Lenora Slaughter Frapart, the doyenne of the American beauty pageant

| 16 Feb 2015 | 05:30

    Miss Slaughter faced off against the Miss America paparazzi for the first time in 1947. In her seventh year as the beauty pageant's executive secretary, Lenora Slaughter Frapart?"Miss Slaughter" to everyone, despite her marriage to businessman Bradford Frapart?decided that, in an effort to de-cheesify the contest, the 1947 winner would be crowned while dressed in an evening gown rather than a bathing suit, the traditional garb for the coronation ceremony at Atlantic City's Convention Hall. When Miss Slaughter announced her intention to the pageant's newspaper and magazine photographers, they rebelled, ridiculing the notion as absurd, and going so far as to threaten to pack up their equipment and leave. In an extremely rare conciliatory moment, Miss Slaughter, a strong-willed woman accustomed to getting her way, relented, and Miss Memphis, Barbara Jo Walker, was crowned Miss America while baring considerable thigh, to the hubba-hubba delight of the shutterbugs. One year later Miss Slaughter trotted out the same decree. When the photographers similarly balked, she drew a line in the Atlantic City sand, calling their bluff. All were in shooting position when Miss Minnesota, BeBe Shopp, received her tiara as Miss America 1948 while attired in a floor-length gown. Then again, the first four runners-up huddled around her in their matching zebra-striped swimsuits.

    The bathing-suit-to-evening-gown switch constituted only one of the myriad innovations wrought by Miss Slaughter in her 33-year reign as pageant doyenne. From 1935, when she first signed on as an organizer, to 1967, when she retired, the matronly Miss Slaughter?a headmistress type straight from central casting?reshaped, restructured and reimagined the Miss America pageant. Almost singlehandedly she transformed it from a resort-town cheesecake come-on into a venerable national institution devoured by tv's teeming millions, and in the process conferred upon the contest a stature and popularity it enjoyed neither before nor after her. "First thing," she explained in Angela Saulino Osborne's 1995 book Miss America: The Dream Lives On, "I had to get Atlantic City to understand that it couldn't just be a beauty contest."

    To that end, Miss Slaughter cracked her whip, and 1) introduced a talent competition; 2) conceived of awarding college scholarships; 3) banished businesses from sponsoring individual contestants, while luring big-name companies to support the pageant financially as a whole; 4) established that participants must be age 18 to 28, and never have been married; 5) created a hostess committee of unimpeachable ladies to serve as chaperons for contestants, and brought in mature women to serve as Miss America's traveling companions; 6) shifted the setting from Atlantic City's Steel Pier to its Convention Hall. As Bess Myerson, probably the most celebrated Miss America, once remarked, Miss Slaughter "picked the pageant up by its bathing suit straps and put it in an evening gown." Literally and figuratively.

    Raised in Florida, where she was born in 1906, Lenora S. Slaughter was working for the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce in 1935 when contacted by Eddie Corcoran, a p.r. honcho hired by Philadelphia's Variety Club to revive the moribund Atlantic City beauty pageant, which had been staged intermittently starting in 1921 (no contests 1928-1932, and none in 1934). He had read a wire-service item that described her as the nation's sole woman pageant director, and persuaded the mullahs in St. Pete to "loan" her to Atlantic City for six weeks to help prepare the quaintly titled Showman's Variety Jubilee, which oversaw the Miss America contest. Invited to return on a full-time basis, Miss Slaughter accepted, taking a $2000 annual pay cut?$5000 to $3000?in the bargain when she began work at the outset of 1936. Corcoran keeled over dead not long afterward, and Miss Slaughter assumed control, embarking on her campaign "to drag Miss America into respectability," as author Frank Deford characterizes it in There She Is, his jocular 1971 meditation on the pageant.

    She accomplished her goals incrementally. Only 10 states sent representatives to Atlantic City in 1935, with counties (Miss Westchester County), cities (Miss Hammond, Indiana), regions (Miss Western Pennsylvania) and whatnot (Miss Anthracite) historically filling out a roster that fluctuated wildly from year to year?83 contestants in 1924, 30 in 1942. Over time Miss Slaughter weeded out the peripherals, and by 1959 the pageant boasted representatives from all states?no Miss Anthracite in sight.

    Striving tirelessly to legitimize the pageant, she stumbled upon its most sanctifying element?scholarships as prizes?in November 1943 when a University of Minnesota student suggested as much while Miss Slaughter and then-Miss America Jean Bartel were in the midst of a war-bond-hawking U.S. tour. The pageant awarded its first scholarship, for $5000, to Miss New York, Bess Myerson?already a college graduate?when she was crowned Miss America 1945.

    In her continuing effort to stamp out the perception of sleaze, Miss Slaughter in 1944 began the process of eliminating commercial enterprises?amusement parks, radio stations, etc.?from sponsoring the local contests that produced young women for the national pageant; she replaced such businesses with various branches of the irreproachable Jaycees (U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce). "What better," she pointed out to Deford, "than to have the ideal men of America run a pageant for the ideal women?"

    Through a combination of wooing, wangling and walloping, Miss Slaughter generally persuaded everyone associated with the pageant, from board members to judges to contestants, to do her bidding. She was, in the words of Atlantic City historian Vicki Gold Levy, "a steel fist in a velvet glove." Nonetheless the occasional defeat occurred. Take 1952, when she grappled with recalcitrant judges over eventual winner Colleen Hutchins. "Lenora favored a beautiful North Carolinian, Lu Long Ogburn," Deford delightfully recounts, "and at first appeared only bemused by Colleen, Miss Utah, who stood nearly six feet tall, and well over that in heels. She said things [to the judges] like: 'I know you can't pick that big Mormon. She's even taller than I am.' Later, as Miss Slaughter realized that Colleen had genuine support, she grew even more expressive, an overt lobbying that may well have backfired against Lu Long. She finished third, and when Colleen was announced as the winner, Lenora nearly broke into tears backstage."

    Miss Slaughter also had her hands full in 1950 with Miss Alabama, the outspoken, freethinking, resourceful and stunningly beautiful Yolande Betbeze, an opera singer who blitzed the talent competition with a bravura performance of "Caro nome" from Verdi's Rigoletto. The day after she was named Miss America 1951?for head-scratching reasons, beginning in 1950 the pageant declared that the winner would be affixed with the following year, a practice maintained to this day, with Angela Perez Baraquio crowned Miss America 2001 in October 2000?Betbeze informed contest officials that she refused to parade around in a swimsuit like a hunk of raw steak during her promotional tours. "She was always ornery," Miss Slaughter allowed in There She Is, "but underneath a very nice girl." Eager to eradicate even the thinnest slice of cheesecakery, Miss Slaughter publicly embraced Betbeze's decision, which sent a major sponsor, Catalina swimwear, bolting for the exits. Catalina president E.B. Stewart, egged on by Miss America 1949 Jacque Mercer, retaliated in 1952 by creating his own pageant, Miss Universe.

    By the time she retired in 1967 with a $10,000 annual pension, Miss Slaughter had perhaps succeeded too well in her crusade to swathe the pageant in respectability; amid the cultural, social and political cataclysms of the late 60s, especially the advent of feminism, Miss America persisted as an ossified relic blithely mired in the Eisenhower era. With their long white gloves, double-bubble hairdos and one-piece, high-cut-panel bathing suits, Miss Slaughter's girls bore little resemblance to an increasing number of women outside the Convention Hall. (Responding to a Deford question about miniskirts, Miss Slaughter sputtered, "They're?they're?why, they're ungodly!") Still, she had the good fortune to depart before a brigade of feminists descended on Atlantic City's boardwalk to protest the exploitation of women during the 1968 proceedings.

    Not surprisingly, in retirement Miss Slaughter maintained an intense interest in her pageant, watching it on tv when she didn't return to see it in person. And her loyalty to Miss America and its "girls" never wavered. In the fall of 1987, 62-year-old Bess Myerson, then New York City's cultural affairs commissar, was indicted by the feds on conspiracy and mail fraud charges in connection with a scheme to influence a judge who was hearing the divorce case of her 45-year-old millionaire paramour. Miss Slaughter, in her inimitable fashion, stood up for Bess. "It's a tragedy, but a woman in love will do stupid things," Miss Slaughter noted dryly at the time. "People have sent me a lot of clippings on the bad things she's done, but that's Bess the woman, not Bess the girl. And frankly, it's a shame. Older women fall in love with younger men and get in trouble?it can happen to the best of families. When you fall in love, you lose your perspective. I still know that Bess is a human being and you can't blame her too much."

    Myerson returned the somewhat barbed compliment: "I was always impressed by her ability to sell," she said of Miss Slaughter in 1987's Miss America, 1945: Bess Myerson's Own Story, by Susan Dworkin. "Those she couldn't convince, she charmed; those she couldn't charm, she simply outlasted. I watched her feed her 'dreams and ideals' pitch to hundreds and hundreds of people, and make them believe it as I believed it."

    Miss Slaughter wholeheartedly believed it, too, right up until she died at the age of 94 on Dec. 4 in Gilbert, AZ, just southeast of Phoenix. Shortly after her death, several former Miss Americas paid tribute to the ex-pageant boss and her steel-fist-in-a-velvet-glove persona on the Miss America Organization website. "Lenora was a remarkable woman," averred 1967 winner Jane Jayroe. "She was very kind, and she was certainly tough when she had to be." The "ornery" Yolande Betbeze also expressed admiration: "Lenora was a strong lady with a vision. The pageant simply would not exist today if it wasn't for Lenora."

    Very likely Miss Slaughter would have concurred. Never in doubt regarding her singular importance in the Miss America firmament, she told the Press of Atlantic City in 1995, "I changed the whole story of the pageant. I dignified it."