The oldest surviving winner of Miss America, Jo-Carroll Dennison, has died aged 97.
Dennison, who held the title during World War II and broke with convention by refusing to wear a swimsuit onstage after the pageant, passed away at her home in California last month, according to her friend Evan Mills.
Mills, who edited Dennison’s memoir and learned of her death directly from her family, said over email that the former Miss Texas could “serve as a model for young women — and men — in a world where many are tempted to bend to social expectations rather than trusting and following their own moral compass.”
The Miss America Organization meanwhile said it was “saddened to hear” of Dennison’s passing, writing on Instagram: “We thank her for her year of service and will miss her dearly.”
Born in 1923 in Florence, Arizona, a young Dennison joined her parents’ travelling medicine show, where she sang, dance and performed on trick horses. She went on to train as a secretary before being scouted for the Miss Tyler pageant in Tyler, Texas, where she was studying at the time.
In her autobiography “Finding My Little Red Hat,” Dennison wrote that she had “sworn never to perform in public again” following her medicine show days. But she eventually agreed to compete in Miss Tyler on the promise of a free swimsuit from a high-end department store.
After winning the pageant she went on to claim the Miss East Texas and Miss Texas titles, before competing in — and winning — the Miss America contest in 1942 at the age of 18.
Though she won the swimsuit category, Dennison later refused to wear bathing suits during her year-long reign as Miss America. Speaking at the contest’s 100th anniversary gala earlier this year, she commended the Miss America Organization for scrapping the swimsuit portion of competition in 2018 and focusing on the “totality of each candidate.”
“Back in 1942, the pageant was supposed to be about looks,” she told attendees in a pre-recorded message. “Yet, I never thought I had won (Miss America) 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 onstage after the pageant.”
Crowned Miss America shortly after USA’s entry into World War II, Dennison would visit defence plants, hospitals and service camps to help improve troop morale. “Miss America was a tangible symbol of the country (that soldiers) had enlisted to defend,” she recalled at the anniversary gala, adding: “It was their vision of democracy that made their hearts pound and bodies tingle.”
Dennison also signed a contract with 20th Century Fox, starring in movies including “The Jolson Story” and the wartime drama “Winged Victory.” Her proximity to Hollywood saw her cross paths with many of the era’s celebrities, and she embarked on relationships with Charlie Chaplin’s son Sydney and comedian Phil Silvers, whom she married in 1945 and divorced five years later.
Dennison went on to appear in the “Dick Tracy” series, and later worked behind the scenes of television productions. She married CBS producer and director Russell Stoneham, with whom she had two children, though they separated in the 1970s and subsequently divorced.
In her autobiography, Dennison expressed her support for #MeToo movement, revealing that she had been sexually assaulted at 12 years old. She wrote, “It is stunning how poorly women have been treated in the American culture. I am so proud of the ‘Me Too movement’ and the women who have been brave enough to come forward about the male sexual abuse they have suffered, and grateful I have lived long enough to see it.”
Her autobiography’s editor, Mills, described Dennison’s story as “one of overcoming the adversities of a disjointed childhood and sub-par education, taking up social causes and crafting a vibrant intellectual life.”