Jo-Carroll Dennison, Oldest Living Former Miss America, Dies at 97

by Leanne Stahulak
(Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Jo-Carroll Dennison, Miss America 1942, died on Oct. 18 at age 97. Until the time of her death, she held the title for oldest living Miss America.

Deadline broke the news earlier today. Per the outlet, Dennison’s son confirmed her death, though he did not supply a cause of death. She passed away at her home in Idyllwild, California, earlier this month.

Dennison won the Miss America pageant right in the middle of World War II. She entered the competition as Miss Texas, soon sweeping the competition in the talent and swimsuit competitions. She performed “Deep in the Heart of Texas” for her talent segment while (fittingly) dressed as a cowgirl. One newspaper even gave her the title “the Texas Tornado” for how she blew away the other contestants.

After winning Miss America, Jo-Caroll Dennison spent a lot of time supporting the troops, selling war bonds, and putting on performances. She visited hospitals, service camps, and defense plants, but eventually ended her tour in the middle of World War II.

Instead, Dennison turned her attention to Hollywood. In 1944, she appeared in the film “Winged Victory,” followed by “The Jolson Story” in 1946. The former Miss America interacted with Frank Sinatra and Ed Sullivan on television and even appeared in a few episodes of “Dick Tracy” in 1950.

In a recent video commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Miss America pageant, Jo-Carroll Dennison also revealed that she appeared on stage in New York and worked behind the camera on various TV shows.

How Did Jo-Carroll Dennison Become Miss America?

Jo-Carroll Dennison was born on Dec. 16, 1923. She wasn’t born in a hospital, though. Her parents owned a traveling medicine show in Texas, and her mother went into labor on the road. So they stopped at a men’s prison in Arizona, and Dennison’s mother gave birth to her in a prison infirmary with the help of a prison doctor.

From there, Dennison would perform for her parents’ medicine show to attract customers. She sang, tap-danced, and acted in various sketches, preparing her for eventual pageant life. Years later, while working at a bank in Texas, someone recommended she enter a beauty contest. That started her path to Miss America.

In the video commemorating the 100th anniversary of Miss America, Jo-Carroll Dennison brought up several key topics that affected her outlook on the competition.

“Back in 1942, the pageant was mostly about looks,” Dennison shared. “I never thought I had won because of the way I looked. But rather because of the way I felt about myself. With this in mind, I flat out refused to wear my bathing suit on the stage after the pageant. I’m so delighted that the Miss America Organization has embraced this principle and now focuses on the totality of each candidate.”

Though Jo-Carroll Dennison freely admitted that winning Miss America changed the course of her life, she’s still happy to see how it’s grown and evolved with the times since her win.

“I’m glad to have lived long enough to see how women’s fight against inequality, sexual harassment, and abuse has finally come to the fore,” she said.