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."