THE LIBERATION OF MISS AMERICA
Born in Florence, Arizona, her father, Harry Arthur Dennison, ran a travelling medicine show and was a ‘snake-oil salesman’. Her mother was Elizabeth Brownd.
Her parents were performing in Texas when her father decided Jo should be born in California. Her parents got into their car and drove very quickly, but her mother’s waters broke in Arizona. They looked for any help they could get.
Jo was actually born in a men’s prison in Arizona, attended to by the prison doctor who wryly commented he didn’t often get the chance to practice childbirth in the Men’s State Penitentiary.
The family lived in many places as the medicine show was constantly on tour. She joined the show when she was just two, singing, dancing, doing a cowgirl routine (handy with a lasoo) and doing a trick horse routine. She later said, “I was who my father wanted me to be. I never wanted to be a performer.”
Her father died when she was just 12. Her mother stayed with the medicine show, owned by a Doctor Tate (a scoundrel who made the snake oil and claimed to be a doctor but was actually a vet). Jo’s role in the show was increased and she became a very accomplished horsewoman.
Jo wasn’t interested in a show business career.
After leaving high school in Tyler, Texas, she went to college to train to be a secretary.
Then, her local bank manager asked her to represent his bank in the Miss Tyler Pageant. The first prize was a new swimsuit. She needed a new one so she agreed to enter the competition – and she won it. She also won some flying lessons.
This meant she was entered into the Miss East Texas competition, which she also won. Her prize was a set of luggage.
After this, Jo won Miss Texas.
Then it was onto Miss America, which was held in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Jo caught the train to get there, and it took three days. She was 19. She was competing against 29 other contestants.
She thought she had blown her chances of winning when she complained that the Miss America warm-up act was a stripper.
There were three parts to the show. She won the talent show by singing ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’. Then Jo won the Evening Gown class. Finally, she won the swimsuit class, and became Miss America 1942.
She was the first person to win all three categories and the first woman from Texas to win Miss America. In her victory speech, Jo pledged she would never get married.
As it was wartime, her job for a year was to visit military bases prior to servicemen going into action in either the Pacific or Europe, sell war bonds and visit hospitals.
But she was expected to do it all in a swimsuit – and she refused.
She said, “I am more than just a swimsuit.” She then said, “Either we end the tour, or I come on stage with my clothes on and perform with my mind and my voice, rather than with my body.” The organisers quickly caved in.
Despite refusing the swimsuit, Jo was extremely popular with young servicemen. “It was an extraordinary job. I went to military bases all the time and the soldiers were so enthusiastic and treated me with such respect. They saw me as a symbol of what they were fighting for.”
Jo also claimed that she was very popular with America’s women – for making a stand for their rights.
The press nicknamed her ‘The Body’ or the ‘Texas Tornado’ and she was often dubbed the new Lana Turner.
At this time, Jo was dating army captain Ray Carter.
She was offered a film contract with Warner Brothers but refused it whilst she was still Miss America, only signing a 7-film deal when her tenure was over, at $100 a week.
She was voted America’s second favourite pin-up, after Betty Grable.
Jo was involved in a whirl of celebrity functions and parties – and absolutely hated it. She said later, “In a way, greed led me into those pageants.”
Groucho Marx once told her, “You’re most articulate for a bathing beauty.” And that was what she was beginning to hate – being judged merely by her looks.
Then she married up-and-coming actor Phil Silvers in 1945. He was 33 and she was just 21. On their wedding night, Silvers left her alone to go to a boxing match with his friends.
The marriage did not last long, and they divorced in 1950. The official reason was that Silvers was the outgoing type who loved having a nightlife, and Jo was the stay-at-home type. It was only later on it was revealed that they split due to his chronic gambling problem. “ We never lived expensively, or travelled, because he gambled everything away.”
Nevertheless, Jo and Silvers remained good friends. He was particularly close to Jo’s mother and spent a lot of time with her.
Silvers introduced Jo to anyone who was anyone. She became very friendly with both Frank Sinatra and Danny Kaye.
Jo started dating Sydney Chaplin, the actor son of Charlie Chaplin, but broke it off to start a relationship with…her ex-husband Phil Silvers.
Again, the relationship was short-lived.
Jo then married television producer, Russell Stoneham, and they had two sons, Peter and John, and lived in Idyllwild, California.
Her film career included ‘Dick Tracy’, ‘Winged Victory’ (a wartime propaganda film) and ‘The Al Jolson Story’, amongst others. Jo made many TV appearances, usually produced by her husband
Jo is most remembered for the ‘dreadful’ (her words) film’ Prehistoric Women’. At this point she was out of contract and needed a job, although she later regretted being in the movie. However, Jo could laugh at herself and was still signing still pictures from it, right up until her death.
The round of parties continued. She was a regular at the Saturday Night parties of Gene Kelly and his wife Betty (nee Garrett – an actress in her own right), along with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Gregory Peck. The parties introduced her to intellectual liberalism and lots of political discussion – and drinking. There was also singing round the piano. Jo remembered her great excitement at the appearance of Greta Garbo. “When she came to town, even the stars were star struck.”
She then moved to TV work, appearing on ‘Abbott and Costello’ and ‘The Sinatra Show’.
And then she gave it all up. She abandoned her acting career and vowed never to appear in public again. She said she wanted to be a homemaker and spend her time with her beloved horses. She was an expert rider, renown for the ability to rope wild steers.
She was persuaded by her husband to move into TV production and built an impressive reputation, so much so, that Stoneham became extremely jealous of her. She worked in the USA and Israel and was a specialist in live television.
She soon divorced Stoneham and moved to Palm Springs, California.
She also became an advocate for women’s rights and launched a lengthy campaign to get American beauty contests (including Miss America) to abandon swimsuit rounds – a campaign that eventually succeeded.
Jo also suffered terrible migraines throughout her life.
She wrote her autobiography entitled ‘Finding my Little Red Hat’. In it, she revealed she had been a victim of child abuse when she was just 12 – from Doctor Tate. She said her mother knew about the abuse but did nothing, fearing being ejected from the medicine show, leaving her and Jo with nowhere to live, no job and no income.
Then Jo started working at Hemet Hospice, near her home in California, where she became the director. “I had a fantastic life and met so many interesting, talented people. I thought I should do something to give back, so I worked at Hemet Hospice for 11 years. I feel it was truly the most purposeful, rewarding work I ever did. Working with the terminally ill, you learn so much about life.”
Phil Silvers died in 1985 and her other husband Russell Stoneham died in 2002.
She made one more public appearance, as the special guest at the Miss America 100th Anniversary Gala. In her speech, Jo said, “I was the first one who refused to wear a bathing suit because I didn’t think it was what I was about.”
She continued to refer to the abandoning of the swimsuit element of the competition. “I’m so delighted that the Miss America organisation has embraced this principle and has focussed on the totality of each candidate.”
In her very last interview, Jo Carroll said she was glad to have lived long enough “to see how women’s fight against inequality, sexual harassment and abuse has finally come to the fore.”
She was rueful about the fact that she was not remembered for her TV or film work, but for being a beauty queen. Nevertheless, she said, “My life is now happier and more complete than I had ever hoped – and I always had great expectations.”
She was the oldest surviving Miss America, and remains the only person to have won all the elements within the competition.
At her funeral she was described as a trailblazer for young women (and men), to fight for their beliefs and resist the demands other people put upon them.
RIP – Refusing Ignorant Prejudices