web-savvy, culturally current, and able to draw uncanny connections between current events and social trends to old lessons that humankind hasn’t yet learned.
Evan Mills, Mendocino, California, September 2021