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I was a few minutes late, rather than the half hour early I had hoped to be, to  meet Marilyn Van Derbur, Miss America 1958, for an interview for my triple award winning book, Pretty Smart: Lessons from our Miss America, Somehow the ticket agent at the Denver Airport had checked my bag through to LaGuardia.  

As I walked into the lobby of the Loew’s Hotel, a tall gleaming glass tower, 15 miles south of downtown Denver, I saw Marilyn, sitting erect, poised on the edge of a sofa just inside the revolving doors.
Her silver white hair was cut short and swept up off her face.  She was tall and slimmer than I had expected, her body, dressed in dark slacks and a light blue oxford well-starched button down shirt, was trim. I followed her into the hotel dining room.

Marilyn Van Derbur

Me and Marilyn Van Derbur, Miss America 1958

As we sat and talked, her light blue eyes were focused on me. All she ordered for lunch was a large bowl of blueberries that she dressed in a shower of Splenda.  I guessed that’s how she maintains her slim figure in addition to regular hikes in the mountains. 

As in other recent interviews with Phyllis George, Miss America 1971 and Rebecca King, Miss America 1974, I didn’t try to steer the conversation too much with direct questions.  Marilyn wanted to talk about her experiences as a child of incest and the people she had helped.  I was mesmerized by her intensity and passion.  I could see how she was a sought after motivational speaker, and how people felt comfortable turning to her in their pain. 

Her story is quite extraordinary, having been sexually abused for years as a child by her father.  Her family had been picture perfect to others, but behind closed doors, it was a torture chamber for Marilyn.  It took her decades to come to terms with what had happened to her.  By day she was the perfect child, by night a terrified creature in the dark.  To this day she has trouble sleeping and sleeps in a locked bedroom.  She is fortunate that her husband of many years, Larry, has supported her through all of her trauma.
Once she was willing to go public (that’s a whole other story) about her experiences, she found, rather than shame, support and gratitude from others who had similar experiences.
I knew from reading her book, Miss America by Day, that for a long time she didn’t like people to touch her, so I didn’t know whether she would want a hug at the end.  But she turned to me when we walked out and hugged me.  She had moved past her trauma and into embracing life.

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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