Oct. 20, 2019

CONTROL IS---A CAGE.

During my reign as Miss Arkansas, I received a variety of fan mail, including a beautifully-written marriage proposal from a fifteen-year-old. I also received a risqué offer (remember, this was the fifties) from a men’s magazine wanting to feature me “nude” on its cover. Well, almost nude. The offer letter included a picture of my proposed outfit: mink-trimmed bikini panties with two mink-tasseled pasties. I admired their daringness but had to refuse their offer.

Sometimes the local telephone operator giggled when connecting me with calls from distant places, some as far away as Japan. My more memorable propositions arrived by telegram, hand-delivered by a Western Union representative. It was exciting to get two telegrams from distinguished music colleges, Curtis Music Institute in Philadelphia and New York City’s Julliard School of Music. Both colleges were offering me music scholarships with living expenses and stipends but for only a limited time; both needed to hear from me soon.

With so much happening so quickly, I placed the college offers in a special stack to review later. I needed time. Something was bothering me and I’d tried in vain to ignore the cause of my uneasiness. Looking around, I saw stack of letters, telegrams, florist cards and gifts, all carefully displayed on the dining room table and all addressed to me. Everything had been opened the minute it arrived—by my mother.

For years my mother controlled the mail, the door, the phone, and, of course—me. I don’t remember a time when she didn’t listen (on the extension phone) to my telephone calls.

Privacy was a luxury I had never known and now, surrounded by pageant people, media, volunteers, and others, I was embarrassed for outsiders to witness my mother’s suffocating control. Confronting her was not an option. If my mother detected a hint of dissatisfaction, she instantly exploded into a major tantrum:

 “Who do you think you are, questioning me? You know I won’t hesitate to slap your face, ‘Miss High and Mighty,’ so you’d better think twice before you tangle with me!”

I picked up an already-opened envelope postmarked, New York City. Very carefully I removed the two-page telegram. One week before the Miss America Pageant, I had appeared on several television shows in New York City including the Ed Sullivan Show and the Today Show.

Television and I were old friends. As a senior in high school I had been chosen by the local ABC affiliate to host a Coca Cola-sponsored weekly television show: “SEARCH FOR TALENT."  Not only did I host the show every Saturday night but also served as the show’s featured performer.

I began reading the telegram aloud. The director of The Today Show praised my recent Today Show interview and congratulated me on being a Miss America finalist. Then the big surprise: “NBC invites you to audition for The Today Show’s first female hostess position. NBC will cover all your expenses including a round trip airline ticket, hotel accommodations, meals, and limousine services.” When I finished reading the telegram, my father jumped up to hug me. “Baby, this is your big break! You can be on television in New York while you study music!”

My mother interrupted: “She most certainly cannot! Only whores and prostitutes accept offers from strangers in a place like New York City. You both are stupid; there is no audition! It’s just some ‘big shot’ dangling a phony offer in front of a small-town ‘wannabe’ to get her in bed! I have the last word in this house and she’s not going anywhere!”

I begged and pleaded, “Please Mother, let me go; this is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity! If I don’t try, I’ll never know if I could have made it.”

 I looked at my father. His eyes were focused on the floor; his strong shoulders drooped in defeat. As usual, our side lost.

Follow-up: One year or more after the telegram incident, The Today Show interrupted its regular programming to make a landmark announcement. I watched a smiling Dave Garraway introduce the Today Show’s first female hostess, Barbara Walters.

Decades later, sifting through a very old box of personal papers and photos, I pulled out a tissue-thin telegram. Slowly unfolding the yellowed paper I read, again, the long-ago invitation from the Director of The Today Show. A few seconds later... I heard the scream.

One scream followed another as the little girl in me cursed my mother. When the last scream ended, I placed the telegram in the waste basket. I have more than enough reminders of what might have been.