Filling photographic gaps in Miss D.C. Pageant’s history

John Kelly
Columnist March 5, 2013

Shhh. Don’t tell My Lovely Wife, but I’m in love with Helen Fiske Smith.

Who is Helen Fiske Smith, you ask? Well, imagine this: 5 feet 61 / 2 inches tall, with honey-blond hair, blue eyes, a 351 / 2-231 / 2-351 / 2 figure and three years of college under her belt.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

But wait, there’s more. She plays the cello.

Or played it, anyway.

I learned about Helen from a 1953 Washington Post story about her coronation as Miss Washington at age 19. She didn’t go on to win the big one — Miss America — and over time, she faded from the pages of The Post. The last mention of Helen Fiske Smith is about her engagement to Sheppard “Abdullah” King III, scion of a Texas oil dynasty who had earlier been married to a famous Egyptian belly dancer, whom he left for a famous Turkish belly dancer.


“Miss District of Columbia” Helen Fiske Smith poses in front of the U.S. Capitol in on Aug. 22, 1953. (Associated Press/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

I kind of hope Helen didn’t marry Abdullah — he had converted to Islam to marry the first belly dancer — because he sounds kind of flighty. I guess she’d be 79 today. Let the record show I have a thing for older women.

It was Jim Lindsay who put me on the path toward Helen Fiske Smith. Jim is a volunteer with the Miss District of Columbia Pageant competition. For the past two years, he’s been trying to find photos of every single one of the 59 young women who have been crowned Miss D.C.

He has a photo of the first one, 1921’s Margaret Gorman, who went on to become the very first Miss America. And of course he has photos of the most recent one, 2012’s Allyn Rose. It’s just 20 of the ones in between that he’s missing. He wants photos to include as part of the 60th pageant this summer.

(If you’ve done the math, you may be wondering why, if the pageant has been going since 1921, there have been only 59 Miss Washingtons. Well, the competition was fallow for several stretches, including for a time during the Depression and during the 20 years between 1964 and 1984.)

In the off chance that you may be related to one of the previous winners — or actually are one — I’ll print the names at the end of my column. But first, what was the pageant like 50 years ago?

It was sponsored by radio station WWDC. In 1953, a whopping 77 women competed, with the finals taking place at the Capitol Theater at 13th and F streets NW. The judges included actress Constance Bennett and Ivy Baker Priest, then treasurer of the United States. (Hey, Treasurer Rosa Gumataotao Rios, what are you doing in June?)

Besides representing Washington in Atlantic City, Helen Fiske Smith won a year’s supply of stockings, a three-piece luggage set, six pairs of shoes, two evening gowns, a suit, a dress, a week’s engagement at the Capitol Theater, a week’s stay in a Miami hotel (“with chaperone,” The Post noted) and three Flexees Sea Mold bathing suits.

Helen also appeared at countless retail grand openings around the city. She was the face that launched a thousand car dealerships and shoe stores.

Picture this

Jim got involved with pageants in 1993. He was looking to volunteer somewhere and saw a listing in The Post that something called the Federal City Pageant was in need of help. Today, he helps find Miss D.C. contestants and assists with the not-inconsiderable paperwork required to be part of the Miss America system.

“It’s been kind of a fun hobby,” Jim said. And very different from his day job as executive director of a faith-based nonprofit that promotes volunteerism.

Here are the women whose photos Jim is missing:

Helen Loyce Clum (1935), Shirley Schwartz (1936), Helen Elizabeth Greene (1937), Evelyn Mae Foster (1939), Catherine Virginia Howe (1940), Jean Fidelis Cavanaugh (1941), Marilyn Elaine Makin (1942), Dixie Lou Rafter (1943), Dorothy Louise Powell (1945), Jeanne Marie Carlson (1946), Margaret Augusta Wilson (1947), Joann Virginia Miller (1948), June Beverly Klein (1951), Iris Anne Fitch (1952), Judith Anne Dunkle (1955), June Roberta Cook (1957), Lee Rose Berkow (1958), Cherie A. Ward (1985), Cheryl Chapman (1987), Donya Rose (1989).

If you have one, drop me a line. And, Helen, I’m waiting.

Back to school daze

Is your local school holding a reunion this year? I can list it in a coming column. Send details — with “Reunion” in the subject line — to me at kellyj@washpost.com.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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