100 years ago, the first Miss America pageant was as messy as today’s

The legend of Margaret Gorman, the first Miss America, started to be written the day she learned she was bound for Atlantic City.

As the story goes, a Washington Herald reporter went to the Gorman family’s Georgetown home in August 1921 to announce that Margaret had been selected as D.C.’s emissary to the first-ever “Inter-City Beauty Contest.” But he couldn’t find her at home: Margaret — this “practically perfect” 16-year-old with a “wreath of natural golden hair” and eyes “of a rare deep blue” — was out in the yard, shooting marbles in the dirt with the neighborhood kids.

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“Above all,” the Herald rhapsodized, “she is modest and unassuming.”

“Modest” was a funny way to describe a teenager confident enough of her charms to enter several beauty contests that summer. (Weeks earlier, she had been judged the most beautiful girl in town by the rival Washington Post in a separate citywide photo contest.) But it captured something about Margaret’s appeal — and in turn, so much about the impossible ideals upheld by this fledgling pageant not yet known as Miss America, where for the next century young women would try to prove themselves the loveliest, the sweetest, the most talented … yet also the most natural, the most down-to-earth, the most themselves. Where it would become imperative not to seem to try so hard — even though, obviously, they were.

Miss America is celebrating its 100th anniversary as a shadow of its former self, plagued by infighting, litigation, a damaging email scandal and slow-burning financial challenges.

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A praised but polarizing decision to jettison its famed swimsuit competition in 2018 triggered an identity contest for the pageant, while doing nothing to stem a long exodus of sponsors and viewers. The number of women who enter the pipeline of state and local pageants in hopes of winning the national crown has plummeted over a generation.

And when a new Miss America is crowned Thursday night — an event that used to draw one of the biggest television audiences of the year — it won’t even have a place on network TV, only on NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service, which has done little to promote it.

Whether Miss America can make it to its 101st birthday remains an open question. Yet when the pageant kicked off in Atlantic City in 1921, it was no less of a chaotic, tension-filled affair — one that no one ever imagined would survive 100 years.

It was only supposed to be one of several sideshows at a sprawling, Mardi Gras-style beach festival, dubbed “Fall Frolic.” The sponsors were the hoteliers and other business leaders of Atlantic City. Their town had exploded out of wilderness after the Civil War, thanks to a few savvy real estate speculators and a direct rail line from Philadelphia, and it quickly became the most popular beach resort on the East Coast. Atlantic City’s goal in 1921 was to extract more dollars from its guests by enticing them to linger past Labor Day. So the Frolic kicked off the first week of September.

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The festival organizers’ great PR trick was to invite newspapers in cities within easy traveling distance to send their “most beautiful” girls, selected in a regional photo contest.

This part wasn’t entirely new: American newspapers had been sponsoring these contests for at least 20 years. In one previous national in-person contest, 61 young women, each deemed the fairest of her newspaper’s circulation area, traveled to Los Angeles in 1915. The winner, Ruth Maria Purcell — also from D.C., as it would happen — was awarded a movie contract but quickly soured on it and returned to her job as a secretary for labor leader Samuel Gompers.

In Atlantic City, the nine young contestants — from towns as near as Camden and as far as Pittsburgh — made their grand appearance by barge, dressed as “sea nymphs” alongside the honorary “King Neptune,” a 60-something local celebrity who had invented smokeless gunpowder. Then the whole entourage traveled via parade float a mile up the Boardwalk to the Garden Pier theater to meet their judges. The winner would be announced the following night.

Two front-runners quickly emerged. And that’s when things got complicated.

One of them was Margaret. A student at D.C.’s Western High School — now the Duke Ellington School of the Arts — she was the daughter of a Department of Agriculture bureaucrat. Barely 5-foot-2 and 108 pounds, she resembled a young Kirsten Dunst — fair hair, a soft nose, full cheeks and a dreamy gaze. “A photograph unfortunately gives no idea of her fine coloring, or rare charm,” apologized the Washington Herald, her relentless cheerleader that season.

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The other was Miss New York. Virginia Lee was also blond but already a worldly 20 years old. She claimed a fine pedigree — descended from those Lees of Virginia, she said. While Margaret and most other entrants had been selected by their hometown papers through well-publicized contests, Virginia later recalled that she was tapped by a group of the illustrators that she frequently modeled for who hung around Manhattan’s Hotel des Artistes.

“The decision of the judges, to be given to-morrow night, is known to lie between Virginia Lee . . . and Margaret Gorman,” whispered the New York Tribune.

But at some point, very late in the hours after Wednesday’s competition and ahead of Thursday night’s crowning, Virginia was disqualified.

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She had been deemed a “professional,” ineligible to compete against Margaret and the other “amateurs.”

Why Virginia merited this classification was never precisely explained in the extensive news accounts. Presumably it had something to do with her film career: She already had a dozen credits to her name. But why was that a problem? While later generations of pageants would come laden with strict entry requirements, this first season had seemingly thrown the doors open to any woman — no restrictions explicitly laid out about prior employment or anything else.

Perhaps the festival organizers picked up on a glaring conflict of interest: Virginia’s friendship and close working relationship with the chief judge of the contest, the famous magazine illustrator Howard Chandler Christy. “My most marvelous model,” he was quoted calling her earlier that year. “The ideal Christy girl.”

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Or did it have something to do with an even murkier part of her bio? Though it was not technically against the rules at that first pageant, Virginia, her family now acknowledges, was a married lady. She had tied the knot two years earlier with a Navy officer — with her mentor Howard on hand to give the bride away.

In fairness, the blurry and conflicting press accounts from the time suggest a somewhat confusing contest, with an overlapping array of categories and prizes. Virginia was shunted to a “professionals” category where she handily triumphed over some lesser-known models and actresses who had rolled into the festival with the general public. Some news accounts suggested the trophy Virginia took home made her Margaret’s runner-up; others claimed they were coequal.

Yet Margaret won the “Golden Mermaid” trophy, the headlines and the history books. And 72 years later, Virginia still claimed she was robbed.

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“They came back and said, ‘Oh, Virginia, you won but we can’t give it to you.’ That’s all they would ever tell me,” she told a pair of film historians who interviewed her in 1993, when she was in her early 90s. “I won it hands down.”

True or not, there are reasons the kind of middle-class Americans who were boosting Atlantic City in 1921 — and apparently making up the rules as they went along — might have shied from a “professional” lady like Virginia. Change was in the air, and it was disrupting social and sexual norms. Young ladies were bobbing their hair, binding their chests, baring their limbs, and painting their faces. Hollywood was beaming its sexy antics — dancing, fighting, kissing — into small-town theaters across the country. And women had just received the right to vote a year earlier, opening so many other cans of worms: Must a wife vote the same as her husband? Could a woman get elected to office?

In that atmosphere, little Margaret Gorman was a tonic. Judges, audience and press all swooned for the youngest lady in the competition, her curls worn long in the Victorian style. She reminded everyone of Mary Pickford, the film superstar known for nostalgic, unbobbed girl-next-door roles. And while most of the Inter-City contestants wore relatively modest bathing costumes, with skirts to cover their hips, Margaret kept her slender figure draped in a demure suit of tiered chiffon layers.

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And so, from day one, the pageant staked out its template: Girls above women. Amateur rather than professional. Old-school virtues over modern flair.

Margaret would marry her Western High sweetheart a few years later and recede into a quiet life in Washington, where she remained until her death in 1995. Much later, she would tire of the reporters who kept calling to ask about this long-ago title that she insisted meant very little to her.

“It didn’t change my life at all,” she told The Post in 1982, true to form as the girl who’d rather shoot marbles in the dirt. “I simply went back to school and that was that.”

Yet on some level, she must have enjoyed the competition. A year after her victory, she returned to Atlantic City to defend her title. She was unsuccessful — but that’s when Margaret truly gained iconic status.

For in 1922, the Herald had picked a new girl to send to the Inter-City Beauty Contest as Miss Washington, D.C. And yet the pageant still had to call Margaret something. And so she became . . . “Miss America.”