The publicist for Miss America misunderstood my request when she called Sunday. “I can put you on right now with Teresa if you’re ready,” she said in a harried voice.
“What?” I asked.
“Teresa. Teresa Scanlan. Miss America.”
Ah, right. The perky 17-year-old from Nebraska who wants to be the next Sarah Palin. Journalists were all hankering for her, of course, because she’d just won for banging out a cringe-worthy Chopsticks on a piano and supplying a nonsensical answer about the WikiLeaks cable dump being espionage.
“No, no,” I told the sweet, confused lady. “I want Miss America from 1943.”
I was surely the only one to decline a shot at Scanlan, and it would take another two days to connect with Jean Bartel. She’s the oldest of the 47 ex-Miss Americas who were recognized on national TV Saturday night to commemorate the 90th pageant.
I wasn’t drawn to Bartel because she’s the oldest, and she hasn’t met Scanlan, so she has no opinion of her yet. I was chasing down a rumor that Bartel had been, once upon a time, a Vegas headliner.
She confirmed it: “I was the opening act for Danny Thomas back in the day. There was really only one casino there, the Flamingo. And Bugsy Siegel and the gang ran it and he couldn’t have been nicer to me. After the show, Danny Thomas and I would talk, talk, talk, because we were never sleepy. Then he would go out in the back of the hotel with the orchestra leader and skeet shoot. It was nothing but desert out there.”
Bartel was crowned before the pageant began being televised, before Miss America was a pop icon. The former Miss California, in fact, struggled to get media attention and earn the public’s respect. She entered the pageant only because a prominent Broadway director was a judge, and her aim was to wow him as her ticket to stardom. She had no intention of being a pinup; after her win she even refused to model the bathing suit of the Miss America sponsor. Catalina Swimwear would go on to dump the event and start another, the Miss USA pageant.
Yet Bartel cultivated a professional, patriotic image, selling more war bonds in 1943 than anyone else and urging the Miss America board to begin a scholarship program that is now the organization’s calling card. Bartel was the first winner to enroll in college when she won.
With these measures and her genuine singing ability, she won her battle to be taken seriously. The soprano traveled the world for decades performing with her band and, in 1952, became the first Miss America to star in a Broadway show, Of Thee I Sing.
Her Vegas history, it turns out, is limited to that Flamingo gig. She didn’t return for 50 years, and that was only to accompany her husband on a business trip. By then, the Strip was unrecognizable, of course.
A widow who never had children, Bartel lives with her dog, Teddy, in the same Los Angeles house where her parents raised her. She’s in her 80s now—“I forget how old I am because I’ve been lying about it for so long”—and was tickled that anyone would seek her out for an interview.
It gave me an idea. Would she ever come back to Vegas to perform?
“Of course not,” she said flatly.
“No, because I don’t have an act together and nowadays it’s so professional there,” she said. “You’d be an idiot to do that. You can’t compare to what they do today.”
Well, I didn’t mean she should walk a wire in a Cirque show or book a gig at the Colosseum. But who wouldn’t love, for just one evening, to see her sing the standards of the day and recall the days of Bugsy. Maybe Scanlan can be her accompanist when she’s done with Regis & Kelly!
“Oh, I’m not 21 anymore,” she said with a giggle. “I’m a great audience, I must say that. But, no thank you. I had a lovely career. It’s not my turn anymore.”