Once upon a time, the selection of the annual “Miss Rheingold” was as highly anticipated in N.Y. as the race for the White House.
For some mid-century misses the title of Miss America was the American Dream.
But in 1948, for N.Y.C born and bred Angie O’ Riley, it paled next to the most coveted title of all- Miss Rheingold.
During the heyday of the popular contest, a clever marketing ploy which ran from 1941 to 1964 – a time when every third beer hoisted in NY was a Rheingold – the pictures of 6 smiling beauty contestants were displayed everywhere from bars, delis, restaurants to billboards and ads.
“Yes, in a town full of pretty girls there’s only one Miss Rheingold,” the omnipresent radio ads would blare. “She’s a NY tradition that can’t be matched.”
My Beer Is Rheingold the Dry Beer…
Rheingold beer ran through the O’Riley blood…literally.
Angie’s father Tom ran O’Rileys Bar and Grill in Queens, N.Y. For over 40 years the dimly lit tavern on Jackson Avenue stood right next door to my grandfathers pawn shop Edelstein Pawnbrokers. The smell of beer wafted next door, permanently permeating the pawnshop with its rich yeasty odor, so it was not unusual for a patron flush with cash from just having hocked a Timex watch or an Emerson table top radio to drop in at O’ Rileys for a tall glass or two of Rheingolds and stay through the night.
In the humid summer of 1948, a frosty glass of pale beer for 15 cents was the perfect way to cool down from the heat.
Over the sound of the jukebox playing and the whirring oscillating fan overhead, animated conversation at the bar ran hot, heavy and long through the night. When the barflys were finished debating the batting prowess of Stan Musial vs Ted Williams, snickering over the findings of the Kinsey Report, smirking over first sightings of something called a bikini that made its inaugural appearance on the beaches that summer, and grousing about the inability to get a good ol’ American beefsteak because of the darn meat shortage, the high-spirited conversation turned to the elections.
By late July the presidential campaigns had begun, at least as far as President Harry Truman was concerned.
The Republicans candidate Governor Thomas Dewey behaving more like an incumbent than a member of a party out of office for 16 years wouldn’t even begin campaigning until mid September. No matter. It was all a big yawn. Everyone agreed it sure looked like the 48 states were going to ditch Truman and take Dewey.
If the 1948 presidential campaign seemed to have less fireworks than usual it was because Dewey seemed to have known all along that he would win. Besides which, the presidential elections were anti-climactic compared to the one election that really mattered to the men on Jackson Ave.
Inevitably the conversation at the bar turned to the more lively contest- the upcoming Miss Rheingold. In the next few weeks the finalists would be chosen and the race would begin.
When it came to elections in N.Y. nothing beat the hotly debated contest for Miss Rheingold.
Like most bars in town, O’ Rileys was one of the thousands of taverns where ballots could be cast for the coveted title. Perched precariously on top of the Wurlitzer jukebox, were the big Miss Rheingold ballot boxes that Tom displayed every year.
The smiling faces of the 6 hopefuls grinned optimistically at the appreciative customers in the dimly lit bar, the countenance of each contestant lit by the glow from the neon-lit jukebox. Until the election closed in September, the booze hounds would have loud debates about the eyes, the hair, and the smiles of each contestant.
But on one thing they all agreed. Tom’s daughter Angie was as pretty as any Miss Rheingold.
The Miss Rheingold contest was more carefree than Miss America. With no talent segment to boost her appeal, Miss Rheingold had only to smile prettily and show her oomph in a lovely cashmere sweater set. And Angie sure had oomph!
The consensus at O’ Riley’s was clear- this was the year that Angie should compete.
Once in Love With Angie
Born in Sicily and raised in Bushwick not far from where Rheingold was brewed, Angie O Riley long had her heart set on one day becoming a Miss Rheingold herself.
With her Mom’s smoldering Sicilian eyes, raven black hair, and warm olive skin she was as exotic as a hot-house orchid. Modeling jobs at the local department store gave her a stamp of approval which she hardly needed. A wildly popular song that year was “Once in Love with Amy” from the Broadway show “Where’s Charley” sung by Ray Bolger.
It didn’t take long before my grandfather and the other men on Jackson Ave. put their own spin on it. Off key choruses of “Once in Love with Angie …Always in Love With Angie!” could be heard coming out of O’Rileys Pub till the wee hours.
Men liked Angie.
My grandfather, clearly besotted, would wax on about Angie: “She was in a class with South Pacific, the Notre Dame team and swank convertibles. She was tall and slim with deep brown eyes and when she smiled- that’s all brother!”
Yes, men -unless they had rocks in their heads- liked Angie!
So in 1948, she decided to enter the contest. Everyone in the neighborhood agreed, “Tom’s daughter was a shoe-in….. just like Dewey!”
Toast of the Town
Each year in the dog days of August, thousands of women- all registered models, gathered at the swanky Waldorf Astoria Hotel in N.Y.C. for the preliminary judging of the Miss Rheingold contest.
As every New Yorker and barfly knew, the field was narrowed to 6 candidates whose faces would adorn ballots throughout the N.Y. area.
Angie could hardly sleep the night before the big audition. Not only was it a major event covered in local newspapers but the finalists were interviewed on radio by Arthur Godfrey himself.
Besides the prestige, there were plenty of prizes too. Last year’s Miss Rheingold had averaged over $100 per week during her reign as a result of gifts, personal appearances, talks, and radio and TV spots. And Hollywood was sure to come calling.
Carefully dressed in a sky blue dress with matching sky blue pumps, white purse and white gloves that offset her warm olive skin, Angie had the look of fashion and of news…from the bag she carried to the angle of her hat, the rightness of her gloves and shoes.
“Give em’ hell Angie,” the boys in the bar shouted out to her as she left to take the subway into Manhattan. After a final dusting on her nose with Angel Face Powder, Angie smiled. Angie would oblige.
The Waldorf Astoria
Confident, she strode into the razzle dazzle of the Waldorf where a sea of 3,000 other pretty girls between the ages of 18 and 29 milled around. As the loot and the publicity grew, the battle to be Miss Rheingold had become more intense. Like a presidential convention hall, the hotel ballroom resembled a circus tent, hot, sweaty, and crowded.
At times everyone seemed to be moving at once, contenders trying to make a deal, hunting for a Coke or an aspirin tablet. Over this frantic milling there were newsmen darting around, the newsreel lights beat down like the noonday sun and the photographers bulbs made quick flashes of lightning.
Angie smiled for the cameras. With her incandescent smile, artfully framed by full lips colored with Max Factor Hollywood Red she was seductive. Slithering through the hall, her skirt swinging in rhythm with her glittering St Agnes of Rome Patron Saint medal bouncing seductively on her virginal Annette Funicello like bosom, she was sizzling. Buoyant with the winning confidence of a Tom Dewey, she expected to be the “femme fatale” as usual.
Blondes, Beauty and Beer
But in a sea of saucy blue-eyed blondes, this swarthy Italian stunner stood out like a patch of crabgrass in a manicured suburban lawn. Girls with virtuous winks, dazzling Doris Day smiles outlined in Flame Glo heavenly pink lipstick that were a perfect match for their perfectly pale complexion, girls who were the envy of every girl in high school, the chaste blue-eyed blonde angelic Halo-hair perfect models.
Judged on wholesomeness and personality, Miss Rheingold was the epitome of the girl next door. The background of the beauties were always 100% All American…. that is as long as you were White, Protestant and Anglo Saxon. In 1948, Sicilian born Angie O’ Riley didn’t stand a chance.
Like Dewey, her defeat should not have been unexpected.
Keep America Beautiful
In the great cultural cauldron of mid-century America, there was only one ingredient to being an American beauty- fair and preferably blue-eyed blonde Despite our great democracy the pop culture landscape of mid-century America was populated by one type of American beauty. The great American melting pot that was New York had not spilled over into the antiseptically clean and white Miss Rheingold ads.
In a consumer culture filled with a garish abundance of choices, the choices were pretty black and white
Back home on Jackson Avenue while Dick Haymes crooned “Little White Lies” on the Wurlitzer, the vanquished would-be beauty queen drowned her sorrows in a glass of beer. Just for the night and just this once, there would be no Rheingold served – Tom bitterly poured Angie a glass of Schlitz the beer that made Milwaukee famous.
After the audition, Angie commiserated with another pretty girl who sadly didn’t make it to the finals either. Despite the fact that this lovely 19-year-old girl from Philadelphia whose name was Grace Kelley and was every bit as pretty as the sea of blue-eyed blondes, she was unceremoniously sent home from that year’s contest for being “too thin.”
I never knew what happened to Angie O’ Riley but I hear Grace Kelly filled out quite nicely and luckily found work.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.