Sybil Bruncheon’s “Merry Memoirs”…. Chapter 113. “Pageants & Perfidy”…

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             It was in the Summer of 1920 that the folks in Atlantic City decided that it might be fun to stage a “beauty contest” to entertain the crowds and stimulate even more business than was already pummeling the shore in that stifling heat wave. Names for the title were bounced around with a contest even proposed in the newspapers and prizes offered for the winning entry, and its two runners-up. The suggestions from the public ran the gamut from quite clever to imbecilic, but that was no surprise to Professor Hector Clapp of Rutgers University who was the chairman of the planning committee for the whole project. He was the head of the new psychiatry department at Rutgers and had experienced first-hand the potential lunacy of otherwise “normal people” when they were given free-reign to explore their “creative instincts”.

             It was just that particular phenomenon that occurred when they first advertised contestant interviews too. Ads in all the major papers, on girls’ college and ladies clubs bulletin boards, and on cards tucked into menus at nice restaurants and cafes for women lunching in the city inspired hundreds of auditions. What had been expected to take a couple of afternoons for the panel turned into an entire month of feverish all-day meetings with lines of ladies of all ages snaking around the block at 5th Avenue and East 50th Street where they converged on the offices of the Harrow’s Ladies Digest Magazine which was a major sponsor of the contest. The entire board of 14 ladies and gentlemen plus Professor Clapp decided that they would even have to split into five separate panels of three interviewers to process all the applicants in time before the Summer actually ended. The final tally of potential contestants?..... 1129 and that was only the ladies whose ages fell between 18 and 29, the preferred range. The actual range of ages that had come to enter was as young as 2 months of age (Millicent St. Peters whose mother felt she could model for baby food or inflatable tires) to 103 (Miss Gretel Sherbis of Passaic who, unmarried, had devoted her entire life to coaching girls’ soccer at the Betjemann Academy For Well-bred Ladies…. And raising oblong vegetables with her permanent companion Lucy Carnoff, a calligrapher of invitations to weddings, christenings, and funerals.)

            The panels worked around the clock, seven days a week, and finally narrowed the 1129 contestants down to a precious nineteen. They had come from all over the country, although they were mostly representative of the Northeast, particularly New England, New Jersey, and of course, New York. One girl had come from as far away as Louisiana, but her virtue was a cause for suspicions by some of the women on the committee, particularly Mrs. Edna Hatton who was heard to say that “Bayou Girls are used to heat, humidity, and harlotry”… and another girl had made her way from the Hawaiian Islands. Mrs. Hatton asked if she had a coconut brassiere and grass skirt in her overnight case, and then told her fellow judges that the girl was probably lying when she said “no”.

          The judges discussed what the girls should compete in in front of the audience…. cooking, housekeeping techniques, poetry recital, tasteful make-up application, making a dress, (both daywear and evening gown), composing a song dedicated to motherhood or modest wifely-ness, and of course, frosting a cake. But when the time allowed for just such a show was considered, it appeared that it would be longer than a 4H Country Fair… and this was going to be broadcast on that brand new invention sweeping the country, the domestically owned radio. Radio producers and sponsors emphasized that new audiences had only so much attention for non-musical programs unless they involved violent crime, scary monsters, repeated explosions, or barnyard sounds. Interestingly, Colonel Bangle’s Talent Time on Thursday nights usually guaranteed all those thrills and a great many more so the judges asked if they could pre-empt his time slot by merging their program with his and making him the Master of Ceremonies. Being a much celebrated Vaudevillian (and “a big hambone” according to Florenz Ziegfeld), he immediately accepted and had his Italian tailor construct a special set of white tie and tails in magenta and chartreuse paisley made for the show.

            The show was scheduled for August 26th, 1920, although many of the cotton candy cafes, hot honey-peanut parlors, and dunk-the-clown booths begged them to schedule it in early September to extend the length of the Summer business out on the boardwalk, but Mrs. Hatton and a phalanx of Presbyterians and educators made it clear that “nothing should interfere with the commencement of the school year beginning in a responsible manner in the Fall”…. In other words, any frivolities in September could be interpreted as an invitation to slothfulness, illiteracy, and even homosexuality, Pope-worship, and bad penmanship. August 26th was definite, and the Seagram’s Seaside Pleasure Palace was booked to hold the audience estimated at 2500…or more. The eighteen girls were booked into the adjoining Armbruster Breakers Hotel with assistants and chaperones to both help and “protect” them, and everything was set. Sponsors, technical crews, set builders, dressers, stagehands, vendors, caterers, and an entire orchestra were arranged for. Press boxes and much-desired “golden horseshoe seats” were snapped up immediately…the whole experiment had taken on a frantic and festive life of its own, and Professor Clapp, Mrs. Hatton, and the entire committee were both stunned and titillated in spite of any “modest reserve” that some of them might have espoused…

               One last thing remained to be determined; what should the contestants wear at the start of the evening as they entered the auditorium for the first time. Cotillion gowns, athletic team-wear, and even bathing bloomers were proposed but immediately voted down as too cumbersome, expensive, anti-climactic, or downright obscene. Finally, the idea of the girls costuming themselves as “maidenly virtues, admirable women in history, or things of femininity that a nice young lady might aspire to or have in her home” was proposed and accepted eagerly. They were given an entire week and a team of seamstresses to help them. This photo was taken just minutes before the girls were led out onstage before the cheering throngs. What a spectacle!...and what a wonderful beginning to the decade known as “The Roaring Twenties”…which ended up being about anything but maidenly virtue!

            Seen here in the front row (left to right),

1) Gigi Campbell in her charming Garden Poppy ensemble. Unfortunately, she became allergic to her own chapeau and spent most of the opening musical number sneezing and finally hacking up unappealing amounts of mucus into the embroidered handkerchief her grandmother had given her “for luck”!

2) Mabel Sneeden of the famous Sneeden’s Landing family. She had started out as a tribute to Cleopatra for her extreme beauty and feminine wiles, but Mrs. Hatton and her Presbyterians protested the night before the contest, and Mabel was forced to turn her Egyptian asp into a croissant and “a tribute to baked goods”, hence the sulking clearly seen on her face.

3) Debra Anne Postaire as “The Honeymoon Night”… also sulking because her original title had been “Floozie Helps With Shore Leave”. She and Mabel ended up drunk on cheap gin with some appreciative stagehands later after the show. Their arrest was hidden from the press for a few days till they could both be extradited to a work farm in New Hampshire.

4) Penny Glasstein, a lovely and cheerful contestant who entered as “Mirth”, the perfect choice for her sunny disposition. Sadly, it was revealed later that she had lied about her age (43) and that she had been a contortionist in a traveling Eastern European circus through Poland. Her stage name had been Brigitte The Bendy Lady.

5) Ruth Penn, a reasonably attractive girl with a stutter. She had a terrible time telling the judges in the opening sequence that she was dressed as “Li-LL-Li-Li-LLL-LILIL-…. Liberty! La-La-La-Lady Libert-t-t-t-t-ti!”… the audience applauded for three minutes when she finally finished…and the orchestra struck up a few bars of “God Bless America”….

     In the second row (l. to r.),

6) Beth Higham who struggled with her weight almost immediately after being chosen as a finalist, and decided to embrace her curvaceousness by titling herself “Motherhood” since “Pregnancy” and even “Expecting” were considered pornographic by Mrs. Hatton.

7) Gabrielle Garbersen in her tribute to “Little Miss Muffet”. Unfortunately, her tuffet was not strong enough and when it broke it crushed her “spider”. Much to the horror of the judges, she had enlisted her poodle Pinkie to play the spider after painting him black. On a happy note, Pinkie had only been squished into the heavy cushioning and was complete unharmed, although it took two weeks to get the black paint out of his handsome fur.

8) Clementine Hossfether, “Clem” for short. She decided to come as “Industry” as a tribute to her adored and widowed father who had raised her since she was 2 and a half. She had learned welding and riveting from him and accompanied him on skyscraper building in midtown Manhattan disguising herself as a teenage boy. Her chapeau there is actually her hardhat!...decorated with a borrowed flounce or two!

9) Ynetta Greene as “Perfumed Arabi” which almost got her censored by Hatton and her harpies, especially when she insisted on showing them her veil dance the night before in Armbruster’s. But when she backed down and said she would just recite something from Omar Khayyam, they gave her a pass. Interestingly, none of the judges knew what an “Omar Khayyam” was.  

10) Nancy Strunk, who unfortunately had also come in as “Liberty”, but in deference to stammering Ruth Penn offered to change her entry to “Victory”. Her costume was fairly ordinary, but her graciousness to a fellow contestant earned her an additional seven points for “Sportsmanship & Camaraderie”…out of a final tally of 3,450 points to finish in the top three.

11) Freda Jenkins came in as “Womanly Wisdom”. At the last minute, the judges recommended that she enter carrying a feather duster, a steam iron and ironing board, or perhaps a rolling pin to show that her wisdom didn’t supercede the wisdom and logic of the male sex. She reluctantly agreed but entered with an electric mixer to show her modernity and a woman’s place in the new industrial age. Her 43’ long extension cord tripped eight of the other girls though and caused a bit of a ruckus backstage during the intermission before the second act.       

            And in the third row (l. to r.),

12) Hortense Smith, who came as “Gay Paree” and offered to do a can-can at the end of which she would toss her beaded French beret in the air. She did it at the dress rehearsal the night before and closed with jump splits, a loud “Voila!”, and the tossed beret. Unfortunately, the beret had been so heavily encrusted with rhinestones, beads, semi-precious stones, and bakelite that it weighed twelve pounds and nearly poked out Mrs. Hatton’s left eye.

13) Sally Carouf came as “Carefree”… she had spent about twenty minutes the night before turning a salad bowl from room service into her hat and she hand-washed a blouse and pantaloons in the tub and hung it up to air-dry. Later in the first act of the actual show, she was the first contestant to be eliminated…she apparently was a little too “carefree” for the judges who claimed that she “had phoned in" her participation. She was not at all discomfited and packed her make-up table and props and hailed a cab to the local clam house for dinner.

14) Becky Marie Musgrave who was the tallest of the contestants at 6’ 2” decided to celebrate her Amazonian proportions by coming as “Pele the Hawaiian Goddess of the Volcano”. Her headdress was supposed to be a huge plume of erupting lava and fire, but Becky felt that the effect was mediocre. It wasn’t until she borrowed a generous douse of Madame Cloisenette’s perfume “Pyro-Passionelle” for her feathers and lit it up that she felt she had succeeded. She severely misjudged the alcohol content of the fragrance. Fortunately the fire was contained in the backstage area by the brave set changers who only lost the Nativity Scene and the “Girls In Gondolas” number. The audience was unaware of any mishaps although the smell of smoke and tomato sauce did fill the auditorium for twenty minutes.

15) Gladys Shenk presented herself as “The Spirit of a Dove in Flight”. Perhaps the most sweet-natured of the contestants and certainly the most lady-like, she appealed to the judges and the audience on so many levels, and she was an odds-on favorite to finish in the top three…until it was revealed near the end of the evening that her costume had NOT been made from old feather pillows as she had originally claimed, but that she and a gang of deranged Girl Guides had hunted down and killed several seagulls just down the shore from Atlantic City. She was ejected from the theatre just before the seventh act….around 1:30 in the morning.

16) Therese LaCouf came as “La Tulipe”…another flower theme. She was the girl who had the jumbo sized bottle of “Pyro-Passionelle” on her dressing table. During the opening sequence, the other girls complained that she was wearing too much of the fragrance…they didn’t realize that she actually was drunk and that, at $11.00 a gallon, Madame Cloisenette was a very affordable escape down on the Bowery where she returned when she came in eleventh in the competition.

17) Marguerite Mancombe made herself into “The Queen Of Spades” and even did some of the aria from Mozart’s THE MAGIC FLUTE…. On the kazoo.

18) Cynthia Fath had been a casual entrant, but her stage mother dragged her to the initial interviews. She made it through to each successive step and became one of the lucky nineteen, much to her own surprise. She was such a humble and even shy girl that her costume as “Czarina” was rather ironic…. But she comported herself very pleasantly and even learned how to introduce herself to the audience in Russian and follow it with the phrase, “Tonight is a beautiful night and I share it with my fellow contestants and you, our esteemed judges!”…. unfortunately, her accent and a mix-up on an adverb or two resulted in the sentence coming out closer to “Tonight is the festival of the poking of goats and I share it with the farmers who are naked and jumping up and down with big carrots”. There happened to have been some Russian speakers in the auditorium…. Needless to say some women fainted and it took a few minutes for the shrieks and laughter to subside.

…and now, for those of you remembering that I said there were NINETEEN contestants, if you look closely at the photograph, you’ll notice that right behind number 16, La Tulipe, Therese LaCouf, there’s what appears to be a hand raised in the air and a bit of a kerfuffle of netting and taffeta. Yep! That’s number 19, falling off the back row of the bleachers we were standing on!...ooops! Did I say “WE”??? Yes again, that was me! Your very own Sybil Bruncheon, contestant number 19, who had entered as “Gymnasia The Spirit of Healthy Womanhood”. I had been the captain of the Ladies Rugby and Cross-Country Obstacle-Course Croquet Club…and I was in my leanest prime. My measurements at the time were 50-26-43, and my hourglass figure had been immortalized by artists John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet, and Picasso (who made me look like a guitar with both my eyes on one side of my face). Imagine how devastated I was when I fell off the back of those bleachers and tore my costume. How lucky I was to find a coconut brassiere and a grass skirt in Edna Hatton’s overnight case in her dressing room, and I changed my entry to “Meester Jeem Likee Tahiti?”…. and ya know, Edna kept her damn mouth shut when I threatened to turn the French postcards of her in it over to the press. At the end of the evening, I came in third place and got a sensible little tiara, a sequined satin sash, and a gift certificate to Mel’s Clam Palace worth $47.00. ….good times….ah, good times.

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