The judging of beauty, both male and female, has probably been going on since the beginning of mankind. Yet, the first truly modern beauty contest here in the United States is said to have begun with perhaps the most famous showman of all time – P. T. Barnum – who, back in the 1850s, began holding contests before paying audiences to select the best chicken, dog, flower, and child in all of America. It was only a matter of time before he turned his attention to “the handsomest ladies” in the United States. Surprisingly, that was one beauty pageant that he couldn’t pull off. Due to the conservative nature of society at the time, Barnum was unable to find enough women willing to publicly place themselves on display. His solution was to have a picture photo contest. Women would submit photographs of themselves which Barnum intended to display in his museum and then have his patrons vote for the most beautiful woman. The prize for being among the top ten of the winners was a specially commissioned oil painting based on their photos. In addition, a book of portraits titled the “World’s Book of Female Beauty” would be published in France for the whole world to see. Yet, this was never to be. Barnum sold his museum shortly before the judging ever began. Others around the country picked up on Barnum’s idea and soon the exhibition of submitted photographs became a respectable way for young women to have their beauty judged.
By the early part of the 20th century, social norms began to change. Resorts and entertainment venues began to host beauty pageants, although they were strictly localized events. A big change would occur when businessmen in the resort town of Atlantic City, New Jersey held what they referred to as a “Fall Frolic.” The planners never set out to create a national beauty pageant. What they were trying to do was to get people to visit Atlantic City after Labor Day, which marks the traditional end of summer here in the United States, after which beach resorts like Atlantic City became ghost towns. The first Fall Frolic was held on September 25, 1920. While the event did bring visitors in, it wasn’t the smashing success that they had hoped for.
To increase attendance the following year, changes were made to the program. First, nine East Coast newspapers agreed to hold picture photo contests within their pages to allow their readers to choose the most beautiful women in their city. The finalists from these contests would then go on to compete in a local beauty contest, the winner of which would be awarded an all-expenses-paid trip to Atlantic City to appear in the Fall Frolic. There they would all compete in a beauty contest in which the winner would be crowned the Inter-City Beauty. The next day, these young women would also compete in the Bather’s Revue, the winner then crowned the Golden Mermaid. If you’re imagining young women walking around on a stage in skimpy swimwear, keep in mind that bathing suits were still quite conservative in 1921. Miss Washington, DC, Margaret Gorman was the winner that year, and just prior to the 1922 event her title was changed from the Inter-City Beauty to Miss America.
Fast forward to the 1937 contest, which is the focus of today’s story. Unlike today where there are fifty-one contestants, one from each state plus Washington, DC, back then there could be multiple representations from one state and none from another. For example, Miss Westchester County, Miss New York City, Miss Troy, Miss Bronx, and Miss Empire State all came from New York that year. Yet, there were no contestants from states such as Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, New Mexico, Utah, and so on. Miss Puerto Rico was also present, but she was not allowed to compete due to the contest’s Rule #7, abandoned in 1940, which required contestants to be “of good health and of the white race.”
Festivities got underway on Monday, September 6 with all the contestants meeting together for the first time at Philadelphia’s Belview-Stratford Hotel. After the women were photographed, given a tour of the city, they were the guests at an extravagant dinner held in their honor by the Philadelphia Variety Club.
Earl Sweigart, one of those in charge of the Philadelphia arrangements, stated “I never saw a finer looking group of girls in my life. The judges this year will have a very difficult task to determine who is the most beautiful girl and the girl with the most personality. I understand also that some of the girls are really talented.”
The next day, all of the contestants boarded the “American Beauty Special” train, arriving in Atlantic City at 11:20 AM. The pageant opened with a flag-raising and gun salute on the deck of Atlantic City’s famed Steel Pier entertainment and amusement complex. This was followed by dignitaries giving their obligatory speeches with music provided by Rudy Vallee and his orchestra. The contestants met with the press at noon, followed by the Variety Club Jubilee Luncheon at the Traymore Hotel. No longer in existence, the hotel was located at the intersection of two of Monopoly’s most expensive properties: Boardwalk and Park Place.
It was at 8:30 that evening that the first round of judging took place in the Marine Ballroom on the Steel Pier. As a crowd of seven thousand looked on, fifteen of the contestants competed in what was called the Talent Preliminary Contest, which was broken into three segments. First, the girls paraded past the judges in their evening gowns, which was followed by the swimsuit competition, and concluded with the talent portion of the show. Only the top talent winner, Miss Massachusetts, Claire Nevulus, was announced at the end of the evening. The remainder of the rankings were kept secret. This same contest would be repeated Wednesday and Thursday evenings until all forty-six contestants appeared before the judges. Miss California, Phyllis Randall, and Miss New York, Grace Travis, placed first in those two competitions.
On Friday, thousands of spectators looked on as a parade featuring spectacular floats, bands, and the Miss America contestants moved along the Boardwalk. At 9 PM, all of the contestants competed in the American Ball, during which the young ladies walked along the runway in their evening gowns so that the judges could select the “most beautiful girl in an evening gown” and the “girl with the most pleasing personality.” The winner of the evening gown contest was Miss Bertrand Island, Bette Cooper, who “wore a coronation red, transparent velvet gown with a full skirt accentuated by a hoop” with pale pink gardenias around it. Miss Westchester County, Evelyn Raye, was voted to have the best personality. At 11 PM, the fifteen women who ranked highest in the three preliminary contests were announced, allowing them to advance on to the final competition.
Saturday was the big day. At 8:30 PM, another seven thousand spectators packed the Marine Ballroom to witness the final judging. It wouldn’t be until 11:30 PM that the coronation ceremony would begin. There was a tie for 3rd runner-up between Miss California, Phyllis Randall, and Miss Miami, Irmigard Dietel. 2nd runner-up was Miss North Carolina, Ruth Covington. The 1st runner-up was Miss Texas, Alice Emerick. And, the new Miss America in 1937 was – drumroll, please – 17-year-old Miss Bertrand Island, Bette Cooper.
But just who was Bette Cooper? And where in the world was Bertrand Island? The world would soon find out.
Bette was born on August 11, 1920, to Mabel and Marin Le Brun Cooper in Hackettstown, New Jersey. She was the second of the couple’s three children. The family lived at 504 Moore Street – the same house that she was born in – which was located directly across the street from the campus of Centenary College. At the time of Bette being crowned Miss America, she had just begun her first year of junior college there. Before this, Bette attended Hackettstown High School, where she excelled in her academic studies, participated in theater productions, and was highly active in sports such as basketball, volleyball, and track. In her spare time, she loved to swim, play tennis, cycle, and dance. She stated, “But not those modern dances. I prefer the old-time graceful waltz.”
The interesting thing is that Bette Cooper never dreamed of becoming Miss America. Her path to the crown began in the summer of 1936 when she entered a beauty pageant at the Bertrand Island amusement park on Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey. The amusement park is long gone, but it was a moderately sized, family-run entertainment venue. Nothing like the mega amusement parks that exist today. So, entering a beauty contest there was not that big a deal. Being crowned Miss Bertrand Island carried no greater significance than being crowned the queen of a resort hotel or a parade. And Bette did not win that year. She placed third.
Fast forward one more year to 1937 and Bette was back at the amusement park to have some fun with friends. And, wouldn’t you know it, the park was once again holding one of its many beauty contests. Her friends convinced Bette to once again enter. To her surprise, Bette was crowned Miss Bertrand Island 1937. Two weeks later, on August 12, 1937, Bette and ten winners of other local pageants met up in the Bertrand Island ballroom to compete for the title of Miss Lake Hopatcong 1937. Once again, Bette was chosen to be the winner, which automatically advanced her straight on to the Miss America pageant. Since the amusement park paid for Bette’s travel expenses to Atlantic City, she competed as Miss Bertrand Island for publicity purposes.
The reality was that Bette never expected to win the Miss America title. She simply wasn’t the classic long-legged beauty that stereotypically wins beauty contests. As judged by the press back then, Bette was more of an adult version of Shirley Temple. The main reason she agreed to participate in the Miss America contest was that it allowed her entire family to have an all-expense-paid trip to Atlantic City. And, when she did win, Bette was completely unprepared for what came next.
Moments after being crowned, dozens of photographers rushed toward the stage. The constant popping of the flashbulbs seemed blinding as Bette stood there in shock. Reporters began their rapid fire questioning of the new queen and, as she sobbed in apparent happiness, Bette stated “I don’t know what to say – I’m so happy.” Shortly after that, the pageant came to a close and Bette and her family retreated to their hotel rooms to get some much-needed rest.
The following morning, cameramen for the newsreel pictures and newspapers arrived to the Steel Pier to set up their equipment for a scheduled 10:30 AM press conference with Miss America and the runners-up. But there was one big problem: Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937, was nowhere to be found. Phone calls were made to her room, but she was long gone. Even her parents couldn’t say where she went. Miss America had gone AWOL. As reporters and policemen scuttled off in search of the missing Miss America, pageant officials attempted to make the best of a bad situation. A photograph syndicated in newspapers across the country shows a vacant throne with Miss America’s robe draped over it. Her crown rested on the seat of the throne while her trophy sat on the ground at its base. Miss Texas, the 1st runner-up, stood to one side while Miss North Carolina and Miss Miami stood on the other, all dressed in their swimsuits.
Atlantic City Mayor C. D. White told the press, “We don’t know where Miss Cooper is. Her parents didn’t mind her entering the pageant, but they didn’t expect her to win. They let her come down because it was a nice vacation for all of them, but now that she’s won the crown they don’t want her running all over the country for stage appearances and screen tests.”
But where was Miss America? Rumors spread like wildfire. Did she forfeit her title? Would Miss Texas now be crowned Miss America? Could Bette have been kidnapped? Famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell took to the airwaves and reported that Bette had eloped in Maryland.
None of this was true. It turns out that Bette had been hiding in plain sight the entire time. In explaining what had really happened, we must return to that first day when all of the contestants showed up in Atlantic City. Upon arrival, each of the young women was assigned a male chaperone – officially called “a chauffeur” – to escort them around the city and to all of the pageant functions. This had been done out of necessity because the Miss America pageant was operating on a shoestring budget during the Great Depression. To save money, pageant organizers came up with the brilliant idea of finding young men who would volunteer their time to entertain the young ladies. On its surface, it seemed like the ideal situation. The young men got to spend time with beautiful women, the contestants would have a handsome escort to show them around the city, and the pageant got free labor. What could go wrong?
They were about to find out…
A few days before the pageant was scheduled to begin, 21-year-old Louis Off and a friend decided to volunteer their services. By the time they arrived at pageant headquarters, only two contestants remained without chauffeurs: Miss New Orleans and Miss Bertrand Island. Lou let his buddy pick first, leaving Lou with the only unselected girl, Bette Cooper. Years later, Lou would recall, “I remember there were all sorts of girls. A lot of them were just cute bathing-suit girls, and there was even one stripper in the contest. In this crowd, Bette Cooper stood out like a beacon in the middle of the ocean.”
The two hit it off right away. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Bette was beautiful inside and out, while Lou was good-looking, well-dressed, and polite. His family owned both the nearby Brighton Hotel and a floral nursery, so he was able to send Bette orchids every day. While Bette seemed enamored by her chaperone, Lou saw it as more of an opportunity to spend time with a beautiful young woman.
On the day of Bette’s coronation, she had some downtime before the evening pageant, so Lou asked her if he could take her to lunch. He picked her up at the Lafayette Hotel and Lou described what happened next: “We took a long drive first. Bette had a cold and didn’t feel well at all. She had even been to see a doctor. I remember we stopped for lunch at a restaurant in Somers Point, and when we were sitting there I asked her, ‘Bette, have you really thought what you are going to do if you win this thing tonight?’” He continued, “She just laughed and said the thought was ridiculous.”
Then, after winning the contest that evening, it quickly became clear that Bette was unprepared for all of the demands that being Miss America entailed. After retreating to her hotel room that evening, she panicked. Lou described what happened next. “About 2 AM, the phone rang and it was Bette. She was in tears and she said, ‘I want to see you. I don’t want any part of it.’ And I said, ‘If you don’t want it, you don’t have to have it.’”
That’s when Lou ran into a nearby telephone booth and emerged seconds later as Superman. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic…
Lou fetched his car from the Brighton Hotel garage and raced to the Lafayette where he met up with Bette’s father in the lobby. Mr. Cooper explained that Bette was in over her head and didn’t want the title of Miss America after all. The entire family just wanted to go home. Lou drove off and then asked two of his buddies for assistance.
Lou returned to the Lafayette around 4:30 AM with his friends and they escorted Bette down the fire escape to freedom. They drove about four miles (6.4 km) down the coast to nearby Margate and boarded a fishing boat docked there. They sailed directly back to the Steel Pier and dropped anchor just a short distance away as dawn was breaking. With Bette ill, she slept most of the day below deck as Lou and his buddies relaxed and did some fishing. The entire time they were able to watch all of the commotion taking place up on the pier as the search for Miss America continued. Later that afternoon, they sailed back to Margate, hopped in Lou’s Buick, and drove 3 ½ hours to Hackettstown, arriving at Bette’s home around midnight.
Once officials determined Bette’s whereabouts, the pageant’s board of governors had an emergency meeting to determine how to handle this unusual situation. Bette was willing to walk away from all of her winnings, which included a six-week vaudeville contract, $400 (approximately $7200 today) for a 5-day stint on the Steel Pier, a $1000 ($18,000 today) fur coat, and a flight to Hollywood for a screen test. But would pageant officials force Bette to forfeit her Miss America title?
George D. Tyson, then director of the Showman’s Variety Jubilee, which operated the Miss America pageant, soon announced, “Miss America has decided against launching her professional career at this time. She is too ill to be on hand today. She is still Miss America. She rightfully won and the pageant officials will not dictate her future course.”
Yet, behind the scenes, there was a lot of negotiation taking place. With Bette being seventeen years of age, she could not be held legally responsible for any contract that she had signed. Her parents demanded that she receive a less vigorous schedule. It was agreed that in exchange for Bette retaining her Miss America title, she would participate in only a fraction of her expected duties. Four days after being crowned Miss America, Bette Cooper announced to the world that her abdication was completely a mistake.
Needless to say, the press had a field day with this story. It was front-page news across the nation. In fact, the Associated Press ranked it as the tenth biggest story of 1937, with the Hindenburg disaster being #1.
One article concluded that Bette’s initial decision was the correct one. “According to actuaries, the odds are almost 4-to-1 against any holder of the crown making a successful marriage. The average Miss America can expect no more than 3.9456 years of bliss.” Only the passage of time would determine if Bette could beat those odds.
Another story commented that ordinary women should not fret because Bette’s proportions were not perfect either. “She is five feet, six and one-half inches tall, and weighs 120 pounds. She has a bust measurement of 32 inches; hips, 36 inches, and waist, 26 inches; thigh, 20 inches; calf, 13 inches; ankle, 8 ½ inches. According to the accepted standards in symmetry, Miss Cooper’s hip measurement is too large… Or her bust too small. The rest of her measurements are very nearly perfect and she is an exceptionally pretty girl.”
Reporters waited outside the Cooper home but the family had very little to say. Mrs. Cooper answered the door and stated, “Bette is in bed – sick. And I’m going to bed. I’m sick.” She then pointed to a sign placed near the doorbell that read, “Do not ring the bell owing to sickness.”
Bette’s father said, “Bette is not the type of girl to appear in vaudeville. She isn’t robust enough for the professional grind. She just entered on a lark. Her mother and I want her to finish school first to get polished off, then do something that isn’t strenuous, like modeling for magazine covers.”
As for her relationship with Lou Off, her sister Mabel stated, “Puppy love. Not serious.” Her father added, “Ah, that’s no romance. Lou’s too sensible a boy to think of romance at his age.” When questioned by gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, Bette said, “Love? Poof! I’m not in love. I’m too young. All I can think of is going back to school. Louis is just a friend of my family.”
Months later, it was clear that Bette had no regrets over her decision. “I want as good an education as I can get. After that I want a try at earning my own living. I hope that I will be able to get into radio. After that I’d like to marry – but not before I’ve finished with a career.”
Throughout the remainder of her year as Miss America, Bette mostly focused on her education and selectively did promotions for the pageant in her spare time. “On Saturday I often go to New York to pose for commercial photographers and several times I’ve endorsed products over the radio.” Her public appearances were quite few, but she did appear in the occasional parade, at a promotion for New Jersey’s dairy industry, and at a few fashion shows. In print advertisements, Bette Cooper could be seen receiving a new Underwood typewriter, endorsing soaps, or promoting the Beautyrest line of mattresses with the quote “It gives me a real beauty rest every night” printed right next to her image. At the end of her reign, she commented “I’ve done what I wanted to do. You might say I’ve eaten my cake and had it too.”
Above: A sampling of advertisements that Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937, endorsed. Click on any of the images to see them full-sized.
After dealing with the fiasco of the 1937 pageant, changes were made to the competition. First, all future contestants were required to be between the ages of 18 and 28, the minimum set to ensure that the winner could legally sign a contract detailing all of the responsibilities and duties required of being a Miss America. In addition, they ended the male chaperone program. It was replaced with a hostess program that prohibited the contestants from spending any time alone with a man during the week of the beauty pageant.
The 1938 pageant went off without a hitch. Marilyn Meseke, of Marion, Ohio, was crowned the new Miss America. It was tradition that the previous Miss America would hand off her sash and crown to the new winner, but that did not happen in 1938. That is because Bette Cooper was not at the pageant, an absence that the press interpreted as a major snub on the part of the pageant organizers.
After Bette completed her two-year college degree at Centenary Collegiate Institute in 1940, she found employment as the public relations director of the Sandy Valley Grocery Company in Ashland, Kentucky. In 1947 – 48, she taught kindergarten at the Edgewood School in Greenwich, Connecticut before enrolling in Columbia University in 1949.
On April 27, 1951, Bette married engineer William F. Moore. The couple lived in Greenwich, where they raised their two children Gregory and Cheryl. Sadly, Bette’s husband died in 1968. Her seventeen-year marriage beat the prediction that a former Miss America would only experience 3.9456 years of wedded bliss.
Bette’s last major public appearance as a former Miss America was at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. For the remainder of her life, she would say nothing publicly about her 1937 coronation. When Elizabeth Cooper Moore passed away on December 10, 2017, at 97 years of age, she was the oldest living Miss America at the time. Bette’s obituary detailed her family, her love of music, her involvement in her church, and that she was an “enthusiastic golfer and tennis player.” The one glaring detail that was missing, however, was that Bette Cooper was once Miss America.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.