ATLANTIC CITY, SEPT. 9 -- The country began to get acquainted with its new Miss America today, and found Marjorie Judith Vincent a woman to be reckoned with.
The aspiring lawyer, whose parents have made their way from the dire straits of Haiti to the relative security of Oak Park, Ill., dispensed with the "issue" of her race by pronouncing it no issue at all.
She wouldn't have competed in the Miss America Pageant this year, she said, if she'd had any suspicion the judges would hesitate to select one black woman to succeed another, and evidently the judges lived up to her generous hunch. Miss America 1990, Debbye Turner -- the pageant's third black winner, after the ill-starred Vanessa Williams and her successor Suzette Charles -- bequeathed the crown to Vincent at midnight Saturday.
"My race never played a role," she said, in her ascent through several state pageants (in North Carolina and Illinois) to Miss Illinois and Miss America. Did she see herself as a role model for young black women? she was asked. For all young women, she said, silencing for good a Sunday morning press gathering's inquiries on the subject of race.
Vincent observed in retrospect that she knew she would have to score well on the interview portion of the competition, which may have been a modest way of saying that she knew her strong suit -- not that anyone would quibble with her bodacious appearance or her delicate mastery in interpreting the Chopin "Fantaisie Impromptu," Op. 66, at the piano.
Miss America 1991, who is 25, is confident and well spoken, with a swift tongue. For her pageant interrogatories, in which judges privately drill the contestants on their views, she chose the issue of domestic abuse -- also known by its blunter name, battered women -- because it is a "hidden cause." Americans have had their consciousness raised about abuse of animals and abuse of children, she declared, but not enough about abuse of women. She referred to a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that identified the syndrome as the principal cause of injury to women.
Her general strategy, which as Miss America she hopes to bring to the attention of bar groups and legislatures, is two-pronged -- legal sanctions against violent spouses, and rehabilitation of the abusers. She expressed her desire to visit shelters for battered women to bring attention to their plight.
Asked if such overt lobbying for a cause was appropriate to her position as Miss America, Vincent, without so much as a blink of hesitation, said: "Absolutely. I am a woman."
A student at Duke University's School of Law -- she secured a postponement of her third year when she became Miss Illinois -- Vincent said she intended to practice corporate law with an international emphasis. She has already worked one summer as an associate at the old-line New York firm that once harbored Richard Nixon and John Mitchell, and said she might like to practice in New York.
She also hopes to be involved as a lawyer in the reconstruction of beleaguered Haiti, whence her parents emigrated 27 years ago. Marjorie was their first daughter born in America.
Lucien and Florence Vincent were coaxed to the podium at the press conference today to answer questions, and the seemingly shy father of the new Miss America proved to be quite the easy raconteur. He talked about his decision to leave Papa Doc Duvalier's Haiti, where he had worked four jobs at once, for the relatively uncertain future of life in the United States, where he now works two, as a doorman and check cashier, seven days a week.
He visited Haiti several times in the early years to see what his young family's life might be like were he to return, but each reconnaissance mission yielded a bleaker picture than the one before. "It was not the Haiti I used to know," he said. When Baby Doc Duvalier succeeded his father, Lucien Vincent noted with sad irony, "the country was in the hands of an inexperienced boy," and he knew they could not go home again.
Now that they have a rich and famous daughter -- Marjorie stands to earn some $200,000 for personal appearances during the coming year, in addition to her $35,000 scholarship, handsome clothing allowance and unlawyerly new white Corvette -- do Lucien and Florence expect their lives to change?
No, the father said, he'll keep doing what he's done all along -- "providing for my family." (Marjorie has a brother and four sisters.) Would he quit one of his jobs now? he was asked. He smiled, looking over at her. "It's her money. She earned it."
She began earning it immediately, fielding all manner of questions from a press corps considerably worse for wear than she after nearly two weeks of grueling pageantry.
She took a stateswomanlike middle ground on such issues as the Supreme Court nomination of David H. Souter, whose independent thinking she praised and whose confirmation hearings she looked forward to following. She declared herself plainly on the side of a woman's right to choose an abortion, and said Judge Souter's record did not trouble her in that regard. She called herself conservative on some issues and liberal on others. She said she had last been registered as a Democrat, but had allowed her North Carolina registration to expire.
But this was scarcely "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour":
Marjorie Vincent confessed to having eaten cheesecake every day during the week of the pageant and kept the fact from her nervous handlers.
She surprised herself with a hot blush when she was asked if there was "someone special" in her life but, quickly recovering her composure, offered protectively little information about him.
Her parents revealed, with perhaps greater gusto than their daughter would have liked, that she had been a nightmare of a baby, "screaming and howling all night," her father said -- and chubby too.
She has a weakness for romance novels ("I'm a romantic at heart") but also admires the work of another famous product of Oak Park, Ernest Hemingway.
Asked, hypothetically, whether she would consent to be lowered into a vat of jello on the David Letterman show, she answered, gently, that she'd rather do it the other way around.
Was she worried or nervous about the year ahead? "Nope," she said, quite convincingly. "I want it all. I'm ready. I knew what I was getting into."
Horn on the Dilemmas Pageant chairman Leonard Horn was visibly relieved today to be facing reporters for the last time until next time.
The B. Don Magness furor in Texas, in which the longtime state pageant director was ousted after saying lewd things to Life magazine about the young contestants, had cast a pall over the state's representative in Atlantic City (Miss Texas, Suzanne Lawrence, was chosen third runner-up Saturday night). The Rev. Al Sharpton had for a few days last week been a plague on the proceedings, and then Horn's boardwalk truce with him had angered the mayor of Atlantic City.
It's always something. Early in Saturday night's live NBC telecast of the pageant, the special reappearance of Bert Parks after 10 years in purdah was marred by an embarrassing goof. As 28 former Miss Americas, many of whom had first walked the runway as Parks sang "There She Is," walked the runway again, the 75-year-old Parks fumbled his cue cards, skipping a decade or two of returning winners and failing to introduce about half of them.
"He forgot all of us," hissed Tawny Godin, Miss America 1976, as she walked down the runway past the press tables. After the pageant, another former Miss America acidly remarked, "Now you know why they fired him."
Asked this morning whether Parks would be invited to return to the pageant next September, Horn testily said such things as "I have no idea," "I don't know" and "I haven't even thought about it." But, he insisted, Parks's behavior the night before would have nothing whatsoever to do with any eventual decision about his role. Noble words, but cold comfort for Parks.
Horn was also using careful and ambivalent language last week about persistent reports that the Miss America pageant, an Atlantic City institution since the Wilson administration, will decamp to Florida's Disney World, an eager and moneyed suitor. The accelerating costs of running the program, the price of commercial time on television, the suitability of the old barrel-roofed auditorium here to TV production values and the atmospheric drag of a grim resort city now remaking itself as a tawdry gambling capital -- such are the issues that will dictate the venue of the Miss America pageant.
"We can no longer blindly assume," as Horn put it, that Atlantic City is the home of the pageant for all time.
Beach Blanket F-Stop
Marjorie Vincent never did get to the beach, a matter of a few yards from her hotel, during the week that led to her coronation. But she did show up at 7 this morning, when every year photographers require the new Miss America's presence, no matter how groggy, to prance for pictures in ankle-deep sea water.
She emerged on the boardwalk at the appointed hour, cloaked in a thigh-length multicolored jacket over demure white beachwear, not a hair out of place or a blear in her face.
Vincent is an imperturbable sort, as ready as the next goddess to put up with silliness like this, but not fully surrendering to it. Miss America contestants are promiscuous with their smiles; Vincent's small white one is all the more striking for being discretionary, deliberate. It's hers, not yours.
Striding purposefully across the boardwalk and into the gray morning sand, she stopped momentarily to take off her battered white sandals. One of her sisters had vowed at midnight to "party hearty" in celebration. Had Marjorie slept any? "Ooo, about an hour," she said, neither bragging nor grousing.
Escorting her, as someone will be day and night for the next 52 weeks, was a middle-aged woman carrying a square brown box, Miss America's equivalent of the black bag of nuclear triggers that follows the president of the United States everywhere he goes. As the photographers pointed Vincent into the briny Atlantic, her escort helpfully proffered the box.
"No crown," the photographers snapped as one. "No crown." You can't jump wearing a crown.
Vincent didn't flinch at what looked from a careful distance to be cold water, but then fair was fair: The photographers were standing shin deep in it too, fully shod. As they jostled and chattered and whirred, she gamely kicked at the water, cocked her head, flourished her tunic.
"Three skips and a jump," they commanded, "as high as you can." She obliged. She said nothing.
"Watch the garbage," she was advised, and she stepped demurely around some gelatinous flotsam.
"Thank you, Mr. President," a photographer announced, and she was done, for now.