Miss Texas 1941, Trilblazer Jo-Carroll Dennison is the oldest surviving woman to be crowned Miss America is no more. She died at the age of 97.
Dennison was a swimsuit catered winner, she defined World War II-era conventions by refusing to parade in a swimsuit during her year-long reign. She has passed away in late October at her home in California, which was confirmed by one of her friend and book editor Evan Mills on Monday.
Dennison was born in Florence, Arizona, in 1923, and spent her childhood performing in her parents’ traveling “medicine show,” where she sang, danced, and rode trick horses. Before being scouted for the Miss Tyler pageant in Tyler, Texas, she was working as a secretary.
Dennison wrote in her memoir “Finding My Little Red Hat,” published in September 2021, that after those days at the medicine show, she “swore never to perform in public again.” On the promise of a free swimsuit from a high-end department store, she eventually agreed to compete in the pageant. She went on to win Miss East Texas and Miss Texas after that, before competing in — and winning — Miss America at the age of 18 in 1942.
“The Miss America Organization is saddened to hear of the passing of Miss America 1942, Jo-Carroll Dennison,” pageant officials posted on Instagram. “We thank her for her year of service and will miss her dearly.”
Dennison praised the Miss America Organization for canceling the swimsuit portion of the competition in 2018 in favor of celebrating the “totality” of individuals while speaking at their 100th anniversary gala on September 7.
“Back in 1942, the pageant was supposed to be about looks,” she revealed in a video now posted to YouTube. “Yet, I never thought I had won because of the way I looked, but rather because of the way I felt about myself. With this in mind, I flat out refused to wear my bathing suit onstage after the pageant.”
She contributed to the war effort during her reign by selling war bonds and visiting soldiers in hospitals and camps to boost morale.