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Jean Bartel, whose death was recently announced, was the first Miss America I interviewed for my book, Pretty Smart: Lessons from our Miss Americas. I didn’t know what to expect.  I had my story prepared, my questions on index cards and a hope that it would go well. 

Me with Gretchen Carlson, MA 1989, Lee Meriwether, MA 1955 & Jean Bartel, MA 1943

I first met her in Los Angeles, when she invited me to her home. She was tall and very slender.  Dressed all in black, a refined string of pearls around her neck, she had wrapped her hair in a leopard print turban.  The first thing she did after greeting me was to apologize for her appearance.  But she looked elegant and cool, so no apologies were accepted. 

I felt like I was in the presence of a true lady.  She told me stories and made me laugh.  I found myself impressed with her forthrightness and warmth.   I saw her three more times at the Miss America Pageant in Las Vegas, January 2008 – 2010.  She always showed up in her high heels and strapless dress, even well into her 80’s.

 Here’s a little history about this grand dame – Jean Bartel, Miss America 1943

Jean entered the Miss America pageant to satisfy her burning hunger to appear on Broadway. She was notable during her reign for raising more money in war bonds than anyone else ever before. As the first college girl to win the crown, she encouraged the Miss America Organization to start awarding scholarships, which it did in 1945. She was the first Miss America to refuse to model swimsuits during her reign. Jean was always an independent woman.

Jean as Miss America 1943

The entertainment industry recognized her talent and professionalism at an early age. With an actor’s equity card in her pocket as a precocious fourteen year old, she joined the Civic Light Opera of Los Angeles. The pageant then opened doors to a world she had been pursuing for several years. She took her exceptional voice and trademark smile around the world on tours to the Middle East, Europe, Canada, South American and every state of the Union except Maine. Ultimately, her Broadway dream became a reality when she became the first Miss America to star in a musical, “Of Thee I Sing.” Through the next several decades she continued to appear on television, stage and in film, performing well into her seventies. Every year she still dons an evening gown, puts on her lipstick and heads to the Miss America pageant.

Jean was a single professional woman at a time when most women were homemakers. Her love for travel was sparked by her globe-trotting touring schedule when she was performing. She took that passion and started her own travel agency, Jean Bartel & Associates, which she ran well into her seventies. Jean didn’t marry until twenty years after she was crowned. She met the man who would become her husband on one of her trips to Japan. Married for thirty-one years until he passed away in 2001, this grand dame, with her trusty dog Teddy, followed her dream all the way to the finish line.

Jean and her faithful companion, Teddy

My journey to write Pretty Smart: Lessons from our Miss Americas has been full of the unexpected, the glorious and the mundane.  I explored a world I knew nothing about, met people I never would have met and challenged myself daily to be bold, all the while struggling against the inertia that fear of rejection creates.  The hardest part was picking up the phone, which for that brief moment became a malevolent alien endowed with the potential for pain, as I pounded the number for a former Miss America into the handset, hoping that she would say yes to an interview.

Who would have thought that this nice girl who grew up in Queens, NY (me) and only peeked at beauty queens on September Saturday nights in the Pageant’s earliest television days, when these women seemed like exotic creatures from another universe, would spend a year traversing the country, talking to Miss Americas, peering at what’s behind the myths, the perfect make-up, the talent, trumped up and genuine?

So after I met them, on my flight home, or waiting in terminals eating stale sandwiches, I would chronicle my first impressions of each of the twenty-two fabulous former Miss Americas that I met over the course of a year: Jean Bartel 1943, Lee Meriwether, 1955, Marilyn Van Derbur, 1958, Mary Ann Mobley, 1959, Lynda Mead, 1960, Donna Axum, 1964, Vonda  Van Dyke, 1965, Phyllis George, 1971, Rebecca King, 1974, Tawny Godin, 1976, Kylene Barker, 1979, Susan Powell, 1981, Gretchen Carlson, 1989, Heather Whitestone, 1995, Shawntel Smith, 1996, Tara Holland, 1997, Nicole Johnson, 1999, Heather French, 2000, Angela Baraquio, 2001, Ericka Dunlap, 2004, Deidre Downs, 2005, Jennifer Berry, 2006.

Only the first few surprised me with their warmth, wisdom and generous spirits.  After that, I realized that those were qualities that each one of the Miss Americas I interviewed, exhibited.  Watch for my first impressions of each one of these beautiful-from-the-inside out women in subsequent posts.

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