The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She was Miss America in 1958. Now she’s auctioning her treasured crown to benefit teachers.

Marilyn Van Derbur in 1957 after she was crowned Miss America 1958. (Heritage Auctions)
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The crystal-covered crown was stowed away for more than six decades on a shelf in Marilyn Van Derbur’s closet. The last time she wore it was in 1958, after she won the Miss America pageant.

Although she rarely removes it from the small gray box where she stores it, “it’s one of my most prized possessions,” she said. “Anyone who knows a Miss America knows that a crown is the most special thing that she would personally own.”

But Van Derbur, 84, is now selling hers — and the opening price at the upcoming public auction is $20,000. She’s vowed to donate every dollar of the proceeds to teachers in Denver, where she has lived for most of her life.

Van Derbur got the idea to sell her cherished crown about eight months ago, when she was interviewed for a documentary marking this year as the 100th anniversary of the annual Miss America competition.

Jay Pitts, a South Carolina-based film producer, flew to Denver to meet with Van Derbur, whom he called an “iconic Miss America.” He asked her to bring her crown, as well as any other artifacts from the competition.

“I’ve seen a ton of these crowns, and I just could not believe how beautiful hers was,” said Pitts, 60, who spent several decades volunteering with the pageant. “It was heavier than the others; very ornate and sturdy looking. It was a very unique and special crown.”

Van Derbur also brought her matching bracelet, which, like the crown, is plated in silver and covered in Swarovski crystals. Pitts had never seen anything like it before.

“Do you realize what you’ve got here?” he asked Van Derbur, who was puzzled by his comment. “This has got to be one of a kind.”

Van Derbur was intrigued. She decided to call Schoppy’s, a jeweler and trophy shop in Linwood, N.J., that made Miss America crowns — including hers — from 1930 until 2004, before the pageant moved from Atlantic City to Las Vegas.

David Talarico, the owner of the three-generation family business, told Van Derbur the crown and bracelet — which his grandfather William Schoppy crafted — could probably sell for as much as $40,000.

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“I arrived at that number based on the collectible market out there, and the exclusive rarity of the pieces,” Talarico said in an interview with The Washington Post. “The other factor is who is selling it. She has been crowned with it and she has all the documentation on it.”

Plus, the crown is being sold together with the matching bracelet, and the bracelet is “the only one I’ve ever seen,” Talarico said. “I’m not sure why it was so rare and fleeting. I can’t believe she has it.”

At the time Van Derbur became Miss America, the cost to produce the crown was about $2,500, Talarico estimated.

Van Derbur was shocked.

“I never knew I had a crown and bracelet of such value. It never entered my mind,” she said.

Once she realized the potential worth of her pageant paraphernalia, “I wondered if I could sell the crown and give the money to a good cause,” said Van Derbur, who has been involved for generations in various charitable causes.

Van Derbur contacted Heritage Auctions in Dallas to gauge interest. Once staff learned about her plan to donate the proceeds from her Miss America items, they were on board right away.

“If we can bring her goal to life and get her more money for her cause, what a beautiful thing to be a part of,” said Joe Maddalena, executive vice president of Heritage Auctions.

Given the rarity of the bracelet, coupled with the time period in which it was produced and the fact that a Miss America is publicly selling them, “it’s got a lot of magic going for it,” Maddalena said.

The bracelet and the crown are for sale together, and Van Derbur is also selling her Miss America trophy and the Alfred Bosand sequined gown she wore to the 75th anniversary of the pageant in 1995. The items will be auctioned between Nov. 4 and 7, during the Hollywood & Entertainment Memorabilia Signature Auction.

Beyond the monetary worth and cultural significance of the items, the fact that they belong to Van Derbur adds another layer of value, Maddalena said, “because of who she is and the things she went through.”

On the outside, Van Derbur’s life was seemingly charmed. She was Miss Colorado in 1957, and then Miss America the following year. She then moved to New York City and worked in television for several years, before becoming a motivational speaker.

Despite the smile on her face, she was in tremendous pain.

It wasn’t until 1991 that Van Derbur, then 53, made a public acknowledgment about her late father, saying the millionaire businessman and philanthropist Francis S. Van Derbur had sexually abused her when she was between the ages of 5 and 18.

“Aside from my husband, sisters, and daughter, no one knew I had this secret,” she said. “If people found out, I knew I would lose all the respect I had gained.”

She tried to suppress the haunting memories, she said, but “there were days I literally couldn’t dress myself. I just cried and cried.”

Still, she continued to bury her family’s dark past, until she no longer could. Van Derbur was planning to create a program for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, with the goal of remaining an anonymous funder. Once rumors started swirling that she was behind it, though, she decided to reveal the truth, hoping that her story might make others feel less alone.

In front of a live audience at a meeting in Denver sponsored by the Kempe National Center for Prevention and Treatment for Child Abuse and Neglect, Van Derbur said: “A list of all my accomplishments, times 100, pales before the only real accomplishment of my life, said in only three words: I survived incest.”

The following month, in June 1991, Van Derbur was on the cover of People magazine, with the headline “Miss America’s Triumph Over Shame.”

Coming forward with her story, she said, “shifted me completely.”

Van Derbur went on to dedicate her life to supporting other survivors. She created a nonprofit organization called SUN (Survivors United Network), which aids victims of domestic violence, and she visited hundreds of cities to share her story with as many people as possible.

In 2003, Van Derbur wrote a book called “Miss America by Day,” which sheds insight on her healing process as a victim of childhood sexual abuse.

Her Miss America title, she said, became “much more significant to me when I could help change people’s lives.”

And that’s exactly what she hopes to do now, by selling her prized pageant crown and other treasured memorabilia, which she originally planned to pass down to her daughter.

Van Derbur, who has two grandchildren, said she was awed by the strength and dedication of teachers during the pandemic, and so she decided to donate all proceeds from the auction to local educators.

Although she is in a financial position to make a donation of that size without selling her Miss America crown, “there’s something symbolic about giving something away that anyone would realize is precious to Miss America,” she said.

For her, “it’s a personal way of showing a special kind of appreciation for people who have pulled together and said, ‘We’re going to keep this country going,’ ” she continued. “This isn’t coming from some bank; this is coming from someone’s heart. I’m giving away something that is of great meaning to me.”

The details of the donation are yet to be decided. Given the nature of the sale, “I don’t know what I have to give,” Van Derbur said. “It depends on how much money we are working with.”

Van Derbur has been in touch with Denver Public Schools to share her plan.

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“I can say that with absolute certainty the money will go directly to teachers, for whatever use in their lives they see fit,” she vowed, adding that she hopes to divide the proceeds between multiple schools, which will then be responsible for distributing it evenly among teachers. “One thing I feel strongly about is that it needs to be equitable. It needs to be fair.”

Van Derbur hopes her treasured Miss America items will take on a new and more significant meaning once they are auctioned off.

“I’m hoping that people will look at this story and think: ‘I have something to give,’ ” she said, adding that in some small way, “everyone does.”

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