Jo-Carroll Dennison, the oldest living Miss America at the time of her death and who held the title in the darkest days of World War II, passed at her home in Idyllwild, Calif. Oct. 18. Her death was confirmed by her son, who did not provide a cause.
Dennison won the competition in 1942, giving an energetic performance of the song “Deep in the Heart of Texas” while dressed in a cowgirl outfit. Her talent segment won her the newspaper title of “The Texas Tornado,” and she swept the talent and swimsuit contests on her way to winning the competition.
She spent the next year entertaining the troops, although balking at times at the requirement that she appear in a swimsuit, eventually cutting short her tour.
She went on to Hollywood, appearing in the war propaganda film Winged Victory (1944) and The Jolson Story (1946), the latter about the entertainer Al Jolson. She later appeared on television with Frank Sinatra and Ed Sullivan, and in a few episodes of the series Dick Tracy in 1950.
Dennison was briefly married to the comedian Phil Silvers, which gave her further entrée into Hollywood circles.
“I’m glad to have lived long enough to see how women’s fight against inequality, sexual harassment and abuse has finally come to the fore,” she said in a video she made in September for this year’s observance of the 100th anniversary of the Miss America pageant.
Dennison self-published her autobiography this year, titling it Finding My Little Red Hat. The title was a reference to a red felt hat she wore as a talisman for courage when her frequently on the move family saw her enter a new school.
Dennison was born on Dec. 16, 1923 in a men’s state prison in Arizona. Her parents owned and ran a traveling medicine show in Texas. They were traveling when her mother went into labor, and the emergency saw the only help they could find was a local prison doctor, who delivered her in the prison infirmary.
Her early days saw her as part of the medicine show, which required entertainment to lure in the rubes, who were then sold elixirs that promised cures over a host of stubborn ailments. Dennisonsang, tap-danced and performed in sketches as part of the show.
She and her mother later moved back to Texas after her father died. While working in a bank, she was noticed and asked to enter a beauty contest. From there, she climbed the pageant ladder, ending in her triumph in the Miss America competition.
Survivors include her sons, Peter and John Stoneham, and three grandchildren. No memorial plans have been announced.
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