Miss New York City 1933 Elsa Donath - withdrew

The New York City contest must have been the largest in the country -- Elsie Donath was chosen Miss New York City out of 10,000 contestants! Co-sponsored by the New York tabloid "Daily Mirror" and RKO theaters, Elsa was one of the early favorites in the Pageant, up until just before the coronation; Elsa withdrew at 5pm, just four hours before the coronation, stating to newspapers that things were not on the "up and up." RKO theaters had promised a prized screen test to the winner of the national Pageant, and gave it to Elsa anyway, instead of winner Marion Bergeron, promoting Elsa as "the girl who turned down the title of Miss America."


1930 Donath family census form - Manhattan, NY
1930 census data, Manhattan, NY
Emanuel Donath 39 (Hungary - emigrated 1912) manufacturer of toys
Anna 34 (Hungary - emigrated 1903), Elsie 16 (NY), Richard M. 14 (NY)
Elsa was born in New York on January 30, 1914, the elder child of Emanuel and Anna Donath, recent immigrants from Hungary.

Elsa from the panorama shot - age 19

It is known that Elsa was chosen as Miss New York City (to differentiate her from Miss New York State), in a contest at Madison Square Gardens with 15,000* contestants -- the largest preliminary contest known to date. A Brooklyn newspaper mentions that it was an all-night affair! Early on in the Pageant, it is assumed that Elsa, or at least her sponsor RKO, discovered that many of the contestants had not been subjected to such rigorous selection processes; indeed, Miss Illinois had competed in Missouri and lost, and then was hand-picked in Illinois. With a vested interest in the outcome, RKO was incensed, and demanded that Pageant officials investigate to insure that all contestants were eligible, with rules enforced. It is understandable that the two New York contestants would not be happy with the discrepancy between the selection process on the East Coast versus the MidWest.

9/5/1933 Atlantic City - Elsa is fourth from left
Elsa on her float in Atlantic City
Thank you Lew for this fantastic photo!
Caption on picture at right, which was featured in some newspapers nationwide: "Here are some of the beauties from the Middle Atlantic States enjoying a stroll along the boardwalk after they arrived in Atlantic City to compete for the title of "Miss America" in the annual Atlantic City beauty pageant. They are, left to right: Evangeline Glidewell, "Miss Virginia"; Geraldine Glassman, "Miss Pennsylvania"; Ruth Le Roy, "Miss Atlantic City" and Hostess to the Beauties; Elsa Donath, "Miss New York City"; Dorota Dennis, "Miss Maryland"; Gertrude Christman, "Miss New Jersey"; Victoria George, "Miss Delaware"; and Flo Myer, "Miss New York State." (reference reverse side of photo.)

At Atlantic City, Elsa was one of the early favorites: The newspaper reporting the events of the second day of the pageant states: "Miss Ohio, Miss New York City, Miss New York State, Miss California, Miss Wisconsin, Miss West Virginia, Miss Washington State and Miss Missouri seemed to take with the crowds."

The newspaper for the third day hints at the ongoing probe into residency, and by the fifth day it has blown into a huge outrage. As the newspaper for the fifth day states: "Beauty Title Lines Field Against N. Y. Stock of Miss Ohio Zooms as Outland Continue Antagonism of Empire State. It's the rest of the country against New York in the Atlantic City Beauty Pageant which selects a "Miss America 1933" tonight. As the Pageant grind began its final day early today, 28 tired girls left "The Night of Merriment" at the Auditorium with one thing in common -- a desire to see anyone win the coveted title except Miss New York City and Miss New York State, the other two of the 30 contestants for the crown. It was the theatrical concern sponsoring the two New York girls which instituted the investigation which resulted in the secret disqualification of three Western girls on the question of residence, but that's not the reason for the animosity. It's the old antagonism of the outlands for little old New York and the other contestants can't quite see why any girl from New York can be the queen of typical American girls."

Miss America Organization historian Ric Ferentz confirmed rumors of influence-peddling: "two 'Italian-looking thugs' threatened the judges - it's New York tomorrow night or else." (Ric Ferentz, MAO historian, Feb 23, 2002). (Mafia influence was high in Atlantic City, the port of 40% of all the smuggled liquor during Prohibition.) Judge Russell Patterson revealed the same story in a 1955 magazine story, 22 years later. Miss New York City withdrew the final night; Miss New York State Florence Meyers stayed in the Pageant and garnered the second place prize.

9/9/1933 Daily Mirror article
(New York Daily Mirror, 1924-1963, tabloid)
8/16/1947 Toledo,OH article
The Atlantic City newspaper of the Monday post-Pageant reports "Another beauty, Miss New York City, Elsie Donath, 20, of the Bronx, withdrew from the competition at 5 o'clock Saturday evening. When her manager, Harry Arder, publicity man for RKO, sent a letter to Armand T. Nichols, director general, saying that the Pageant was not "on the up and up." Miss Donath was selected from 10,000 New York girls when the finals were held in the Madison Square Garden." The NY Daily Mirror tabloid (at left), Elsa's co-sponsor, specifies Elsa quit just four hours before the judges were to pick the winner, challenging the Pageant with "misrepresentation in its conduct" regarding the entries of four Mid-West contestants who were hand-picked rather than selected through contests -- the Misses Idaho, Illinois, Iowa and Kentucky. In Miss Illinois' exposé, which features a picture of Elsa, Lillian states that "Elsa Donath, "Miss Greater New York City", might have won, I think, but when she heard of all the irregularities she withdrew as a protest for fair play."

Many of the contestants, rightfully so, questioned the qualifications of all the contestants. Many of the contestants also felt the Pageant was not fair; Elsa and others voiced this opinion not only at the time but also throughout their lives. Elsa and RKO certainly had valid reasons to question both the eligibility and the selection process of the other states, and particulary of the MidWest contestants. The Miss America Organization maintains that Elsa was suddenly placed in the professional division and therefore ineligible for the title of Miss America (see footnote); it is thought that this is in error.

After the Pageant, RKO refused to give the promised screen test prize to the winner, Miss Connecticut Marion Bergeron, and gave it to Elsa anyway, billing her as "the girl who turned down the title of Miss America.". RKO publicly gave the excuse that it was due to Marion's tender age (15), but since they had sponsored the two New York contestants in the Pageant (and there had been attempts to influence the outcome of the Pagent towards NY), it is not clear if they had ever planned to give it to anyone other than one of their two contestants.

In 1940 Elsa is living in Hempstead,NY with her husband, two children, brother, and household help. However, it is curious that Elsa also seems to be listed in 1940 as living with her parents and working as a secretary in a law office. Elsa married Paul Shomer circa 1936 and had two children. After Paul's death in an automobile accident she was briefly married prior to her 1960 marriage to Joseph Maharam, who had been involved with set design on the stage in NY. Later in life, they moved to Florida, and Elsa died in 1993 in California at age 79, less than a year after her husband. Elsa did not discuss the Pageant with either of her children, other than to tell them it was fixed and she was robbed. She received a mink coat, perhaps a prize for winning the Miss New York City title.  

Social Security Death Index: ELSA MAHARAM, date of birth: 30 Jan 1914, date of death: 23 Oct 1993, last residence: 33319 (Fort Lauderdale, Broward, FL), last benefit: (none specified), social security number: 075-16-2839, place issued: New York. She died on October 23, 1993, at age 79.

Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Oct 26, 1993 -- MAHARAM - Elsa, born January 1, 1914 in New York, passed away October 23 in Coronado, CA. She is survived by her brother, Richard; her two children, Lewis and Barbara; and four grandchildren. A private funeral service was held Monday, October 25, at AM Israel Chapels in San Diego. In lieu of flowers please make contributions to the American Cancer Society. Arrangements by AM ISRAEL MORTUARY.

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* The Daily Mirror said she was one of 15,000 competitors and 1,500 finalists; Lillian Kroener's exposé said it was 12,000; the Daily Iowan said it was 1,500.

SHOMER, PAUL 01 Apr 1900 Nov 1956 56 (not specified) (none specified) New York 059-05-9570
MAHARAM, JOSEPH 18 Jul 1898 29 Dec 1992 94 33319 (Fort Lauderdale, Broward, FL) (none specified) New York 112-07-7655
-- Found Elsa through ancestry.com -- a relative of Joseph Maharam had posted that Joseph's second wife was an Elsa Donath. I contacted him and he confirmed that this Elsa had been Miss New York City 1933, and that Joseph and Elsa had no children.
-- Tim Shaffer sent me the article to the left, which detailed her first marriage, and I was able to contact her son in 2011. Thanks Tim!

Curiously, in the 21st century, the Miss America website states that Miss New York City was moved to the "professional" class division -- "After being named a winner in the "professional" class division, a defiant Miss New York City abruptly quit, charging the pageant wasn't "on the up and up". RKO, who had promised a screen test to the new Miss America, abruptly withdrew their support. Instead they awarded the screen test to Elsa Donath, Miss New York City, billing her as "the girl who turned down the title of Miss America." She was also the contest winner RKO had helped sponsor at the Madison Square Garden preliminary where Miss New York City was chosen." This is at odds with period sources:

Atlantic City newspaper on Monday, Sept 11, 1933 -- Another beauty, Miss New York City, Elsie Donath, 20, of the Bronx, withdrew from the competition at 5 o'clock Saturday evening. When her manager, Harry Arder, publicity man for RKO, sent a letter to Armand T. Nichols, director general, saying that the Pageant was not "on the up and up." Miss Donath was selected from 10,000 New York girls when the finals were held in the Madison Square Garden.

The NY Daily Mirror (above left), Elsa's co-sponsor, specified on September 9th that Elsa quit just four hours before the judges were to pick the winner, challenging the Pageant with "misrepresentation in its conduct" regarding the entries of four Mid-West contestants who were hand-picked rather than selected through contests -- the Misses Idaho, Illinois, Iowa and Kentucky.

In Miss Illinois' 1936 exposé, which features a picture of Elsa, Lillian states that "Elsa Donath, "Miss Greater New York City", might have won, I think, but when she heard of all the irregularities she withdrew as a protest for fair play."

In 2014 her son wrote me "My understanding was that my mom withdrew as there was so much politicking that she just did not want to be there. As far as I know she was not a professional model or movie star and the RKO contract was awarded to her before the contest was over." Thank you Lew and Barbara for lunch and delightful stories.

It is thought that the MAO website may be in error -- the Atlantic City newspapers state on Monday September 11th that Miss New York City Elsa Donath quit and charged the Pageant was not on the "up and up," while on the previous Friday September 8th that the winner of "the Golden Mermaid" for the professional division went to Harriett Myrne, professional beauty from the Hollywood Restaurant of New York City. The professional contest concluded on Thursday, two days before Elsa Donath quit; what professional class division would Elsa have been named a winner of if not the Golden Mermaid? There is no other professional division mentioned in Atlantic City newspapers or any other source. Perhaps since the winner of the Golden Mermaid was Miss New York City there was some confusion. Elsa never actually worked as an actress as far as her children knew.

In 2016 Kristy Lee Hochenberger-Witt published the book "Images of America: The Miss New York Competition" having gotten in touch with me, and through me the descendants of Elsa Donath.

Since its conception in 1921, the Miss America competition has become a historical staple of the United States. From its humble start as a marketing scheme to its current achievement of crowning the ideal female American role model, the competition has been dominated by the women of New York State. The Miss New York competition has seen six of its representatives achieve the ultimate crown of Miss America, with three of those wins as an unprecedented and historical back-to-back threepeat. Beginning in 1921 with well-known actress and model Virginia Lee as Miss New York City through the decades of shrinking bathing suits and burgeoning talents to todays community servant and public spokeswoman, the representatives of the Miss New York competition prove that brains and beauty will always make an unstoppable equation for success.