By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 6:47 PM
For one day in 1957, Leona Gage of Maryland was declared the most beautiful woman in the United States.
But Ms. Gage, who was named Miss USA on July 18, 1957, had not worn her tiara for more than 24 hours before pageant officials stripped her of the title.
She was disqualified for deceiving the judges on important elements of her biography. She lied about her age - claiming to be 21 when she was 18 - and hid the fact that she was a housewife in Anne Arundel County and the mother of two sons.
For Ms. Gage, who died Oct. 5 at age 71 of a heart ailment at a hospital in Sherman Oaks, Calif., losing her crown was the most publicly devastating moment in a difficult life.
She had been a prematurely gorgeous young woman, a mother twice over by 16, and locked in a troubled marriage. She hoped the beauty contest would be her route to fortune, if not fame, but it instead led to national humiliation.
In a subsequent appearance on the "Ed Sullivan Show," she looked like a ghost, expressing in almost inaudible tones that she wanted to be a "dramatic actress." Her career thereafter took her to Las Vegas and then to Southern California, where she existed on the fringes of the movie world.
She said she abused drugs and attempted suicide. All six of her marriages ended in divorce. She eventually lost custody of her five children.
The Baltimore Sun tracked her down in 2005, when she was living alone in an apartment beyond Hollywood. Having developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Ms. Gage was tethered to the nose tubes of an oxygen tank.
"There's really no way that this could have a happy ending, is there?" Ms. Gage told the Sun. "Why? Because my dream is dead - having all my children around the table at one time, and me serving them turkey and all the trimmings."
Mary Leona Gage was born April 8, 1939, in Longview, Tex.
A tall, voluptuous brunette before she was in her teens, Ms. Gage possessed a silhouette capable of stopping men on the sidewalk mid-stride.
At 13, while working as a drugstore waitress, she met Gene Ennis, an airman almost a decade her senior.
They started dating, and Ms. Gage learned she was pregnant after he had left for a deployment. She became desperate and wedded another airman, Edward Thacker. The vows were annulled days later.
She married Ennis when he returned from his assignment. They moved to Maryland, where he was stationed at an Air Force post at Baltimore's Friendship International Airport.
At 16, Ms. Gage had a second child. She said she developed such a frustration with domestic life that she got a job at a dress shop in Glen Burnie.
There, Ms. Gage met Barbara Mewshaw, a sometime model and veteran of the local beauty pageant circuit.
Stunned by Ms. Gage's bewitching, willowy looks, Mewshaw entered her new friend in an upcoming Miss Maryland contest and helped her purchase a discounted gown.
"She wanted something out of life, and her husband was a real jerk," Mewshaw told the Sun in 2005. "It wasn't meant to do any harm, just to get her some jobs. We were really just two dumb country girls."
Mewshaw and Ms. Gage conspired that they would keep her marriage and family secret throughout the Miss USA pageant in Long Beach, Calif.
Not long after Ms. Gage was crowned, however, rumors began to circulate that she had a husband back in Maryland.
"Absolutely not. Who would say such a thing?" she told inquiring reporters. Newspapers also quoted her saying, "I want to wait until I'm 26 before I become seriously interested in the opposite sex."
But when her own mother confirmed to the press that her daughter was married, Ms. Gage reluctantly admitted that she made false statements. The runner-up, Charlotte Sheffield of Utah, took Ms. Gage's place as Miss USA.
"I needed the money badly," Ms. Gage told reporters at the time. "I thought this would be a change for me to get recognition. I did not expect to win. After I did, I was frightened. I didn't know what to do. But I'm most grateful I was Miss USA for a day."
In efforts to salvage her show-business career, Ms. Gage moved to Las Vegas, where she lived in a trailer and was a featured act at the Tropicana Hotel.
Later, she toured strip joints around the country with a singing and dancing act. In November 1965, Ms. Gage was found unconscious on the floor of a motel room after overdosing on barbiturates.
A year later she attempted suicide by trying to drown herself in the ocean. She was once institutionalized for seven weeks at a California state hospital.
Two of her children died. She is survived by three sons, Robert Kaminer of Scottsdale, Ariz., David Ennis of Tyrone, Ga., and Nicholas Covacevich of Los Angeles, and three grandchildren.
Life under the glare of the Hollywood spotlight burned her sense of childhood innocence, Ms. Gage said in the 2005 interview. She shunned her given first name.
"Leona means lioness," Ms. Gage told the Sun. "Leona is a survivor. She's taking care of Mary because Mary was a wimp. Mary was a sweet little girl who was taken advantage of by every man she ever met."