Our Very First Miss Mississippi

September/October 1991, Mississippi Magazine

With the Miss America Pageant upon us, we honor Dorothy Eley Jané of Moss Point, who started a grand tradition among young Mississipians.

By Don Lee Keith

At age 23, schoolteacher Dorothy Eley (right) won the title of Miss Mississippi from among 19 other contestants. Later, she represented the state in Atlantic City (below). She is pictured fifth from left.

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With the Miss America Pageant upon us, we honor Dorothy Eley Jané of Moss Point, who started a grand tradition among young Mississippians. At age 27, schoolteacher Dorothy Eley won the title of Miss Mississippi from among 19 other contestants. Later, she represented the state in Atlantic City (below). She is pictured fifth from left. [note: it is the same official panorama picture.]

Already it was four o'clock in the afternoon on the first Sunday in August 1933, and although the crowd of more than 3,000 that had knotted onto the beach in Biloxi was an oddly assorted lot -- Gulf Coast regulars, vacationing tourists, motorists who had stopped there out of curiousity, and bathers who had wandered up from the water's edge, still dripping in swim garb -- they shared two unmistakable traits. All of them were tired of waiting for the bathing beauty contest to start, and all of them were hot. The mercury had logged just four points below the 100 mark.

Women in voile dresses reached up to dab their necklnes with lilac sachet. Farm boys, down from the inland hills, mopped their faces with bandanas. Anm when a dark-suited man arrived in a dark-toned car with a box of cardboard fans from his place of business, the first row of the makeshift bleachers was suddenly emptied and the spectators swarmed in the man's directon like wasps on melon rind.

The fans featured a picture of the Last Supper on one side, the name of a local funeral parlor on the other, big and bold. Soon they were all in use, some of them keeping time to a march tune from the Biloxi Boys Band down near the small stage platform that had been put up between the sea wall and the two hot, narrow lanes of coast highway.

At exactly a quarter past four, which was 15 minutes later than scheduled, a duet of shrill police whistles parted the leaden air, and all heads turned in unison toward the roadway. Two uniformed patrolmen, one facing east, one facing west, and both straddling the center line down the concrete below, halted Sunday afternoon traffic, by merely raising a hand. Then, from across the way, out of a side door of the New Biloxi Hotel, came the 20 swimsuited young ladies vying for a title that would, half a century later, surpass all others in the realm of American beauty pageants. The band was playing "Sweet and Lovely."

The girls, in single file, moved briskly across the pebbly pavement, between the patrolmen, and headed toward the wooden platform. People in the bleachers stood, straining to see.

All of the contestants were smiling. All of the contestants were nervous. All of the contestants were hopeful. But only one of the contestants would become the very first Miss Mississippi. They promenaded on the platform for the judges. Individually and collectively, they were supported by applause from the audience, and when a young boy at the far edge of the crowd let out a wolf whistle, spectators in his vicinity whirled toward him and stared daggers of disapproval. It did not happen again.

Few of the contestants had known any of their fellow entrants before the Friday past when they began to arrive in the pageant city. Six of the 20 represented counties, the others, towns. Most of them came from south Mississippi. Merigold was the lone title north of Jackson, and the only one from within the Delta. The majority of girls were 18 years old, though a couple were 16, and one was 24. They had either been picked in smaller contests or simply chosen by a local sponsoring organization, usually a veterans group.

Almost to a girl they were smacky-mouthed pretty in the smacky-mouthed pretty way that girls in the Depression generally were. And, like most others in the Depression, the majority of them were working girls. A couple were still in high school, however, and one had graduated from college three years earlier.

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By that final afternoon of judging, those contenders for the title of Miss Mississippi had already been interviewed by the judges, had already paraded in sports attire, and had already been honored with two pageant balls in hotel ballrooms. Now, on the stage platform, they promenaded for the last time. Five were called back at the request of the judges. The third girl, Miss Moss Point, had mounted the stage and was almost even with the judges when she caught her heel in the platform and lost her balance, regaining it just in time to keep from landing in the judges' laps. If the incident did upset her, she didn't let it on.

During the brief recess for judges' balloting, funeral home fans fluttered even more furiously, though the temperature had dropped slightly. Youngsters squirmed more; grown-ups eyes them threateningly. And just as the last vestige of the crowd's patience seemed to drain away, the decision was announced. Second alternate, Miss Meridian. First alternate, Miss Natchez. And Miss Mississippi, Miss Moss Point.

It was the girl who had almost landed on top of the judges! Now, a single young lady stood alone on the stage. The audience, while excited, was still mindful of the lingering summer heat, so it quickly left for home, where ice water was as near as the kitchen and the whizzing cool of an electric fan was only a flip-switch away. The pageant crowd, along with the rest of the reading public, would wait for the Monday paper to learn about the winner. They would learn that her name was Dorothy Eley. She was 23 years old, five feet two inches tall, and a 1930 graduate of Judson College in Marion, Alabama. She was a schoolteacher.

What they would not learn was that until the very last minute, the first Miss Mississippi wasn't sure that she would even try for the title. She didn't know if her mother would let her be in something as questionable as a beauty contest.

Later, in Atlantic City, from the moment that she and her cousin Mildred, who was serving as chaperone, stepped off the train and landed slap-dab in the middle of the confused festivity, Dorothy Eley felt a queasy uneasiness about the whole thing known as the Miss America Pageant. She didn't like it a bit.

At first she didn't know why. She hadn't reacted that way to the contest in Biloxi. She had, in fact, rather enjoyed it. And certainly she had enjoyed the train trip to Atlantic City. She and her cousin had been accompanied as far as Washington, D.C., by Mississippi Congressman William Colmer, who was returning to his duties in the United States House of Representatives. And Dorothy had enjoyed their stopover in the capital, touring the city by streetcar and going to Griffith Stadium for a big-league baseball game where they introduced her, and she stood up and everybody clapped for the first Miss Mississippi.

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But being in the Miss America Pageant, being up there on display, being put on exhibit for the purpose of being looked at, it was like.... "I'll tell you what it was like," says Mrs. Jané. "It was like a cattle auction. All we did, day in and day out, was prance around in bathing suits. Why, we even wore them to breakfast! I had to go out and buy two new ones because the ones I had got so dirty. Filthy! I already had new shoes, which was a bad mistake because before long I'd walked so much my feet were killing me, and that sure didn't help my disposition.

"In the first place, I'd come down with an awful cold, just felt like a dog. The other girls backstage would all be checking their makeup and fixing their hairdos before parading in front of the audience, and me? I'd be blowing my nose before walking the gangplank, rather, runway.

"Oh, I got along just fine with the other girls, liked a couple of them a lot, especially Miss Ohio. She would have been my choice, she was so well poised. And Miss Michigan. She unded up borrowing my hat.

"Most of those girls seemed so much younger, however. Maybe that's what it was, maybe I was simply too old. They would get a lot more excited than I would. I don't think I even cared when they announced the 16 semi-finalists and I was one of them. And when the girl from Connecticut won the crown, well, that was fine with me. By then I was so disgusted that I just wanted to get out of Atlantic City as quick as I could, and not stop for anything except to look back and thumb my nose at it all."

Miss Mississippi 1933 could not have known it, of course, but her year was scarcely the most propitious for Miss America hopefuls. The pageant had just been resurrected after five years of dormancy, and promoters of the National Beauty Tournament, as it was then called, could hardly be seated at the same luncheon table without snarling at each other like back-alley curs. Charges flew forth that the judging was rigged. And counter charges. And when at last the crown was settled onto the blonde curls of Miss Connecticut, most everyone within the realm of pageantdom figured that the entire affair would best be forgotten.

Forgotten it was. It was two years before another contest was held. And then, the official pageant position regarding the 1933 contest was simply that it never happened. Only 20 years later would the Miss America hierarchy have digested its humble pie enough to recognize that year of infamy as being just another link in tradition's illustrious past.

In a way, Dorothy Eley Jané has been treated accordingly by the state pageant. The program book of the Miss Mississippi Pageant has never listed her as one of the past titleholders. And she has never been invited, like other past queens, to the annual festivities in Vicksburg.

1962 - from left: Miss Mississippi 1959 Lynda Lee Mead; Miss Mississippi 1933 Dorothy Eley Jané; and daughter Olivia Jané. With thanks to son Skip Jané.
It seems not to have affected her adversely. When she returned to Moss Point from Atlantic City, she went right on with her life as a teacher of public school music. Soon she got married and became the mother of a son and a daughter. As Dorothy Eley Jané, she continued her career and spent six years as a social counselor for students at Mississippi State College for Women.

Now retired, she lives still in Moss Point, and at 82, she seems to have defied time in the same fashion that she defied the stereotype of beauty queens back in the Depression. She still plays bridge and she still walks a lot, and she's been known to lecture strangers about such things as littering the highways. On her walks, she sometimes takes along a sack to pick up the mess others have made. "If people expect to live in a decent world, they've got to start taking care of it," she says.

Obviously, she is concerned a good deal more with the future than with the past. The silver trophy she won in Biloxi is in a back closet of her house, and if you ask about it, the first Miss Mississippi is apt to give her head a graceful toss and say. "Oh, that old thing! It's probably rusty by now."

Thank you to the Glidewell family for the first two pages, and to the Eley family for the complete article and the photograph.

Return to Miss Mississippi Dorothy Eley page