Decades of Miss Subways smiled on NYC straphangers
NEW YORK (AP) — It was an ad campaign conceived as eye candy to bring attention to other advertisements in New York's transit system. But the "Meet Miss Subways" beauty contest posters of pretty young New York women and their aspirations quickly evolved into a popular and even groundbreaking fixture that ran for 35 years, from 1941 to 1976.
When photographer Fiona Gardner first learned about it she "immediately wanted to know what happened to all the women."
She set out to find out.
The result is "Meet Miss Subways: New York's Beauty Queens 1941-76," an exhibition at the New York Transit Museum running Oct. 23-March 25, and a companion book of the same name.
The contest reflected an evolving America. When it was launched, the war already was changing the role of women. From 1952 to 1962, the contest featured schoolteachers, stewardesses and suburban housewives; the next 10 years saw secretaries and airplane pilots.
The first African-American was crowned Miss Subways in 1948 — long before Vanessa Williams was named Miss America in 1984 — and the first Asian-American was honored in 1949.
"It was the first integrated and ethnically diverse beauty contest in America," representing working-class women, said Gardner, who was born the year the contest ended. "I realized I had stumbled on a piece of forgotten New York history."
Her interest was piqued in 2004 after seeing some of the original posters on the walls of Ellen's Stardust Diner, whose owner Ellen Hart Strum was crowned Miss Subways in 1959. The winners' future dreams were listed along with their headshots; many wanted to be models or singers, while others yearned to travel — "Europe four times, no less," read the Miss Subways poster of Maureen Walsh Roaldsen in 1968. The first Miss Subways, Mona Freeman, even went on to become a movie star after being discovered by Howard Hughes.
But for most, the subway placard was their only moment in the spotlight, and finding the former winners was a challenge for Gardner. The contest archives were lost. Many of the women had married and changed their names, some had moved, still others had died.
She searched the Internet, voter registration and municipal archives and even hired a private eye. With journalist Amy Zimmer, she tracked down 146 Miss Subways posters and interviewed 41 winners in person. Together they collaborated on the book, with Gardner taking the women's portraits wearing their Miss Subways sashes at home or at work.
"Many of these women are very interesting and have accomplished many things. You realize there's a much more complex story behind the headshots. Many of them went back and had second and third careers," said Gardner.
Marcia Kilpatrick Hocker's dream to study with the Negro Ensemble Company repertory theater came true. She auditioned after becoming Miss Subways in 1975, calling the contest "very confidence-boosting."
"I'm basically very shy. ... I didn't know I would be representing Miss Subways at various functions, speaking at kickoff events, addressing school groups," the 65-year-old Hocker said in a telephone interview from Gresham, Ore., where she now lives.
She wanted to be Miss Subways because she "wanted to be discovered. I wanted to do commercials and be an actress," Hocker said.
She married an American diplomat in 1981 and lived for a time in Colombia and New Zealand. She put her talents to use, singing at embassy functions and coaching American children in drama. For the past 11 years, she's been a DJ at Jazz Radio KMHD in Portland.
For the first 22 years, winners were selected by the John Robert Powers modeling agency and the New York Subways Advertising Company. Afterward, it became a more democratic contest, with straphangers voting via postcard for their favorite finalist.
Changing times including the women's movement, the city's fiscal crisis and rampant graffiti in the transit system brought an end to the contest.
Only 17 when she won, Strum's poster said she wanted to pursue an acting career and devote all her spare time to acting, singing and speech lessons.
"For a while I was known as the national anthem singer," the 71-year-old said. In the 1980s Strum sang The Star-Spangled Banner for the Knicks and Rangers games as one of Madison Square Garden's rotating singers. She also sang at official city functions.
She married and had two sons. Her retro 1950s-themed restaurant opened in 1987, featuring singing waiters and 70 Miss Subways posters. She also stages Miss Subways reunions at the diner.
Roaldsen, 67, a 1968 winner, is coming to the next one Nov. 13 for the book's launch party.
She was 23 and working as a secretary at Downstate Medical Center when she won. On weekends, she greeted VIPs and celebrities at the Diamond Club at Shea Stadium.
As Miss Subways she represented New York. Among the perks was attending Richard Nixon's inauguration and going to the premier of "Finian's Rainbow" at the Ziegfeld Theatre, where she briefly met Fred Astaire.
She married and continued to travel, her passion. In her 40s she launched a new career as an attorney for the New York State Appellate Court.
It wasn't a real beauty contest, said Hocker. "It was about a well-groomed young woman who in addition to wanting to be a wife and mom, had aspirations to do something to contribute to the community at large."