Long before the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas, even before Atlantic City\’s greatest annual show, there was a first Miss America, crowned in New York, who history almost forgot!
Before there was a Bess Myerson, a Mary Ann Mobley, Phyllis George or Vanessa Williams there was a first Miss America, but who was she? If you rely on the official Miss America Pageant history for the answer, 1921’s Margaret Gorman, you would be wrong. You see, before there was a Miss America in Atlantic City, there was one crowned in New York City
The year was 1919, the boys were back from the war to end all wars, America was on a natural high and all was well in the U.S.A. Prohibition was just a few months away and the “great experiment” was the talk of the town.
In New York City business was good and the original “Good Ol’ Boys” were ever ready for a party. Not since the goings on of Stanford White and his pals was there such a rush toward hedonism and with patriotism and the flag popular everywhere, it was a good choice to host one more grand party to enthrone the most beautiful girl in the land before the country was to go dry. The nation seemed ready for a Miss America to reign over the good times at hand.
And so, Miss America was created, but unlike those who later garnered the title, the very first Miss America, and a few that followed, were chosen on the basis of one thing only, Good Looks! And where, you might ask, did you find the fairest of the fair at the beginning of the Roaring Twenties? Right there at the back doors of Broadway, where Swells and Johnnies awaited the beauties that adorned that year’s Flora Dora and The Follies.
Curvaceous and racy for their day, the showgirls of Broadway were a bevy of beauty. Broadway had been the hunting ground of every neardowell and millionaire for a generation before the Great War and the soaring economy had only swollen their ranks as well as their lusty egos after it. These were the days of Gatsby and everyone was out to fulfill a fantasy.
A generation before, Stanford White had set the standards when he commissioned his friend, Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create the statue of Diana for the top of his latest grand design, Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. The golden figure was to be the grandest figure of a woman ever captured, the pinnacle of their Gilded Age. The subject was a teenager, Evelyn Nesbit, a show girl with a pension for older men with pockets filled with gold. While already the lover of White, she soon added Saint-Gaudens to her list of conquests, a list that would eventually lead to White’s murder and the trial of the new twentieth century.
Evelyn, often touted as the most beautiful girl in the world, as well as the girl on the red velvet swing, eventually married her very own millionaire when she realized that no one on her list of conquests was free to offer wedding vows. Her choice was poor; her millionaire was Harry K. Thaw, a man with a reputation for a nasty temper whose family had ridden the Pennsylvania Railroad to their fortune.
Harry liked to introduce himself as, “Harry K. Thaw, of the Thaws of Pittsburg, Prince of the Pennsie Bonds!” While that may have been cute when he was ten, he continued introducing himself in that way to the day he died, a good sign that Mr. Thaw was a bit unstable. Nevertheless, Evelyn married Harry and on her honeymoon told him all about “Stanie” and is cavorting friends. Harry carried a grudge for the New Yorker’s and even though he had his own reputation as a abusive partner, he saw White as the center of all of his troubles.
Several years passed before Thaw and White came face to face, first at an elegant New York eatery and later at White’s famous rooftop garden theatre. As the band played on Thaw ran to White’s table and shot the world famous architect to death.
After two trials played out, Thaw went off to an insane asylum and later dumped his long suffering Evelyn, even though it was her testimony of White’s penchant for young girls that saved her husbands neck. The Thaw-Nesbit-White affair was the ongoing talk of the city until world war broke the focus, but Evelyn Nesbit’s famous body was nevertheless etched in every young man’s mind to serve as a prototype for years to come. He took it overseas to fight the war to end all wars and brought her home again.
Unlike Victorian beauties however, the modern goddess was relatively small-chested, curvaceous and active. Gone were the days of big busts, tapered waists and large hips. Venus had met her match in Diana, the Huntress and the “modern girl” of the twenties was to take on the persona of the Huntress, rather than choosing to play the waiting game.
It was under this set of parameters that the First Miss America and those who followed in those early days, were to be judged, not just to meet the physical measurements of the Saint-Gaudens statue but in her personality, young, alluring, flirtatious and athletic and what better place to find Diana than where Stanford White found her years before, at the back stage doors of Broadway. All of the contestants for that first Miss America came from that source, except one, the eventual winner of the prize, who was a model, not a show girl.
The first Miss America was Edith Hyde Robbins, a self proclaimed “artist’s model” in search of a rich suitor, of which there were many among those attending the Chu Chin Chow Ball, where she would be chosen. She actually looked very much like Miss Nesbit, looking like a fifteen year old at twenty-five, a careful smile, a twinkle in her eye and a gift for saying the right thing every time and leaving the recipient feeling he had heard what he had wished for. Edith was chosen from a dozen beauties, all with about the same attributes and vocations. But Edith had a secret.
Ms. Hyde was crowned Miss America on a cold winter evening, February 1, 1919 to the cheers of onlookers and judges alike. The affair was held at the Hotel des Artistee, at 1 West 67th Street in Manhattan and was one of a half dozen being celebrating the end of the “Dancing Season,” of which high society had become accustomed to enjoy while enduring the Winter in New York. The hosts of this particular grand event, were the reigning art nobles, J. Montgomery Flagg, Charles Dana Gibson, Harrison Fisher, Penrhyn Stanlaws and Howard Chandler Christy, all of whom also served as the “arbiters” of the First Miss America award, a golden apple.
History might well have forgotten all about New York’s First Miss America under the glare of the Atlantic City claim to the title, if it were not for the fact that the winner had a secret and one man would always remember her.
That young man, an immigrant from Italy, went on to bigger and better things, including the honor of becoming one of the founders of a prestigious union. In an interview years later, he mentioned the first Miss America several times, she had left a lasting impression. Shortly after his death, while reporters combed the newspaper tombs for fragments of his life, the story of Edith Hyde came to light and on the 60th anniversary of the crowning of the First Miss America in New York, Ms. Robbins was located, living in a posh nursing home in Manhattan. At first she refused to be interviewed and for good reason. Edith Hyde Robbins had a secret.
It seems that Miss Hyde entered the contest in hopes of gaining some exposure for her career. Apparently she either misjudged her chance at winning the prize or had not though through her plan, because after winning, the First Miss America slipped out of the hall, Golden Apple in hand, before the waiting members of the press could learn who exactly she was. Some quick thinking reporter from the New York Times put an end to the mystery when his paper announced that Edith Hyde, the model, was actually Edith Hyde Robbins, a divorced mother of two, daughter of the famous landscape artist Raymond Newton Hyde (among whom all the judges of the even where close friends) and the former wife of Todd Robbins, a well known author and social personality of the day.
Miss or Mrs. Hyde Robbins lived at 226 West 76th Street in Manhattan with her two sons and the press was soon rehashing her exploits once again to the delight of the masses, who seem to have hung on every word of the daily reports of Society’s comings and goings in that era, much the same way as modern Americans cling to the tabloid accounts of entertainers, today. Edith Hyde had eloped with Tod Robbins, when he was in college at Washington and Lee University in Virginia and were married in Jersey City NJ in July 1909. She later sued Robbins for divorce in June, 1914 after a two year separation, all of which was constantly mentioned in the society pages in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Ms. Hyde’s parents were at the time living in Douglaston, Long Island, long to be remembered as part of what is still called the upper crust’s gilded “Gatsby Coast,” and her father was among the high society of artists in New York. A further search of newspaper archives uncovered several other weddings in Ms. Hyde’s history, all to the blue blooded aristocracy of the twentieth century.
The rebirth of the First Miss America legend, may never have been told, if it were not for one persistent journalist, who finally got his interview with Ms. Robbins after bringing her candy and flowers one afternoon.
Hyde Robbins memories were sharp about the days during and before those roaring twenties. She remembered in great detail the story of Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White, the Madison Square Garden’s rooftop theatre and coming of age in a new century where, “anything goes.” She also mentioned in passing that she also thought occasionally about what it might be like to be a modern girl in the 1970s and said she thought that birth control pills were, “the cats meow.” Now in her middle eighties, unable to walk without assistance and “bedeviled” by arthritis, she still though often about her life and loves. She even corrected the reporter, who had been sharing printed clips of his research about her.
“You missed one!” she said with no limits to her projected disdain for the oversight. “You missed the one where I read the cards at the St. Regis in ’68, Mrs. David Susskind herself invited me to the International Rescue Committee ball” It seemed that Edith had one more secret, she had over the years become adept at reading cards and fortune telling under the name of “Pandora.” “You can make a lot of money doing it, but you have to be careful not to scare the hell out of the person you are reading for,” she added.
At the end of the interview, Robbins was asked for permission to take a photo. At first she declined, but after being told that she looked wonderful, she agreed to “just one.” In fact, that was all she would allow to be taken and that one without the hint of a smile. “That is the way I want them to remember me,” she noted
and gestured to her aide that it was time to be wheeled away. “It is time for my nap!”
That was the last interview of the First Miss America.