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
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
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
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."
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.
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