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Leona Gage: sad tale of a downward spiral

Leona Gage: sad tale of a downward spiral

The recent death of Leona Gage, a Marylander whose 1957 Miss USA title was revoked because she was married and the mother of two, recalled a sad tale. She never quite recovered from her brush with fame, and her life crumbled amid a string of divorces and drug abuse. A ghost-written book with the plaintive title: "My Name Is Leona Gage, Will Somebody Please Help Me?" can still be found online.

More revealing is a sobering profile of Gage by The Baltimore Sun's John Woestendiek. (The Sun also has a photo gallery of Gage through the years.) Here's how he describes the circumstance surrounding the book, and her downward spiral:

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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.

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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.

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