John Clayton's In the City: Beauty of a mysteryBy JOHN CLAYTON
New Hampshire Union Leader Staff
Monday, Aug. 2, 2010
I am nothing if not chivalrous, so when a certain Donna Hay of Encino, Calif., asked for my assistance, I agreed immediately.
Of course, it didn't hurt that Donna's request provided me with a delightfully baffling topic for today's exercise, which falls somewhere between episodes of "Cold Case" and "Without a Trace."
In a way, it's like a human scavenger hunt.
Here's the set-up.
Donna's mother, Eleanor Dankenbring, was a contestant in the 1933 Miss America Pageant. As is the case with too many of us, Donna was aware of her mother's tenure as Miss Iowa, but never really sat down and talked with her about that part of her life. After her mom passed way in 1974, Donna started looking through her mother's photo albums and has since become fascinated -- OK, more like obsessed -- with the 1933 pageant.
"The more information I gathered, the more intrigued I became," she said. "At first I only wanted to find the other seven Midwest contestants, to share the group photos I had with their families, and to share memories. However, I soon expanded the search to include all 31 contestants who arrived in Atlantic City that summer."
Yes, there were only 31 contestants back in 1933, and one of them was Miss New Hampshire. According to The Atlantic City Press, the newspaper of record in the pageant's earliest years "" her name was Leita Laugley.
That's where the mystery begins.
"I've been able to locate most of the contestants on the 1930 census data, but not Leita," Donna explained. "There is no Leita Laugley in America on the census data. It's certain she lived in New Hampshire in 1933 as the 1933 Miss America Pageant did require state residency verification, but while I have some possible leads, there is nothing certain, so I'm hoping you might run her picture and ask your readers for help."
It's not just Donna who's seeking that information. Ric Ferentz, who is the official historian of the Miss America Pageant, would also like answers, but he knows they may be hard to come by.
"Honestly, I wouldn't at all be surprised if she was some local New Jersey girl who was simply awarded the title to fill out the line," he told Donna. "That was one strange year in Atlantic City."
Was it ever.
The 1933 pageant was staged after a six-year hiatus tied to the Great Depression. The five-day event began on Sept. 5, when, according to The ACP, the parade moved "slowly along the Boardwalk to the Auditorium where the visiting nymphs here to vie for the title of the nation's most beautiful bathing girl were welcomed to the resort by Mayor Bacharach and members of the City Commission."
Intriguing plots and sub-plots soon unfolded, to wit:
--Donna's mother was disqualified along with Miss Illinois and Miss Idaho when it was alleged that they did not actually reside in the states they were representing;
--Miss Arkansas was disqualified when it was learned she was married;
--Miss Oklahoma was stricken with appendicitis and underwent emergency surgery, forcing her withdrawal;
--And historian Ferentz confirmed rumors wherein two "Italian-looking thugs" threatened the judges -- "It's New York tomorrow night or else!" -- which was soon followed by the withdrawal of Miss New York City, who claimed the pageant was "not on the up-and-up."
The caliber of the contestants was definitely up, if we are to believe reports in The Atlantic City Press.
"So striking was the change between the ideal figure of the twenties and that of 1933," one observer said of the contestants, "that one might almost have thought that a new anatomical species had come into being."
New swimsuits had also come into being, with the bulky, burkha-like garments of the 1920s replaced by sleek one-piece numbers, although two contestants from cold-weather states came unprepared for photo day.
"The picture-taking process was delayed for some time when it was found that two of the girls were missing," The ACP reported. "A checkup revealed that the missing beauties were Miss Maine and Miss New Hampshire. They were finally located in the beauty parlors. The two New England girls had not brought along their bathing suits. However, the committee soon found two extra outfits and the proceedings continued."
The resulting photographic evidence is what Donna is hanging her hat on, in hopes that someone here in New Hampshire will recognize Miss NH.
"We have her name and her picture, but no other information," she added. "Her age and hometown are unknown, and due to my inability to find any Leita Laugley in America in 1930, I actually believe her name may have been something similar, but not exactly Leita Laugley. I think Leita may have been her middle name and I think her last name may have been Langley. In any case, we would be thrilled with any information."
And it's not like Donna is taking the easy way out.
To call her research exhaustive is to do her a disservice, and if you don't believe me ask every librarian in New Hampshire. She's contacted them all, including Eileen Reddy here in Manchester, who was as thorough as always.
"We checked the 1929-1935 Manchester City Directories and did not find the surname Laughley or Laugley," she wrote. "We did find the surname Laughlin, but no Leita. We used Ancestry.com to check the 1930 census and found no exact matches.
"Nationwide in the United States," she added, "we only found 17 hits for the surname Laughley and 33 hits for the surname Laugley. We did a state search on Ancestry.com for the first name Leita in 1930 in New Hampshire, but no surnames came close to the spelling given to us."
In the end, Eileen suggested checking microfilm copies of The Manchester Union and Evening Leader from 1933 -- John Jordan took care of that for me -- and still we've come up empty-handed.
So now it's up to you.
If you recognize the woman wearing the Miss New Hampshire sash, drop me a line. There's an autographed book in it for anyone who can solve the mystery of Leita Laugley.
John Clayton is the author of several books on Manchester and New Hampshire, including his newest title, "Remembering Manchester." His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.