It was, probably, one of the saddest stories I ever wrote — how Mary Leona Gage, a country girl from Texas, ended up in Maryland, quickly grew bored with life in Glen Burnie and, with help from a beauty-show savvy accomplice, became Miss USA Maryland and then Miss USA.
Just one day later, the first Miss Maryland ever to win the contest, she’d be stripped of the national title when word leaked out that she was married and a mother of two.
The year was 1957, making it a forerunner of the many beauty queen scandals that have followed — and in my view the best one, because Gage, unlike her successors, slyly outwitted the system (now part of Donald Trump’s empire) to escape what she described, to me anyway, as a life of oppression.
Unfortunately, after the scandal, she went on to a life of exploitation, which happens in Hollywood — and happened often in the Hollywood of the 1950s.
She’d go on, after her public humiliation, to become a Las Vegas showgirl, date the likes of Frank Sinatra and John Barrymore, get some movie and TV roles, make commercials for hand and foot cream, attempt suicide five times, go through six divorces, lose her children, become the subject of a pulp paperback biography and end up appearing on the burlesque circuit — but as a singer, she was quick to point out.
In October of last year, after her death, her housekeeper called me, apparently finding my cell phone number among her effects. The housekeeper spoke little English. I spoke less Spanish. She told me she thought I’d like to know about Leona’s passing.
When I interviewed her, in 2005, Leona was tethered to an oxygen tank. She’d been suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for 10 years, and lived alone in a North Hollywood apartment. We met over two days, and were going to get together for a third talk when she called me, irate, and accused me of stealing one of the photographs she had shown me from her scrapbooks.
(She found it behind her sofa about two months later and — though she never apologized, and insisted she didn’t like the story I wrote at all — she asked for extra copies of the article and stayed in touch, calling every couple of months to chat about politics and things in the news.)
You can still find the story online at the Baltimore Sun.
She was dressed entirely in white at both our meetings, a color she said she associated with good health, and — though sick and in her 70s — was still a remarkable, and remarkably unwrinkled, beauty.
“Oh, honey,” she said at one point, “if I wanted to put the real make up on, I could still look darn good.”
Leona recounted how she outfoxed pageant officials, and the circumstances she said led up to her competing — an effort to escape from what she saw as an oppressive husband, an airman who married her after getting her pregnant at age 14.
She remembered how reviled she was after her deception became known — Miss USA rules prohibit married contestants and mothers — and how one of the few that it didn’t bother was Ed Sullivan, who booked her on his show. All she did was wave. A week later she appeared live on the Steve Allen show, but flubbed the song she said she wasn’t given time to rehearse — “Sentimental Journey.”
Life after that had more downs than ups. There were suicide attempts, an institutionalization, the release of a paperback, “My Name is Leona Gage: Will Somebody Please Help Me” that portrayed her as pathetic — the common theme, she said, of most everything ever written about her.
Still, she was at peace with herself. She’d converted to Judaism. She’d become celibate. She had only one one regret — not being on good terms with her children.
Despite all the sadness in her life, I found the lengths she was willing to go to, as a woman of the 1950s, to gain her independence, kind of inspiring. And I’ll even admit to admiring (wrong as it was) how, for a day at least, she stole the crown, turning the tables on the exploitative and anachronistic world of beauty pageants.
What brings all this back to mind was a promo I saw on TV last night for one of the handful of movies she was in — “Tales of Terror,” a trilogy of Edgar Allen Poe stories produced for the big screen by famed B-movie director Roger Corman.
Leona played the title role of “Morella,” in the first of the three stories — about a woman who died during childbirth who comes back to life and kills her husband, portrayed by Vincent Price, who has kept his dead wife’s body at home for 26 years.
It airs tomorrow at 2 p.m. on THIS TV.
The beginning of this video clip show’s the climax of the “Morella” story, where she rises from the dead and chokes Price’s character to death as flames consume the seaside mansion.