September 11th is a date indelible in America’s collective consciousness.
But the date shares another less remembered benchmark, one whose impact is still felt today. In 1954, September 11th was the very first live nationally broadcast Miss America Contest.
For much of my early childhood my grandfather would lovingly refer to me as “Miss America.” Occasionally I would get an upgrade and be called Miss Universe, though to be more accurate in his heavy Noo Yawk accent it was more “Miss Unevoice.” I never realized till later it was because my mother had been three months pregnant with me at the time of that historical Miss America broadcast . My grandfather assumed that I was in a womb with a good view. My mother watching it live on TV remembered that date vividly.
The residual affects I would learn through osmosis.
Monday Morning Setember 13
It was Monday morning in early September of 1954, and the Kaffee Klatch of girls were due over at our new suburban home. After a stormy weekend, Mom opened all the windows wide to let in the cooling breeze airing out the stuffy house. The phenomenon that took place that past Saturday night, the eleventh would be all any of the neighborhood girls would want to talk about.
In years to come, no one would probably remember Saturday’s violent storm, but my mother was positive September 11 would go down as a memorable day in history.
The east coast was just recovering from Hurricane Carol when the tail end of category three Hurricane Edna was expected to hit Long Island late that Saturday afternoon. As a precaution for the coming storm, my father and my brother Andy had walked to the corner to Katz’s Candy Store to lay in provisions. The constant cravings for sweets that suddenly seemed to have consumed my pregnant mother could create a hormonal storm of its own if left unsatisfied.
The candy store on the busy cross street to our block was the type of establishment once found in every neighborhood in Brooklyn and Queens, a throwback to a previous era that now seemed woefully out-of-place amongst the new developments of split-level and ranch homes.
As elderly Mrs. Katz with her gnarled arthritic hands struggled to scoop the frozen Bryers strawberry ice cream from the big multi-gallon tub into a small white cardboard container, Andy sat at the counter spinning on the vinyl stools. Fascinated as much by the whirling, vibrating sound of the seafoam green Hamilton Beach malted machine as by the uncontrollable trembling of poor, Parkinson’s afflicted Mr. Katz as he prepared the malted milkshakes, Andy couldn’t tell who shook more.
Here She Comes… Miss America
That night with the heavy rain pelting down on the roof, Mom settled in with a big bowl of the frozen pink confection topped liberally with crumpled Lays potato chips, as she sat mesmerized watching the very first televised Miss America Pageant. Dad rolled his eyes and smiled. He had gotten used to her odd cravings.
The live broadcast on ABC from Atlantic City joined the pageant already in progress at 10:30 breaking viewing records coast to coast.
Until then, most folk’s contact with Miss America was limited to seeing the beaming winner in movie newsreels after the crowning, or in glossy black and white publicity shots in the newspapers once the beauty had already won. Prior to this, the pageant was an event for privileged individuals who would come to Atlantic City after the summer rush and could afford the prestigious seats.
Now for the first time, TV focused on the way the selection of winners was made. Suddenly it was a national event and an American tradition was born.
My mother could get weepy at most anything in her pregnancy, but Dad couldn’t tell who was shedding more tears- aspiring actress Lee Meriwether as her name was read as Miss America 1955, or Mom watching her being crowned.
Mom couldn’t help hoping that the baby snuggled inside her would be a girl, who maybe might just grow up and be a Miss America herself! One thing she knew for sure…her little girl would be no runner-up in the contest of life! If only there was some way I could have told her that at that very moment her very own Miss America of 1955 was indeed resting comfortably in her belly.
Now on Monday morning, Mom was setting up for the neighboorhood gals. Most mornings the collection of new young mothers and mothers-to-be from the block would congregate in one another’s brand new suburban kitchens, that only a year or so ago had been land where Farmer Gutsky planted potatoes.
After doing a quick run of the Bissel carpet sweeper through the house, Mom pulled out the extra Samsonite metal folding chairs from the closet, counting to make sure there were enough for the swollen-bellied girls to rest their swollen ankles on. In those days it seemed there was always bound to be several in the group who were “in the family way.”
Once they were finished exchanging hints on such vital information as which was the best diaper service, the most reliable milkman, or where to have baby’s shoes bronze plated the ladies got on the topic of weight. Go figure.
After refilling the coffee cups, Mom gently removed the black-out cake from the green and brown Ebingers box that was sitting on the counter, saving the red and white striped string to put in her junk drawer. No one could box a cake faster than an Ebinger girl, despite the fact that most were in their 70’s.
Mom was grateful to her Aunt Irene for bringing it with her on her visit on Friday. though at the time she chastised her aunt for schlepping a cake all the way from Brooklyn. Otherwise, there wasn’t a stitch of decent cake in the house to serve the girls. She sliced a piece for each gal, carefully licking the chocolate frosting from the knife.
Our neighbor Shirley, a redheaded extrovert with snapping brown eyes, wagged her plump finger sternly at each one of them: “No matter what, if you only get in the habit of doing one thing,” she told the ballooning girls, pausing to take a bite of cake, “ya gotta weigh yourself every day.”
Trying to keep a semblance of their girlish figure as long as they could and balance that extra pregnancy weight to boot, was a real dilemma. But, Mom assured them, with the help of a good maternity girdle there was no problem.
For those gals concerned about gaining weight, Shirley highly recommend her own obstetrician who would insist on prescribing reducing diets for pregnant women who became ‘overweight” in the course of pregnancy even prescribing one of the new wonder drugs that curbed the tendency to overeat.
Appetite suppressants helped some women and small doses of Phenobarbital before meals were indicated for others. New Phenmetrazine appeared to be effective and safe in preventing excessive weight gains during pregnancy. And best of all, The Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology reported that the drug was harmless to the patient.
Of course, nothing was mentioned of the effects to baby. That was the modern, wholesome trend.
Here She Comes….Your Ideal
Since they were on the topic of figures, the girls
[/caption]Since they were on the topic of figures, the girls were just bursting at the seams to dish about Saturday’s Miss America broadcast. Debates broke out over the merits of Miss Texas vs. Miss Iowa, but one thing they all agreed on.
The show was a boon to “togetherness” since it got the men’s noses out from behind the newspapers. Out of the corner of her eye Mom had glanced at Dad as he watched the show with the same intensity normally reserved for the New York Giant’s Willy Mays.
The show was crawling with beauties. Incredulous, our neighbor Bunny Brooks remarked “Even gorgeous Grace Kelly was a judge!” Seeing pretty, shapely, young things walk, stop, and twirl in scantily clad one-piece bathing suits and high heels was still racy enough to raise the collective pulses of all the men in the audience.
One thing was sure, they all laughed. With their own swollen bellies and swollen legs, no one was ever going to vote for any one of them for Miss America.
Whatever concerns these pregnant women may have felt about their burgeoning bodies not one of them would give voice to their shared insecurities convinced that they alone felt burdened by.
But privately, more than one of them fretted whether their husbands would ever find them desirable again.
Would they ever have that “winning look”? What would it take to measure up?
After Saturday’s Miss America contest a national standard was set.
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