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'Miss Subways': A Trip Back In Time To New York's Melting Pot

Dec 20, 2012
Originally published on May 2, 2013 7:13 pm

For more than 35 years, riders on the New York City subways and buses during their daily commute were graced with posters of beaming young women. While the women featured in each poster — all New Yorkers — were billed as "average girls," they were also beauty queens in the nation's first integrated beauty contest: Miss Subways, selected each month starting in 1941 by the public and professionally photographed by the country's leading modeling agency.

Photographer Fiona Gardner, captivated by old Miss Subways posters she'd seen, worked with journalist Amy Zimmer to track down 40 of the more than 200 former pageant winners. They've juxtaposed images of those women today with their Miss Subways photographs in their book, Meet Miss Subways. Several former winners featured in the book also shared their stories with the audio documentary project Radio Diaries.

"When you looked at Miss Subways, you were looking at a star, no question about it," Peggy Byrne, a 1952 Miss Subways, told Radio Diaries' Samara Freemark. And when riders gazed at the Miss Subways posters, they were often seeing something more, something unusual: a group of young women far more diverse than other beauty queens at that point in American history.

"Somewhere along the line it occurred to me I had never seen a clearly ethnic name on that poster," says former Miss Subways Enid Berkowitz Schwarzbaum. "My name was distinctively Jewish, and that might have been part of the reason I might have said let's give it a shot. Let's see what happens."

Enid, of course, did go on to take the Miss Subways title in July 1946, when her poster proclaimed that the Hunter College student was "plugging for [a] B.A., but would settle for an M.R.S." — code for a college-educated woman in the market for a husband.

Two years later, Thelma Porter became the first black Miss Subways, more than three decades before Vanessa Williams became the first black Miss America in 1983. Latino and Asian Miss Subways all joined their white Miss Subways counterparts before the pageant ended in 1976.

The Radio Diaries story, airing on All Things Considered, was produced by Samara Freemark, with help from Joe Richman and Ben Shapiro, and edited by Deborah George.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Most beauty pageants promote a fantasy of the ideal woman, but for 35 years, one contest in New York City celebrated the everyday working girl. Starting in 1941 and lasting until 1976, the young woman chosen to be that month's Miss Subways gazed down on transit riders. Her photo on posters was accompanied by a short bio detailing her hopes, dreams and aspirations.

SIEGEL: The public chose the winners and Miss Subways was a barometer of changing times. It was one of the first - perhaps the first - integrated beauty contest in America. There was a black Miss Subways in 1948, more than 30 years before an African-American was crowned Miss America. By the 1950s, Miss Subways winners were black, white, Latino, Asian and Jewish - the faces of New York's female commuters. Here's their story as produced by Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Every month, some lucky little New York miss is chosen from the thousands of girls who ride the subways. She's got to be brilliant, beautiful, talented, just average girl.

PEGGY BYRNE: We did not get on the train in New York in those years and not look up at Miss Subways. When you looked up at Miss Subways, you were looking at a star, no question about it. My name is Peggy Byrne. I was a secretary and I was Miss Subways, March and April 1952.

SANORA SELSEY: My name is Sanora Selsey. I was a teacher and Miss Subways 1964.

ENID SCHWARZBAUM: My name is Enid Schwarzbaum. I was a daily commuter going to college and I was Miss Subways in July of 1946.

MARCIA HOCKER: My name is Marcia Hocker and I was Miss Subways in 1974. I worked in the garment district, but I wanted to go into acting and so I sent in a headshot and that's how it got started.

BYRNE: Here's how it worked. The New York subway advertising agency would get something like a thousand photos in a couple months and they would select, out of that 25, to be photographed by John Robert Powers, the number one modeling agency in the country.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And the public was to send in postcards voting for the one that they wanted to see as the next Miss Subways. The mail would come in and they would take a ruler and they'd count, an inch equals so many postcards.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: We bought a stack of postcards. My mother had a stack at the reception desk at (unintelligible). My dad had it at the 109 precinct. My brother had it at his desk at the bank. People signed them and we dropped them in the mailbox, kind of like launching a campaign.

SCHWARZBAUM: Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that I had never seen a clearly ethnic name on that poster. My name was distinctively Jewish and that might have been part of the reason I said I'm going give this a shot. Let's see what happens. In July of 1946, Enid Berkowitz splashed across the subways.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED PROGRAM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Greetings from the New York subway. We're going to hand you over to just an ordinary traveler, at least ordinary except during the month of August. She's a very charming young lady with shoulder-length, black, wavy hair and dark eyes, age 19. Queen of the rapid transit system for month, Miss Subways, alias Miss Joan Adamson(ph).

Well, how does it feel to be the pinup girl of the subways, Joan. I may call you Joan, may I not?

JOAN ADAMSON: Yes, do, Jack. Well, it's a great thrill naturally. I never thought I'd get it, though.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, I never had a moment's doubt.

SCHWARZBAUM: The poster says Meet Miss Subways, art student at Hunter College, plugging for BA, but would settle for M-R-S. Right.

BYRNE: Brooklyn-born Peggy Byrne plans to wed her childhood sweetheart, is studying to be an insurance broker. The last thing I ever wanted to be would be an insurance broker, but I thought that sounded great. And I got a lot of insurance information.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 4: Well, I got on the subway and the cards were probably up in nearly every car and I thought, oh, dear, the photo was really pale. I mean, I had no - I'm a brown-skinned woman, not dark brown, but brown and I almost looked white. I said, could you darken it up some? And he did. Then that looked better.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 5: People, you know, stare at the poster and they'd look down at me and then they would stare at the poster and look down at me and stare at the poster and finally they'd say, hi.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 6: Here you are, this long tall, skinny girl with no butt, no boobs and you're up there? My friends hated me and I loved it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 7: There would always be commentary. Did you see Miss Subways? No, she's not too good-looking, you know. We liked January, February better than her. 'Cause we weren't necessarily beautiful women, you know. You wouldn't look at them all and say, well, that's a beauty. Of course, I was the exception. I was a star. Well, it was only two months, but it was great being a star.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED PROGRAM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Tell us, Joan, this Miss Subways business, is there any future in it?

ADAMSON: Well, I did hear of one girl who had 156 proposals of marriage and a present from a banker of a lemon meringue pie. I guess a very few have got acting or modeling jobs, but I'm really more interested in what I'm doing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And what is that?

ADAMSON: Well, I'm majoring in Spanish at college and I'd like to go into the export business.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's a very business-like attitude for a beauty queen. Well, good luck in your subway riding and good-bye, Joan Adamson.

ADAMSON: Why, thank you.

SIEGEL: Peggy Byrne went on to a career in advertising. Enid Berkowitz worked as an artist. Sanora Selsey was a teacher. And Marcia Hocker married a diplomat and now hosts a jazz radio show. Thelma Parros, the first black Miss Subways, died earlier this year in Denver.

BLOCK: A book about the contest, "Meet Miss Subways," comes out this month and you can see photos of Miss Subways then and read about what they're doing now at our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.