It’s not every day you get to talk to Miss America, but as I sat in her living room with the best view of the valley floor, I listened to her life story. Jo-Carroll Dennison, 96, has lived a long and full life with many stories along the way.
Dennison was born Dec. 16, 1923. She was practically born into the entertainment business, performing with her parents in a medicine show from the time she was a toddler. Medicine shows were traveling groups that held performances and entertainment to lure people, then give a sales pitch for their “miracle cures” and elixirs.
“I was born and raised in a medicine show in Florence, Arizona,” said Dennison. “My mother and father ran a very small medicine show selling tonics. From the time I was two years old, I was performing on the stage. My father died when I was 10 and I went onto perform in a bigger medicine show until I was 17.”
Performing wasn’t something that Dennison necessarily liked. It was her father that encouraged her to perform, but it wasn’t her passion.
“All that time, I had only felt comfortable and being true to who I was while being alone in nature,” said Dennison. “Other than that, I was who my father wanted me to be. I never wanted to be a performer really. Nature, reading and learning are my passions.”
By the time Dennison was a teenager, she was competing in pageants. Living in Tyler, Texas, Dennison was lured into competing in the Miss Tyler pageant with the offer of a free swimsuit from the Swartz Department store.
At the time, she didn’t own a bathing suit. She won the pageant and reluctantly agreed to represent Tyler in the Miss East Texas pageant. As Miss East Texas, Dennison then competed in the Miss Texas pageant, where she won her third pageant crown.
Dennison took a three-day train ride from Texas to New Jersey to compete in the Miss America Pageant, representing the great state of Texas. World War II was underway, and the United States needed something positive to hold onto as thousands of troops went to the front lines.
During this time, the Air Force took over Boardwalk Convention Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey where the Miss America Pageant was to be held.
The pageant was about to be canceled until Lenora S. Slaughter, pageant director from 1941-1967, secured the Warner Theater on the Boardwalk with the help of Rose Coyle (Miss America 1936) and her husband Leonard Schlessinger (an executive with Warner Bros. Studios).
In September 1942, Dennison, at the age of 18, became the first Texan to take the title of Miss America.
“I think I won because I’m from Texas and sang ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas,’” explained Dennison. “I won all three categories in the pageant — the bathing suit, evening gown and talent sections. As far as I know, I’m still the only one that’s won all three.”
During her performance of “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” she was supposed to wear a bathing suit, but was against it.
“I was the first one who refused to wear a bathing suit because I didn’t think it was what I was about,” said Dennison. “I wore a cowgirl skirt.”
Dennison and her 29 fellow titleholders carried hope across the nation as they served in camps, hospitals, defense factories, USO clubs and Red Cross canteens.
Dennison was happy to be able to put a smile on troops’ faces during such an emotional time.
“The really good part about being Miss America is I got to go to service camps everywhere and the boys were so darling,” said Dennison. “I was a very good jitterbug dancer, so we danced and they treated me like I was a symbol of what they were fighting for. It was very touching and tender. What I really got out of being Miss America was this extraordinary feeling of patriotism.”
Dennison’s life continued to flourish in the entertainment industry after winning Miss America, taking her from a young secretary to a production assistant when television was first making its way into homes across the country.
“I just loved and thoroughly enjoyed it,” exclaimed Dennison. “It was the very beginning of television and it was the best job I ever had.”
Ultimately, Dennison signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox and became an actress, entertaining the masses from the stage to the big screen.
She married comedian Phil Silvers, divorcing after five years of marriage and later married Russell Stoneham with whom she had two children.
She spent many years in the entertainment industry during an exciting time in our history, rubbing elbows with the stars. She would spend every Saturday night dancing in the living room with Gene Kelly at his home in Beverly Hills, had conversations with Marylin Monroe, who was actually a very shy woman according to Dennison, and listened to Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra serenade the parties when they were in town.
“There were two pianos at Gene and Betsy Kelly’s house and everyone would gather around and sing six-piece harmonies,” said Dennison. “But the biggest star that got everyone excited was Greta Garbo. When she came to town, even the stars were star struck. It was an exciting time in my life.”
Despite all of the glitz and glamor of the Hollywood life, the pageants, acting and award shows, Dennison has always felt at home in nature. At the age of 60, Dennison bought a house in Pine Cove — the place she knew she would spend the rest of her life.
“This is why I’m alive, it’s where I live,” said Dennison of Pine Cove. “I was nourishing myself being in nature, absorbing the things around me and strengthening myself. It’s been great therapy for me.”
When asked about what she wants to share with the world about her life and what she’s learned Dennison said, “The things I’ve learned now that I’m toward the end of my life are: Fame and fortune doesn’t mean anything, but the love I’ve given and received does. Every time I did something out of anger or fear, it turned out badly. And every time I did something out of love, it turned out well.”
Dennison now spends her days with her beloved dog, attributing her long life to her positive attitude and optimism, and still enjoying nature, reading and learning.