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The long, unhappy pageant of Mary Leona Gage

Sun Reporter

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 singit to her pets. And whenever the world came crashing down around her, as itoften did for Mary Leona Gage, she would sing it to herself.

Growing up in the Piney Woods of east Texas, her friends were mostlyimaginary or four-legged - fairies, "weed people" and wildlife. She remembersa rabbit, getting closer every day to taking lettuce from her hand. One day,sprawled on the ground, arm extended, she waited as motionlessly as a3-year-old could as it drew nearer than it ever had. Then a shot rang out. Therabbit 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 hiswife, Mary Leona was born after the Depression in 1939. She was still atoddler when her parents moved from Longview to Wichita Falls. There hermother 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 longto fold under her school desk, a body that blossomed before it had any rightto. She was drawing whistles from the soldiers at nearby Sheppard Air ForceBase by age 11, propositions by 13.

Her beauty was part blessing, part curse. It was also her ticket - first toMaryland, where, representing Anne Arundel County, she was declared the mostbeautiful 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 adress 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 becomeseriously 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 underway when Gage was called before pageant officials. Allegations about her hadsurfaced. At first she had dismissed them, waving off reporters who broughtthem 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 swimsuitcompetition had detected it, Leona Gage was a mother of two.

All that had been bestowed the day before was taken back: the trophy, thetiara, 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 aone-way ticket back to Maryland and the life, or at least the husband, thatshe 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 herview, who fed on her tears and all but gloated when, in subsequent years, shewould end up divorcing another husband, losing custody of a child, singing instrip joints or being hospitalized for drug overdoses.

Did they actually enjoy her misfortunes? Did her travails really merit allthat 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 achance to enter 9th grade, a mother of two by 16, spending her days in astrange state where the diapers froze when she hung them outside to dry, andthe house was never clean enough and dinner never ready soon enough?

To escape that oppression - not too strong a word, she says - she, at thesuggestion of a friend, sought a modeling job. This led, at the suggestion ofthat friend, to the statewide beauty contest, which led, as that same friendproudly 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 provideone 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 iswrong with motherhood? I want her on my show," Ed Sullivan was quoted assaying -- her acting career would never take off. Her marriages, six in all,would fail. Drug overdoses, accusations of child abuse and neglect, suicideattempts and institutionalizations would lead to her losing custody of herchildren, 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 twopacks 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 recentex-husband, Gage lives alone, on a fixed income, with her paintings, herpoetry, her houseplants and a day nurse. She has been ill for almost a decadewith chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In her apartment in NorthHollywood, Calif., where she agreed to a series of interviews, she walks aboutwith a tube trailing from her nose that leads to an oxygen tank in herbedroom.

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

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

Then there is the saddest one of all: After hiding the fact she had twochildren, and losing the Miss USA crown because of it, she would lose custodyof 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?" saidGage. "Why? Because my dream is dead -- having all my children around thetable 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. Onthat, she and her accomplice agree.

"It was really very innocent," said Barbara Feola, then known as BarbaraMewshaw. "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 justtwo dumb country girls."

Feola -- a part-time model then, a hairdresser in Florida now -- lost touchwith Gage after the pageant scandal. But in 1957, it was she and Gage'ssponsor, 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 rolledalong 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 reallyworked on that walk."

When Gage won the Maryland contest and was given a free round-trip ticketto 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 eachcontestant, clad in a swimsuit from sponsor Catalina, rode her own float; theboat ride in the harbor; the traditional frolicking in the ocean, all underthe eye of matronly chaperones and a phalanx of security guards.

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

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

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

"To my mother, that was the biggest horror and scandal there could be. Allmy life she said, 'Don't you dare go into the bushes with a boy and getyourself pregnant.' She never had any discussion with me about sex, it wasjust '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 apeach 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 daughterhome from her drugstore waitressing job one day and introduced himself. Enniswas 24, though he looked about 18 -- exactly like a young Frank Sinatra, Gagesaid. "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, andbefore long, taking her to movies, parties and a friend's apartment. With amother 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 marryme when I was grown up."

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

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

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

Her mother handed her a letter that had arrived from Ennis. Gage remembersits icy wording: "I received the letter that you wrote to my mother and ifcircumstances are as stated in that letter, then arrangements will have to bemade."

At her mother's insistence, the marriage to Thacker was annulled within theweek, 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 thetime she was 16, a second child had been born, and Ennis has been reassignedto an Air Force unit at Baltimore's Friendship Airport. They were living nearSeverna Park in Manhattan Beach -- but not happily, both say.

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

"She was unhappy," said Ennis, still living in southern Maryland. "I wasyoung, she was young, and when you're young like that and in the service it'sone 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 deniedmistreating, 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, tellher she wasn't pretty or accuse her of ruining his life. At one point, sheleft him. A baby in each arm, she boarded a bus to Houston. But her sistersent 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 provideda prescription: Get a job.

She was working at a dress shop in Glen Burnie for $28 a week when she metBarbara Mewshaw, a beauty contest veteran and part-time model. Impressed byher beauty, Mewshaw told the 5-foot-10 Gage she could be a model. ThroughWalters 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 aslot in a statewide beauty pageant, Miss USA-Maryland.

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

After winning the statewide contest, Gage went to the head of the modelingagency to tell him, again, that she was married, which she knew was aviolation of pageant rules. Owners of the agency would later deny they knewshe was married, but Mewshaw and Gage insist she told them. " 'What am I goingto do? I'm married,' " Mewshaw recalls her saying. "He told her, 'You're notmarried.' "

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

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

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

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

Even before the facts were known, reporters sought out first runner-upCharlotte Sheffield for comment. "They said, 'We have just heard that MissMaryland 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 meansyou would be the new Miss USA?' "

Gradually, the rumor hardened into fact. Her mother-in-law confirmed it toreporters. So did her husband, and then her own mother. Confronted by pageantofficials, she denied it, then broke down. "I was scared they were going toput me in jail or something," Gage says now. "Once my own mother had verifiedit, 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 stoodnext 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 deceptionand, shoulders slumped, said she did it for her family: "We needed the moneyto buy clothes and shoes for the children."

Back in Maryland, Gage was met by her husband and children -- and morereporters, 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 weremean-spirited.

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

Most of the names attached to the letters, telegrams and phone callspouring in meant little to Mewshaw and Gage. William Morris? Mewshaw had neverheard 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 hisshow.

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 neverput a premium on talent or scholarship. Begun in 1952 by the Catalina Swimsuitcompany and now owned by Donald Trump and NBC Universal, Miss USA-MissUniverse has always been more about beauty and poise.

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

On The Ed Sullivan Show, she did little more than wave and say hello -- aneasy $1,000, but hardly the foundation on which to build a show-businesscareer. Her first chance to show she wasn't just a pretty face came one weeklater 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 sheperform "Sentimental Journey," a song she didn't know and got little time torehearse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After another TV play, in which she had a nonspeaking role, Gage later in1957 went to Las Vegas, where she had signed a contract as a featuredperformer at the Hotel Tropicana. After divorcing Ennis in early 1958, she wasliving in a trailer with her two sons in Las Vegas, studying acting, singingand 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'tmean 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 getserious. 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 Iwould sit and just smoke across from him when we were dating."

In 1958, she married dancer Nick Covacevich. They had one son, lots offights and separated in less than two years. In 1960, based on a complaint topolice by her latest mother-in-law, Gage, while all three boys were livingwith her, was charged with beating her second son, David, then 4. Gage saysshe gave him a whipping after catching him playing with razor blades. A courtfined 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. Knownprofessionally as Peter Collins, he later gained notoriety for the book IRemember Marilyn, about his purported affair, as a 22-year-old, with Marilyn Monroe.

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

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

Gage didn't appear in A Swingin' Affair, but she did play the lead role ofMorella -- 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 a1964 movie, A House Is Not a Home, as did another actress making her debut inthe same film, Raquel Welch.

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

By the mid-1960s, Gage was on a downward trajectory. Divorced from Collatzin 1964, she was partying heavily -- taking LSD with John Barrymore Jr., shesaid, and living it up with ex-Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay. She was goodfriends, 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 forwork, she says -- her year-old daughter was turned over to authorities whenher babysitter became concerned that she might not be coming back. ThatNovember, Gage would be found unconscious in a motel room, overdosed onbarbiturates. She was 26 years old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hill and Gage had a falling out over the book, and the two have notremained in touch.

"She was just so young. She wasn't stupid, just naive, and I think men tookadvantage 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 andsmoking pot," it became clear that among those treating Gage carelessly wasGage herself.

Her friend Jan Shepard sees it differently.

"I don't blame her, I blame the people around her," Shepard said. "Theyused her her entire life. She was naive enough to do things she shouldn't havedone, 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 werebad 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 theButterfly, a box office failure. With few movie or television offers comingher 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 thecountry, singing and dancing, but never fully disrobing, she said, despiteencouragement from customers. Cynthia would wait in the dressing room whileMom performed.

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

At age 39, she tried to locate her sons, calling Hollywood gossip columnistJames 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 askingfor 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 adog, 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 beidentified by name. One of them continues to pay her rent, which, living on afixed income of $820 a month, she otherwise couldn't afford. When she has afew dollars to spare, she says, she contributes to Jewish charities andwildlife organizations.

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

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

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

Though she's been out of the spotlight for decades, she agreed to a recentseries of interviews by phone and in person -- mainly, she said, to set therecord straight. A week later, though, she abruptly cut off communication, anddeclined 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 asweet 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 columnappeared 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," Gagesaid. Since then, he's gotten married and had a child, but Gage has not mether 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 uppartly with Gage, partly with friends and partly with Gage's sister, died ofhepatitis in 2002. Two other sons, by two other fathers, contact her annuallyat 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 yearsago, lamenting their strained relationship. When she reads it aloud, she hasto 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 ofmemories in her lap. "But I was a devoted mother to my children. I taught myboys to say their prayers every night. They never had diaper rash. And if Icouldn't do for them, I made sure they had the very best. I sang themlullabies every night. There was that song of the two little babes carried tothe wood a long time ago..."

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

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