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The long, unhappy pageant of Mary Leona Gage

One glorious day in 1957, Miss Maryland, Leona Gage, was crowned Miss USA. Then her past caught up with her, and a troubled future began unfolding.

By John Woestendiek

Sun Reporter

April 10, 2005

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Oh, don't you remember, a long time ago
When two little babes, their names I don't know
Were stolen away one bright summer day
And lost in the woods, I've heard people say
--Traditional lullaby


As a mother, she would sing it to her children. As a child, she would sing it to her pets. And whenever the world came crashing down around her, as it often did for Mary Leona Gage, she would sing it to herself.

Growing up in the Piney Woods of east Texas, her friends were mostly imaginary or four-legged - fairies, "weed people" and wildlife. She remembers a rabbit, getting closer every day to taking lettuce from her hand. One day, sprawled on the ground, arm extended, she waited as motionlessly as a 3-year-old could as it drew nearer than it ever had. Then a shot rang out. The rabbit collapsed in a headless lump. She screamed for a long time.

That night, the chorus of the lullaby ran through her head:

Pretty babes in the wood
Pretty babes in the wood
Oh, don't you remember
Those babes in the wood


The daughter of a once-wealthy landowner (and expert marksman) and his wife, Mary Leona was born after the Depression in 1939. She was still a toddler when her parents moved from Longview to Wichita Falls. There her mother worked two jobs; her father, paralyzed in an industrial accident, stayed home; and Mary Leona grew up.

And did she ever grow up - huge and alluring blue-green eyes, legs too long to fold under her school desk, a body that blossomed before it had any right to. She was drawing whistles from the soldiers at nearby Sheppard Air Force Base by age 11, propositions by 13.

Her beauty was part blessing, part curse. It was also her ticket - first to Maryland, where, representing Anne Arundel County, she was declared the most beautiful woman in the state, then to the Miss USA pageant in Long Beach, Calif., where, after she and a friend pooled the last of their money to buy a dress for the competition, she would be crowned Miss USA 1957.

Once the tears of joy subsided, Gage answered questions from reporters, easy ones at first. She liked to sing, play piano and cook, she told them. No, she didn't have a boyfriend. "I want to wait until I'm 26 before I become seriously interested in the opposite sex," she said.

It took one day for the fairy tale to blow up.

The competition's next phase, choosing a Miss Universe, was already under way when Gage was called before pageant officials. Allegations about her had surfaced. At first she had dismissed them, waving off reporters who brought them up. Now, though, she tearfully admitted to officials she was 18, not 21. And she wasn't a "Miss" at all.

She had been married - not allowed under Miss USA rules - since age 14. And, though none of the eyes that scrutinized her figure during the swimsuit competition had detected it, Leona Gage was a mother of two.

All that had been bestowed the day before was taken back: the trophy, the tiara, the prize money, the trips, the studio contracts and the title itself. That went to the first runner-up, a Mormon girl representing Utah. Gage got a one-way ticket back to Maryland and the life, or at least the husband, that she was trying to get away from.

That was the story they all missed - all those smooth-talking reporters, all those tripping-over-themselves photographers, all those vultures, in her view, who fed on her tears and all but gloated when, in subsequent years, she would end up divorcing another husband, losing custody of a child, singing in strip joints or being hospitalized for drug overdoses.

Did they actually enjoy her misfortunes? Did her travails really merit all that newsprint? Were they out to get her?

And how would her story play today, nearly 50 years later: Girl, 13, pursued by older man, pregnant and married by 14, a housewife before she got a chance to enter 9th grade, a mother of two by 16, spending her days in a strange state where the diapers froze when she hung them outside to dry, and the house was never clean enough and dinner never ready soon enough?

To escape that oppression - not too strong a word, she says - she, at the suggestion of a friend, sought a modeling job. This led, at the suggestion of that friend, to the statewide beauty contest, which led, as that same friend proudly watched from the sidelines, to her being crowned Miss USA.

Think, as they might say in Hollywood, Cinderella meets Thelma and Louise.

But Hollywood, where countless happy endings are scripted, did not provide one for Gage, the only Maryland contestant ever to win the Miss USA title.

While publicity about the scandal led to some offers -- "What the hell is wrong with motherhood? I want her on my show," Ed Sullivan was quoted as saying -- her acting career would never take off. Her marriages, six in all, would fail. Drug overdoses, accusations of child abuse and neglect, suicide attempts and institutionalizations would lead to her losing custody of her children, most of whom are estranged from her today. And the fast life she led -- not promiscuous, mind you, just in terms of drugs and drink and the two packs of Nat Shermans she'd smoke a day -- would catch up with her.

Now going by Mary again and living under the last name of her most recent ex-husband, Gage lives alone, on a fixed income, with her paintings, her poetry, her houseplants and a day nurse. She has been ill for almost a decade with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In her apartment in North Hollywood, Calif., where she agreed to a series of interviews, she walks about with a tube trailing from her nose that leads to an oxygen tank in her bedroom.

Looking back, she accepts her fate, but still holds resentment toward those she says mistreated her. She regrets her mistakes, but says she finally got her life together: She found God, converted to Judaism and, in her 50s, took a vow of celibacy. She has sworn off suicide -- "It's the unforgivable sin," she says -- and, at 66, says she will wait for the end to come naturally. And still, she aches over her losses, which went far beyond a beauty pageant title.

She recognizes the many ironies in her story. A woman who wanted independence now tethered to an oxygen tank. A woman who failed in her five attempts at suicide now fighting to stay alive. A woman who exuded sex appeal and whose suitors included Frank Sinatra, John Barrymore Jr. and "Mr. Universe," Mickey Hargitay, but for whom love and sex were mostly unhappy affairs.

Then there is the saddest one of all: After hiding the fact she had two children, and losing the Miss USA crown because of it, she would lose custody of both, and have only sporadic contact with the three others she had.

"There's really no way that this could have a happy ending, is there?" said Gage. "Why? Because my dream is dead -- having all my children around the table at one time, and me serving them turkey and all the trimmings."

All she was after when she entered the Miss Maryland-USA contest, she said, was access to some modeling jobs and a chance to get out of the house. On that, she and her accomplice agree.

"It was really very innocent," said Barbara Feola, then known as Barbara Mewshaw. "She wanted something out of life, and her husband was a real jerk. It wasn't meant to do any harm, just get her some jobs. We were really just two dumb country girls."

Feola -- a part-time model then, a hairdresser in Florida now -- lost touch with Gage after the pageant scandal. But in 1957, it was she and Gage's sponsor, the Walters Modeling Academy in Baltimore, that urged her to compete, and to keep her marriage and children a secret.

"That's what started the ball rolling," Feola said, "and we just rolled along with it. It got way out of control."

"Oh, yes, Barbara!" said Gage. "Is she still alive? She was my champion. She was the only person who ever believed in me. She showed me how to dress. She showed me how to walk that walk. Everybody knew me by my walk. We really worked on that walk."

When Gage won the Maryland contest and was given a free round-trip ticket to Long Beach, she cashed it in and bought two tickets instead -- one for her, one for Barbara.

Both were one-way.

And when it was night
Oh, sad was their plight
The moon had gone down
The stars gave no light
They sobbed and they sighed
And bitterly cried
Then the poor little babes
They lay down and died


Once in Long Beach, Leona Gage -- she had temporarily dropped the "Mary" -- was swept up by the pageant festivities: the two-hour parade, in which each contestant, clad in a swimsuit from sponsor Catalina, rode her own float; the boat ride in the harbor; the traditional frolicking in the ocean, all under the eye of matronly chaperones and a phalanx of security guards.

Mewshaw, meanwhile, was working behind the scenes. The single gown they'd bought for the pageant wasn't enough once Gage got into the finals. So Mewshaw began visiting dress shops seeking a loaner gown, offering merchants the opportunity to outfit the contestant she assured them would be the next Miss USA.

Gage made sure nobody involved with the pageant saw her unclothed, fearing they might catch on that she was a mother. In the privacy of a bathroom, she slipped into the strapless blue gown Mewshaw obtained. She used a pair of falsies to fill it out. ("Yes, those were fake, too," she said.)

She had never needed to enhance her figure, though she did have some experience concealing it, hiding her first pregnancy, four years earlier, from her stern Baptist mother for as long as she could.

"To my mother, that was the biggest horror and scandal there could be. All my life she said, 'Don't you dare go into the bushes with a boy and get yourself pregnant.' She never had any discussion with me about sex, it was just 'Mary Lee, don't get pregnant.' "

"Mary Lee was what my mother called me when I was a good girl," she added. "When she said Mary Leona, I knew I was going to get a switching. She used a peach tree switch."

Protective as she was, her mother seemed to have little problem, Gage said, when a polite young airman named Gene Ennis followed her 13-year-old daughter home from her drugstore waitressing job one day and introduced himself. Ennis was 24, though he looked about 18 -- exactly like a young Frank Sinatra, Gage said. "That's why I liked him, because I had a crush on Frank Sinatra."

Ennis became a regular visitor, driving Gage to church and errands, and before long, taking her to movies, parties and a friend's apartment. With a mother who worked two jobs and a father who was paralyzed and brain-damaged, Gage relished Ennis' attention.

Months after he first followed her home, the airman got orders to ship out. He left with a promise, she said. "He said he was going to come back and marry me when I was grown up."

Not long after that, she realized she was pregnant. She concealed it with baggy blouses, fortunately, she said, in style then. She wrote to Ennis at the address he had left, but got no answer. Then she wrote his mother, explaining her dilemma. One night, she said, she went to the top of the tallest building in Wichita Falls -- 10 stories high -- planning to jump. "But at the last moment, a little voice said, 'You'll kill the baby,' and I walked back down. I couldn't kill the baby."

When a fellow drugstore employee who was getting married suggested Gage join her -- and came up with a volunteer groom -- Gage seized the opportunity. The four drove across the border to Oklahoma for a double wedding. After spending that night locked in a motel bathroom, Gage called her mother, who ordered her home immediately.

"I'm pregnant, but I'm married," Gage said as she walked into the house with her husband, an airman named Edward Thacker.

Her mother handed her a letter that had arrived from Ennis. Gage remembers its icy wording: "I received the letter that you wrote to my mother and if circumstances are as stated in that letter, then arrangements will have to be made."

At her mother's insistence, the marriage to Thacker was annulled within the week, and Gage was sent to live with an aunt until the baby was born.

In 1953, Ennis and Mary Leona Gage were married in Wichita Falls. By the time she was 16, a second child had been born, and Ennis has been reassigned to an Air Force unit at Baltimore's Friendship Airport. They were living near Severna Park in Manhattan Beach -- but not happily, both say.

There was little she liked here -- not the weather, not her spouse, not the soft-shell crabs he would bring home for her to cook. "They're alive ... with little eyes looking up at you."

"She was unhappy," said Ennis, still living in southern Maryland. "I was young, she was young, and when you're young like that and in the service it's one of those damn things -- you make mistakes and she winds up pregnant." Early in the marriage, he said, it was clear that Gage, whom he denied mistreating, wanted something more out of life than being a wife.

"She wanted to be somebody. She was ambitious. She was a beauty queen -- even before she was a beauty queen."

Gage said Ennis would get angry about household chores left undone, tell her she wasn't pretty or accuse her of ruining his life. At one point, she left him. A baby in each arm, she boarded a bus to Houston. But her sister sent her back to her husband. Sick and depressed, she saw an Air Force doctor, who she says told her she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and provided a prescription: Get a job.

She was working at a dress shop in Glen Burnie for $28 a week when she met Barbara Mewshaw, a beauty contest veteran and part-time model. Impressed by her beauty, Mewshaw told the 5-foot-10 Gage she could be a model. Through Walters Modeling Academy, now defunct, she helped Gage line up jobs. Then, seeing it as a path to more and better modeling gigs, she helped her get a slot in a statewide beauty pageant, Miss USA-Maryland.

Gage didn't expect to win, she says. But Mewshaw assured her she would. She was right.

After winning the statewide contest, Gage went to the head of the modeling agency to tell him, again, that she was married, which she knew was a violation of pageant rules. Owners of the agency would later deny they knew she was married, but Mewshaw and Gage insist she told them. " 'What am I going to do? I'm married,' " Mewshaw recalls her saying. "He told her, 'You're not married.' "

With that, Gage headed to Long Beach, with Mewshaw at her side.

The Miss USA judges that year -- including columnist Earl Wilson and pin-up artist Alberto Vargas -- chose her as a finalist and then as the winner. But the next day, as she began competing for Miss Universe, then held immediately after Miss USA, questions started popping up.

"Absolutely not," she told reporters when asked if she was married, before breaking into tears. "Who would say such a thing?"

Accounts vary on how the rumor originated -- some say it was an anonymous tip, some say it came from Gage's mother-in-law, which Gene Ennis denies; some say it was to a Baltimore newspaper, some say a Salisbury newspaper got it first. By day's end, though, reporters from Chicago, Los Angeles and New York were pursuing the story.

Even before the facts were known, reporters sought out first runner-up Charlotte Sheffield for comment. "They said, 'We have just heard that Miss Maryland is married, do you know anything about this?' " the former Miss Utah, now 68, recalled. "I said, 'No I don't.' They said, 'Do you realize this means you would be the new Miss USA?' "

Gradually, the rumor hardened into fact. Her mother-in-law confirmed it to reporters. So did her husband, and then her own mother. Confronted by pageant officials, she denied it, then broke down. "I was scared they were going to put me in jail or something," Gage says now. "Once my own mother had verified it, I said, 'Yes, it's true.' "

Sheffield was stopped as she got off an elevator, curlers in her hair. Officials asked her if she was married, then told her: You are now Miss USA.

Later, the two appeared together at a press conference. Sheffield stood next to Gage, and the two held hands. "She was shaking. She was terrified," Sheffield said. "I think she was wondering if she was going to go to prison, or what they were going to do with her." Gage apologized for the deception and, shoulders slumped, said she did it for her family: "We needed the money to buy clothes and shoes for the children."

Back in Maryland, Gage was met by her husband and children -- and more reporters, with more questions. It was then she came clean about her earlier, annulled marriage.

At home, bushel baskets of mail were coming in. Some letters were mean-spirited.

"I think one half of the U.S. hated me," Gage said. Her disclosure had come too late for runner-up Sheffield to be able to compete for Miss Universe. For the first time, there was no Miss USA in the contest.

Most of the names attached to the letters, telegrams and phone calls pouring in meant little to Mewshaw and Gage. William Morris? Mewshaw had never heard of him, or his so-called agency. "We were so unsophisticated," she said.

There was one they did know, though -- Ed Sullivan. He wanted her on his show.

And when they were dead
The robins so red
Brought strawberry leaves
And over them spread
And sang them a song
The whole summer long
Poor babes in the wood
Who never did wrong.


The Miss USA contest -- unlike its competitor, Miss America -- has never put a premium on talent or scholarship. Begun in 1952 by the Catalina Swimsuit company and now owned by Donald Trump and NBC Universal, Miss USA-Miss Universe has always been more about beauty and poise.

When the 1957 pageant was over, the only talent Leona Gage had shown the world was one for deception.

On The Ed Sullivan Show, she did little more than wave and say hello -- an easy $1,000, but hardly the foundation on which to build a show-business career. Her first chance to show she wasn't just a pretty face came one week later on the Steve Allen Show. But that started out bad and only grew worse.

Gage said bandleader Skitch Henderson and the show's staff insisted she perform "Sentimental Journey," a song she didn't know and got little time to rehearse.

"You don't do that to someone," Gage says. "You don't put them in a dress to make them look sophisticated and give them a song they've never heard and expect them to go out and perform like a pro. I was a farm girl, not even from Maryland, but from the deep South."

Gage got through the first verse, began the second, then went silent. "I froze," Gage said. A vocal group called the Four Coins, also appearing on that night's show, came to her aid, surrounding her and finishing the song.

Despite that performance, Gage was inundated with job offers, interview requests and would-be suitors. "She was so beautiful and everyone wanted to jump on the bandwagon," said actress Jan Shepard, who was hired to help her with her first dramatic role, in a western broadcast live on NBC Matinee Theater.

Before the broadcast began, Shepard took Gage aside. "I told her, 'There's millions of people out there watching you. You've got to do very well, because everyone wants you to fail. It doesn't matter how beautiful you are. What matters is that you do this right.' "

Gage did. In the part of the drama where her father gets shot, the script called for real tears -- and Gage supplied them. "They were standing by with artificial tears, but, oh boy, I let the tears go. Anything surrounding my Daddy, and the tears are there."

There would be more roles after that, but mostly Gage was sought out for her beauty, used and cast aside, says Shepard, a veteran television, film and soap opera actress who remains friends with Gage.

"She was a commodity. She was a product," Shepard said. "They didn't treat you back then like you were a human being with sensitivities and feelings; it was just 'let's see what we can get out of her.' ... I can say this now because I'm out of the business."

After another TV play, in which she had a nonspeaking role, Gage later in 1957 went to Las Vegas, where she had signed a contract as a featured performer at the Hotel Tropicana. After divorcing Ennis in early 1958, she was living in a trailer with her two sons in Las Vegas, studying acting, singing and dancing.

In her first year as a showgirl, she was billed as "Miss USA -- For a Day." In a production number based on the pageant scandal, she would sing: "I didn't mean any harm, but things got dull on that Maryland farm." In her second year, she was part of an act billed as "The Ten Most Beautiful Women of the World."

She dated Frank Sinatra briefly, but says the relationship didn't get serious. For one thing, he reminded her of her ex-husband. For another, at 19, she felt intimidated in the company of such a high-powered star.

"I didn't talk. I just smoked. I had a long black cigarette holder and I would sit and just smoke across from him when we were dating."

In 1958, she married dancer Nick Covacevich. They had one son, lots of fights and separated in less than two years. In 1960, based on a complaint to police by her latest mother-in-law, Gage, while all three boys were living with her, was charged with beating her second son, David, then 4. Gage says she gave him a whipping after catching him playing with razor blades. A court fined her $25.

In 1961, she filed for divorce from Covacevich and, back in Los Angeles, met and married an aspiring screenwriter named Gunther Peter Collatz. Known professionally as Peter Collins, he later gained notoriety for the book I Remember Marilyn, about his purported affair, as a 22-year-old, with Marilyn Monroe.

Collatz was tall and charming, and somewhat eccentric, she said. He turned a closet in their home into his office, Gage said, and would insist that she play the song "Monster Mash" repeatedly while he wrote.

The marriage lasted less than two years, just long enough, Gage said, for Collatz to sweet-talk her and her brother back in Texas into investing thousands of dollars in A Swingin' Affair, a movie he wrote and produced that flopped upon release.

Gage didn't appear in A Swingin' Affair, but she did play the lead role of Morella -- a woman who dies in childbirth but comes back to life -- in a 1962 Roger Corman movie starring Vincent Price called Tales of Terror, a trilogy of Edgar Allan Poe stories. She also had a nonspeaking role as a prostitute in a 1964 movie, A House Is Not a Home, as did another actress making her debut in the same film, Raquel Welch.

In 1963, Gage had a daughter, Cynthia. Her three sons were living with her then, but in the years ahead, amid suicide attempts, hospitalizations and difficulties in her latest marriage, she would lose custody -- at least temporarily -- of all of her children.

By the mid-1960s, Gage was on a downward trajectory. Divorced from Collatz in 1964, she was partying heavily -- taking LSD with John Barrymore Jr., she said, and living it up with ex-Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay. She was good friends, too, with her hairdresser, Jay Sebring, who would later die with Sharon Tate in the Charles Manson killings.

In June of 1965, after she'd been away from home for a month -- looking for work, she says -- her year-old daughter was turned over to authorities when her babysitter became concerned that she might not be coming back. That November, Gage would be found unconscious in a motel room, overdosed on barbiturates. She was 26 years old.

"I feel in my heart that to make my exit at this point in my life was the wisest thing to do," she wrote before taking the pills and attempting, unsuccessfully, to drown herself in the ocean. "God picked me up and just spit me out," she says now. "A big wave washed me back to shore." She got back to the room and collapsed.

Because of the suicide attempt and drug charges from marijuana found in her possession, she spent seven weeks at California's Camarillo State Hospital. Later that same year, Gage agreed to be interviewed for a ghostwritten book about her life, and to have her picture taken for its cover. She regrets both decisions.

My Name Is Leona Gage, Will Somebody Please Help Me? hit the paperback shelves with a 75-cent price tag and a "For Adults" label on the cover. It featured a photo of a tousle-haired Gage, clad only in a sheet, sitting on a bed.

The book's plaintive title is based on Gage's first words when she regained consciousness after the suicide attempt, and its cover blurb reads: "Her beauty attracted brutality; her love, rejection; her tenderness, contempt. Suicide, birth, stardom, drugs, beauty, madness -- here is the fantastic true story of Leona Gage, 'the most beautiful girl in the world,' at 26 ready for death, ready for life, ready for love -- she doesn't care which!"

Years later, Gage's replacement as Miss USA, the former Miss Utah, would come across the book during an anti-pornography campaign being waged by her Lady Lions Club. "It made me feel sad," said Sheffield, who went on to become a mother of eight and a grandmother of 47.

While not all that racy by today's standards, the book is replete with sex scenes, most of which, Gage says, never occurred. She said she received $900 for cooperating with the ghost author, Devra Hill, but was denied a chance to see the book before publication.

Hill and Gage had a falling out over the book, and the two have not remained in touch.

"She was just so young. She wasn't stupid, just naive, and I think men took advantage of that. Everybody took advantage of that," said Hill.

But not all of Gage's misfortunes, in Hill's view, were caused by others. As her popularity faded, and "once she started using too many drugs and smoking pot," it became clear that among those treating Gage carelessly was Gage herself.

Her friend Jan Shepard sees it differently.

"I don't blame her, I blame the people around her," Shepard said. "They used her her entire life. She was naive enough to do things she shouldn't have done, then she got in with the wrong people.

"She's a good kid. She's had a hard life and she's not well, and it's sad. She went through the divorces, the smoking, the drug stuff -- the times were bad for that -- and she came out of it, but not very healthy."

By the end of 1965, Gage had made her last movie -- Scream of the Butterfly, a box office failure. With few movie or television offers coming her way, she enrolled in hairdressing school.

The next year, she turned to performing at strip clubs.

With 3-year-old Cynthia in tow, she toured burlesque clubs across the country, singing and dancing, but never fully disrobing, she said, despite encouragement from customers. Cynthia would wait in the dressing room while Mom performed.

She would get married two more times, have one more son, work as a model and attempt a show business comeback. Other than some commercials -- one for hand cream, one for foot cream -- it failed, and Gage turned to more mainstream jobs in the 1970s and 1980s.

At age 39, she tried to locate her sons, calling Hollywood gossip columnist James Bacon for help. She still has the article, which describes her as a "plaintive" and "pleading" has-been.

"I wasn't pleading," Gage said at her home last month. "I was simply asking for his help. Everything that is ever written about me has this patina of 'She's crazy.' I was never crazy. I did have a nervous breakdown, but even a dog, if you take away her whole litter of puppies, will get depressed."

She has had six husbands in all, the last two of which she asked not be identified by name. One of them continues to pay her rent, which, living on a fixed income of $820 a month, she otherwise couldn't afford. When she has a few dollars to spare, she says, she contributes to Jewish charities and wildlife organizations.

She writes poetry and paints, and has a caretaker during the day, a seamstress named Maggie. Most of her conversations are with her, and in Spanish, in which Gage is fluent. Most days, she dresses entirely in white, a color she associates with health. She likes watching television, but not racy shows; Everybody Loves Raymond is her favorite. And she never misses Miss USA. She plans to watch tomorrow night's pageant, to be broadcast live from Baltimore. Almost always, she says, she can pick the winner.

Gage is on oxygen 24 hours a day. "That's my jet fuel," she said. She retains her beauty, and a remarkably youthful complexion, using cosmetics rarely.

"Oh, honey, if I wanted to put the real makeup on, I could still look darn good," she said.

Though she's been out of the spotlight for decades, she agreed to a recent series of interviews by phone and in person -- mainly, she said, to set the record straight. A week later, though, she abruptly cut off communication, and declined to be photographed.

"Leona means lioness," she had said in one interview. "Leona is a survivor. She's taking care of Mary, because Mary was a wimp. No, not a wimp. Mary was a sweet little girl who was taken advantage of by every man she ever met."

Gage's second son, David Ennis, visited his mother after the Bacon column appeared in 1979, but she didn't see him again until 1994. "We made guacamole. We had the best time. I served him strawberry shortcake for breakfast," Gage said. Since then, he's gotten married and had a child, but Gage has not met her grandson. His mother and wife are not on speaking terms, David Ennis said.

Gage's first-born son, Gene, died in 1988. Daughter Cynthia, who grew up partly with Gage, partly with friends and partly with Gage's sister, died of hepatitis in 2002. Two other sons, by two other fathers, contact her annually at best.

Gage keeps the rare cards and letters they have sent her over the years, from a handmade Mother's Day card to a birthday letter from Cynthia five years ago, lamenting their strained relationship. When she reads it aloud, she has to pause to wipe tears, calling to her nurse, "Kleenex cartona, por favor."

"It's not easy being a child of me. I know that," Gage said, the box of memories in her lap. "But I was a devoted mother to my children. I taught my boys to say their prayers every night. They never had diaper rash. And if I couldn't do for them, I made sure they had the very best. I sang them lullabies every night. There was that song of the two little babes carried to the wood a long time ago..."

It's too late for lullabies, she knows. But that was the point that Leona Gage most wanted to get across. Just three words -- not for the world, but for her children, perhaps the three most overused and underused in all the English language: I love you.