Today, America should miss Miss America, but we'll hardly notice she's gone.
She'd have been crowned last night. This morning, for her photo op, she would have frolicked in the ocean surf with strained spontaneity. But there will be no more wet frolics and no more parades on the boardwalk with its rinky-dink souvenir shops and its hulking, smoke-filled casinos.
Miss America has left Atlantic City, her home of 84 years, as well as her September time slot and her greater meaning. She'll take place in January now, in some other city -- no one knows where -- and she'll be less a symbol of America's history and ideals and more like any other pageant. There are so many pageants these days.
It is hard to imagine her wholesomeness without the backdrop of Atlantic City to put her in relief. Right behind Boardwalk Hall runs Pacific Avenue, with its countless cash-for-gold shops and a club called Dancing Dolls, which may as well have been clear on the other side of Jersey for all the pageant seemed to notice. People say Miss America's undoing was her failure to realize that the world was changing, but perhaps she was just too well-mannered to mention it.
In any case, she is broke. Last year she lost $1.7 million. ABC dropped her. Worse, no one cared. She'd grown invisible, like an aged beauty. In 1989, she had nearly 30 million viewers. Fifteen years later, she had a third of that. More recently, she entered into a contract with Country Music Television, and the pageant's president, Art McMaster, hopes to know by the end of the month where the next Miss America production will be. He doubts she'll have a permanent home; more likely, he says, she'll change venues every year or so, always searching for the next best deal. A discount beauty queen.
Miss America has followed Atlantic City's rise and fall, although -- as with everything -- she tended to be a few decades behind. She was a novelty act and then she was great and now she is a novelty act once more. Just as the city is poised to rise again, she's leaving.
Sweet, strangely modest in a bathing suit, she is the righteous heart of Atlantic City, gone for good.
Atlantic City isn't what way it used to be -- resort hotels and ladies in fur coats. Once upon a time, you could buy china and diamonds and fine perfume along the boardwalk. It was a honeymoon destination, and the early pageant had to be careful not to appear too cheesecake for fear of offending respectable middle-class vacationers.
Nowadays, Atlantic City has declared itself "Always Turned On." At a cheap hotel along Black Horse Pike, there's yelling in the hallway in the middle of the night, and the front desk woman threatens to call the cops. In the morning, you park on Atlantic Avenue and walk past a vacant lot and a boarded-up building, toward the ocean.
Atlantic City has come a long way from the wreck it was in the '60s and '70s, and there is fine shopping to be found if you search, but the boardwalk still has a rundown feel. There are T-shirt shops and funnel cake stands and arcades and seated massages. There's a long-haired man with mismatched shoes doing slow wheelies in his wheelchair. There's a man with one arm inexpertly tattooed MARCELLE. In a lot along the boardwalk, a dog barks from inside a van painted with the words GOD IS ANGRY. A man pushing a rolling boardwalk chair calls out, "Limo!"
It's warm, and there are people on the beach, though of course far fewer than in the casinos (where old people smoke and wear oxygen tubes and get around on rented scooters, and a young woman in a pink bikini top totters, barely able to walk.) Near the beach, a man is telling strangers that his buddy won $4,000. He walks with you until you walk the other way.
Near the end of the boardwalk is an art center that's closed. A historical museum has a movie that refers to Miss America and Atlantic City in the present tense. The woman behind the counter gives out pickle pins the way they used to at Heinz Pier. She is 75 and says her name is Vicky, that's it, and she speaks with sadness about Miss America leaving Atlantic City. Miss America is Atlantic City. She says she saw Bess Myerson in 1945, the year she won the crown, and Marilyn Monroe in '52, when she served as grand marshal for the pageant parade, with a neckline plunging down to here.
Nowadays, Vicky says, people think of Miss America as "old shoe." That world is gone: Mr. Peanut and "burlesk"; Milton and Sammy at the 500 Club; Sinatra and diving horses on Steel Pier; midgets and boxing cats.
"Whole world lost the sweetness, don't you think?" Vicky asks.
Atlantic City has always been big on pretty girls. Over the years there's been Miss Prettiest Waitress, Miss Steel Pier, Ms. Senior Citizen, Miss International Nude. There have been pretty girls to dress up as lobsters for Hackney's Restaurant.
The purpose of pretty girls back in 1921, the first year of what is now the Miss America pageant, was to extend the tourist season past Labor Day. The first contestants appeared in one-piece bathing suits with hose and there was all sorts of controversy about whether this was seemly. Some feared that the pageant would spoil contestants' "pure womanhood." But the funny thing about Miss America was how old-fashioned she was even when she was new.
The first Miss America, Margaret Gorman, was barely 16 when she was given the Golden Mermaid trophy, and smaller at the bust than Twiggy, as the journalist and pageant historian Frank Deford has pointed out. At a time when flappers with bobbed hair were hot, Gorman was childlike, with old-fashioned long hair and Mary Pickford looks. In the early years of the pageant, judges tended to choose Miss Americas like Gorman, shy young women with long hair who didn't wear makeup and had few ambitions outside the home.
Miss America changed, of course. She grew taller and thinner and bustier. We tend to think of her as she was in the '50s, when she first appeared on television, with that dark lipstick and the cape, the scepter and the roses. (Back then, a contestant gave her glove and hose sizes, and one said her favorite hobby was collecting dimes.) In the '60s, Miss America tucked her crown into that voluminous up-do, and in the '80s, she discovered shoulder pads. But all that was superficial. Even when she stood on a stage in Boardwalk Hall, she always had a little sand in her high heels. That's why we loved her, and why she came to seem such an anachronism.
In 1958, Mary Ann Mobley's talent included a comic striptease down to shorts and a slip. After she won the crown, the pageant banned stripping. In 1999, the pageant decided to allow contestants who had been divorced or had abortions, then changed its mind because of protests.
What did we expect from her? We wanted Miss America to change and to stay the same. We wanted her ideals but her ideals were boring. She'd been looking backward from the start.
Atlantic City hasn't needed Miss America in a long time. She's not the biggest thing in town; Boardwalk Hall gets Bruce Springsteen and Neil Diamond. The casinos could take her or leave her. It's the old-timers who will miss her, the ones who went to the parade every year and tried to predict the winners while watching the big night on television. They're still trying to figure out what happened.
Cathy Burke co-owns the Irish Pub, an inn and restaurant that was built in 1900 and looks like it's hardly changed, with pressed-tin ceilings and a carousel horse. She grew up in this town. Her parents ran a rooming house. She never could understand those people who thought Miss America was passe. Every year the whole bar watched Miss America right here on a big-screen TV, and "everybody loved it," Burke says. "See these bartenders? Mid-twenties? Everybody."
How could the pageant ever be re-created anyplace else? Burke tries to imagine the pageant without the boardwalk and the ocean.
When the pageant was in town, Burke says, "time was suspended. Atlantic City was once again the playground of the world."
Nearby in Margate, Allen "Boo" Pergament, 73, keeps a museum in his daughter's old bedroom. He calls it his Booseum. It's filled with the history of Atlantic City, and a large section is, of course, Miss America artifacts: album upon album of photographs, a Bert Parks songbook.
He remembers Jacque Mercer, Miss America 1949, coming to speak at Atlantic City High School when he was a student. When she walked in, Pergament says, all the boys sat up straight. She was only 18, but she was wearing a tight sweater and she was Miss America. Oh, Miss America.
In 1921, the first Miss America was 16-year-old Margaret Gorman of Washington, D.C. The pageant began as a gimmick to extend the tourist season of "the playground of the world" beyond Labor Day.Long before the casinos, Atlantic City attracted tourists from all over with its boardwalk and beach. Above, umbrellas and cabanas line the beach in a 1937 photo. Below, the famous diving horse act on Steel Pier, which resumed in 1993 after a 15-year hiatus prompted by protests from animal rights activists.Miss America 1935, Henriette Leaver, congratulated by the women who took second and third place: Edna Smith, center, and Jean Meglrle.