Miss Connecticut 1933: Marion Bergeron - Miss America 1933

While the specific judging criteria for the Miss America Pageant were secret, the newspapers reported they were based on poise, personality, carriage and figure. Marion Bergeron had entered a local pageant on a lark and just weeks later ended up being the youngest (age 15) Miss America in history! But she was not the only under-aged contestant in 1933, and she was not even the youngest; the poor organization of the Pageant resulted in at least four of the 31 contestants being under the requisite age of 16. Problems continued post-coronation: her crown was stolen from her room, RKO reneged on her screen test prize, her prizes included a car which she was too young to drive! Despite the problems, Marion was a life-long public speaker and supporter of the Miss America Pageant.


1930 Bergeron Family census form -- New Haven, CT
1930 census data: New Haven, CT:
Elmer R. Bergeron, 35, born MA, patrolman with the town police
Florence 30 (CT), Marion 11 (CT), Florence 7 (CT), Evelyn 21 (CT)(sister), Florence 19 (CT)(sister).

Marion from the panorama picture - age 15
1933 picture at Pageant
"One day during the summer of 1933 in New Haven, Connecticut, the proprietors of the Rivoli Theatre discovered they were short one girl for a beauty contest. Marian Bergeron, 15, was asked if she would go right over to the theater. 'My father's friend owned the theater and said he'd give me a pass for the season,' she says. Marian put her bathing suit in a bag and walked over. She walked back home carrying a dozen roses and a trophy. A few weeks later, she became Miss Connecticut, and a few weeks after that, Miss America. 'I was only fifteen!' she exclaims, 'I'd never been on a date!' Marian received a watch, a car, a fox coat and some Jersey property. 'There wasn't any money then,' she says. 'But when I turned sixteen, I signed with an agency.' Marian went on to sing with Guy Lombardo and Rudy Vallee, among others." (1982 US Magazine) She reported that her singing career started when she was but twelve, and sang blues on a New Haven radio station.

Marion was accompanied to the Atlantic City pageant by her 34-year old-mother Florence, as her chaperone.

At the pageant, Marion was a semi-finalist in the evening gown competition. There was no mention of her in the Atlantic City newspaper until the final day, reporting on her coronation: "Miss America - 1933 Model" Miss Marion Bergeron. West Haven high school girl, entered as "Miss Connecticut," won the Pageant title of "Miss America" at the climaxing event Saturday night. She is 16 years old, the daughter of a policeman. Marion Bergeron, 16-year-old West Haven, Conn, High School senior, the new "Miss America," was considering a number of theatrical contracts and Armand T. Nichols, Director-General of the Atlantic City Beauty Pageant, was considering two offers to take the spectacle to other cities yesterday as the 1933 Pageant entered history. The crown which Nichols placed on the blonde head of Miss Bergeron, who entered the Pageant as "Miss Connecticut" and emerged victorious over 29 other girl contestants, probably ended her school days - at least temporarily. She was a senior in high school but she indicated yesterday she will not return to school this year in view of the tempting offers made her by motion picture and theatrical concerns. She will remain in this city until Thursday and when she leaves it probably will be to fulfill a contract. Last night she and the other winners made their first public appearance after the coronation at the Auditorium Walkathon, where they were introduced by Norman Brokenshire, Master of Ceremonies during the Pageant events."

Miss America Marion Bergeron
1933 coronation with NY and CA
circa 1934 picture of Marion
There were rumors of Mafia influence, and thugs threatening the judges. In 1955 one of the judges, who was a first-time judge in 1933, spoke out and described how the judges banded together to conspire to thwart the influence peddling and ensure that their pick, Miss Connecticut Marion Bergeron, would be crowned Miss America.

Interestingly, this was the first Miss America coronation in evening gowns; the winners in the 1920's had been crowned in their bathing suits, and when the pageant began anew in 1935, they again were crowned in their bathing suits. It was not until 1948 that Miss America reinstated the evening gown coronation.

The coronation itself and the immediate aftermath were marked by confusion and lack of organization, much like the entire pageant. The Miss America Pageant itself reports that there was so much confusion during and after the vote tabulations that nobody informed Marion she had won. She was unaware of her victory until the dressing assistants placed the banner on her! Marion was so petite that she was dwarfed by the mammoth crown: "It was so big it came right down over my eyes," Marion recalled with a laugh, "and it made me look retarded!" Then, during the rush of post-coronation activities, the crown was stolen from Miss America's suite at the Ritz Carlton.

1934 picture of Miss America Marion Bergeron
1934 press release
Marion's prizes were a Ford automobile, $1000 watch and a trip to Bermuda. However the promised screen test was not among her prizes when RKO reneged. RKO stated that this was due to Marion's age, but in actuality, they gave it to Miss New York City -- one of the two women they had sponsored at the Pageant -- whom they then billed as "the girl who turned down the title of Miss America"! Despite this, Marion went on to perform professionally, signing with Columbia Broadcasting Company, and appearing with the "Miss America Orchestra" as well as famous musicians Rudy Vallee, Ozzie Nelson, Frankie Caryle, Don Bestro and Guy Lombardo. Marion was dubbed "Baby Vamp" by the press, who considered her to look like a little sister to the three voluptuous blonde screen goddesses of the day -- Greta Garbo, Mae West and Jean Harlow.

March 18, 1934 Ogden, UT newspaper clipping "Around the Clock with the Health and Beauty Champs" "Miss America looks forward to a screen career, takes it easy and watches her calories, while the health girl rises at 6, milks 10 cows, and 'eats everything.'" ... "The beauty champion, 16-year-old Marion Bergeron, has a daily routine of extreme simplicity. Except on days when she is making professional appearances in vaudeville, she gets up at 8 in the morning, finishes with her toilet at 8:30, or thereabouts, and sets out immediately thereafter to call on her two small cousins, who live nearby. She gets them up, helps bathe and dress them, and then walks back to her home with them. At 10:30 they all eat breakfast
Marion never paid much attention to calories until she won the beauty title. Now every meal is carefully considered and each morsel of food is tabulated in averaging up values. Breakfast consists usually of orange juice, cereal. toast and coffee.
Until 1 o'clock she fultills household duties, spending most of the time in the kitchen. 'Baking cake is one of my hobbies,' she states, 'and I am most proud when the results are good. I love sweets, but have had to cut down on my desserts. The old calories must be watched!'
Luncheon shortly after 1 is a simple fare of tea and crackers. Marion returns the cousins to their home and departs for a class of strenuous gymnasium activities. For two hours she goes through a program of exercises, manipulating a medicine ball, horse-dummy riding, an electric cabinet treatment, a shower and massage.
Four-thirty finds her home again for an hour of reading and answering fan-mail. About 15 daily letters of compliments, offers of marriage and advice demand her attention and time for answering.
'I would be terribly disappointed,' naively says the lovely platinum blond beauty, 'if I had less than five letters a day. Some of them are so funny -- but I answer each one.'
With members of her family, a mother, father and 11-year-old sister, she has dinner at 5:30 and partakes of the largest meal of the day: thin soup, steak, four vegetables, coffee and probably a dessert of pineapple or stewed fruit.
'I eat very little meat, only steak once or twice during the week,' she says. 'Pies and gooey desserts I love, but can't have. Potatoes? Well, on rare occasions I include them in my menu -- but not often.'
At 6 o'clock Marion is busy reading for an hour. 'Kathleen Norris and Peter Kyne are my favorite authors,' she remarks. 'I have been trying for months to fathom a book on etiquet in England as compared with the United States, but frankly, I can't get much out of it.' At 7 she mends her lingerie, about which she is very critical; at 7:30 she manicures her nails; at 8 she studies music and practices tap dancing. Nine o'clock finds Miss America a sleepy, healthy girl -- ready for bed!
Marion never has had a 'date,' and she had never had a special 'boy-friend.' She explains that in her entire life she has been to only three high school dances and that her mother has always accompanied her as chaperon. 'Sweet 16 and never been kissed?' she was asked. 'My family kisses me,' she replied.
In the summer time, Marion may be found swimming in Long Island Sound. For many years she was won laurels as an accomplished swimmer. Tap-dancing is another hobby to which she has been devoted since early childhood. She acknowledges with pride that she won a prize for tap-dancing when she was 12, and that at the age of 14 she was judged the most physically perfect girl in her school room by a physical instructor.
The fact that she isn't a sophisticated young woman of the modern generation doesn't worry Miss America. She grins when she admits that her daily life would probably bore most girls of 16. She doesn't drink and she doesn't smoke!
'I haven't any desire for cocktails or cigarets,' she states with amazing frankness, 'and don't miss dates or boy-friends, I have too much to do studying and taking care of myself.'
Marion enjoys moving pictures and has aspirations toward the films. She would like to be a combination of Jean Harlow and Greta Garbo, and hopes that a screen test will send her to Hollywood, fame and fortune.
But she also looks forward to having a home of her own some day, a husband, babies. She hasn't anybody especially in mind, yet, for the role of husband; but she thinks it would be nice to find 'someone who looks like Neil Hamilton, who is a former West Haven boy."

1938 photo, backside
Marion was in the news a year after the pageant for a rumored engagement at age 16 to Mortimer Lewis, Jr., scion of a wealthy Atlantic City family, which she denied. In 1938 she was again in the news with a reputed engagement to columnist Harry Neigher. Marion cannot be located on the 1940 census; she has not yet married Donald Ruhlman and she is not living with her family. Marion married Executive Donald Ruhlman, with whom she had three children, Donald, Robert and Donna and eleven grandchildren.

For the Miss America Silver Anniversary in 1951, MAO did apparently get in touch with Marion and included her in their Official Year Book (cover, history, website for entire 1951 book). After she was widowed in 1972, subsequently remarried, and her children were grown, Marion reconnected and stayed involved with the Miss America pageant throughout her life:

1962 article: "Queen at 15" Marion mentioned that "I was completely and totally ignored," she said without bitterness. "It's only been since 1965 or so that they (invited me back); I was thrilled to death."

1982 Atlantic City Press newspaper article
The mid-1960s marked a change in MAO attitude about the 1933 pageant. According to her 1982 Atlantic City Press article, Marion Bergeron mentioned that "I was completely and totally ignored," she said without bitterness. "It's only been since 1965 or so that they (invited me back); I was thrilled to death." (So, it is not surprising that MAO had not kept in touch with any of the other 1933 contestants either; they had not kept in touch with any of them in their desire to distance themselves from the 1933 fiasco.)

1969 article: Marion Bergeron from Connecticut, Miss America of 1933, had the largest hips -- 37½ inches.

1982 magazine article: "She credits the pageant with changing her life, mostly by keeping her lively. 'It keeps me on my toes,' says the sixty-nine year-old-widow and grandmother of six. 'It keeps me from going to the bank with curlers. I don't want people to say "She looks like hell -- what happened to her?" It makes you want to retain that image.'"

1983 article: "Once a Miss America, always a Miss America. You're just a little bit special all the time," said Miss America 1933 Marian Bergeron McKnight, 65. That title still carries special responsibility for Mrs. McKnight, even after 50 years, three children and five grandchildren.

Marion Bergeron's 1933 crown in the Atlantic City Sheraton Hotel museum, 2013 (The Press of Atlantic City)
the crown was stolen the night of the coronation
1996 article: "Bergeron, Miss America 1933, says her crown was stolen from her hotel room the same night she won. She never recovered it."

The crown was stolen from Miss America's suite at the Ritz Carlton. As of 2013 a 1933 crown is part of the museum at the Atlantic City Sheraton. The caption on the 2013 picture is "Designer Janet Espenshade, of Bryn Mawr, PA, looks over the crown, Thursday May 9, 2013, worn by Miss America 1933 Marian Bergeron, in the lobby of the Atlantic City Sheraton Hotel. (The Press of Atlantic City/Staff Photo by Michael Ein)"
• However, it is thought that this 1933 crown is a replica. MAO Historian Ric Ferentz said the different tiaras were reproductions because back in the 1940s the crown was passed along. Daryl Schabinger has a 1983 picture of Marion Bergeron wearing the crown on the 50th anniversary of her coronation -- yet in 1996 she states the crown was never recovered; this seems to confirm the crown in the museum is a replica.

Misses Maine, Connecticut, Mississippi, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky at the judging -- Judge Russell Patterson, author of the 1955 exposé, is on the right
Marion was one of the featured speakers on the 2002 PBS broadcast "Miss America." In this interview Marion reminisced:
MARION BERGERON SETZER: To the judge's eyes, I was the typical American girl. Totally unsophisticated, very naïve, had a lot of enthusiasm, had a lot of talent that they didn't ask for, but I did have that. And I was just a 1933 typical American girl. My figure then as they described it was a typical Mae West figure, which was hourglass, thirty-four bust, a twenty-six waist, eighty-two buns.
NARRATOR: The new Miss America was just the kind of girl vaudeville producers were looking for -- and they soon came waving contracts, promising to make her a star. But all the attention was short-lived. As soon as the newspapers reported that she was only fifteen, the show business contracts were quickly withdrawn -- and Bergeron went back to high school.
MARION BERGERON SETZER: On our way home, I had to go back only to be met by the nuns that said I had had entirely too much undue publicity. And they felt that it would be better if I chose another school. Yeah, and that's practically being kicked out of school. Here I feel like I'm really somebody. You know, I'm just the most glamorous thing that ever happened at 15 years old, but the nuns didn't think so.

circa 2000
Social Security Death Index: MARIAN R SETZER, born: 03 May 1918, died: 22 Oct 2002, last residence: 45429 (Dayton, Montgomery, OH), last benefit: (none specified), social security number: 070-12-5226, state where issued: New York. Marion Rita Bergeron Setzer passed away in 2002 at age 84 from leukemia. Obituary and front-page article, Dayton News, October 1002.

---------------------
Note: She spelled her name as both Marion and Marian; more often Marion in her younger years.
Miscellaneous Research
--- RUHLMAN, DONALD 17 Feb 1908 Nov 1972 64 45429 (Dayton, Montgomery, OH) (none specified) Indiana 304-09-4095
--- (maybe) MCKNIGHT, HOWARD 06 Sep 1915 Apr 1987 71 45429 (Dayton, Montgomery, OH) (none specified) Ohio 302-07-2296 -- based on same zip code; but there are other possibilities
--- SETZER, FRED C 24 Jan 1915 31 Mar 2002 (V) 87 45429 (Dayton, Montgomery, OH) (none specified) Ohio 291-10-7158

I sent a letter to Marion Bergeron Setzer on March 7, 2002, c/o Miss America Organization, just six months before her death and had no response.