Leona Gage: Beauty queen who became an instant celebrity after being stripped of her Miss USA title

In 1957, Miss Maryland, Leona Gage was chosen as Miss USA.

A day later, reporters, acting on a tip whose source has never been revealed, discovered that Gage was not 21 as she claimed, but 18, and not a Miss, but a Mrs, married to her second husband and mother to two sons, the first of whom was born when she was 14.

Already through to the semi-finals of the Miss Universe pageant, she was stripped of her title and replaced by Miss Utah, Charlotte Sheffield. The Miss Universe title was won by Gladya Zender, of Peru, who turned out to have also lied about her age, and was only 17.

The scandal turned Gage into an overnight celebrity. Ed Sullivan booked her on his variety show, allegedly saying, "what the hell is wrong with motherhood?" Her notoriety launched her into a career on the fringes of showbusiness that seems remarkably familiar today, in the world of reality TV and instant celebrity. She appeared on Steve Allen's show, forgetting the lyrics to the song she was made to sing. She was cast in small parts in live television dramas, and soon found herself in Las Vegas, billed at the Tropicana as "Miss USA For A Day", a play on the popular daytime TV show Queen For A Day. She divorced her second husband and dated Frank Sinatra. She took acting lessons. She was living in a trailer with her two children. She was still only 19.

Mary Leona Gage was born on 8 April 1939 in Longview, Texas, but grew up in Wichita Falls, where her mother did two jobs to support the family after her father was paralysed in an accident. She was 13 and working after school in a drugstore when she was approached by Gene Ennis, a 24-year-old airman at the nearby Air Force base, who looked like a young Sinatra. Soon Ennis was transferred elsewhere, and Gage discovered she was pregnant. She kept it secret from her mother, but a co-worker who was getting married suggested a double wedding, with a volunteer husband. Within a week, her mother had the marriage annulled, but when eventually Ennis got back in touch, they married. At 14, she moved to an air force base in Maryland, and at 16 had her second son. The marriage was far from happy, and at the suggestion of an air force doctor she took a job in a dress shop, where she met Barbara Meshaw, a part-time model who introduced her to a local agency, and entered her in the Miss USA-Maryland competition, which she won, and soon she and Mewshaw were in Long Beach, California.

Miss USA had been started in 1952 by a swimwear company, after the 1951 Miss America refused to wear their swimsuit, and had added the Miss Universe competition following year. It was more consciously designed for glamour models; the judges who chose Gage included the gossip columinst Earl Wilson and pin-up artist Alberto Vargas. Gage always claimed she had told both her agency and the Maryland organisers the truth, and believed her mother-in-law had alerted the press. As she recalled, "I think one half the US hated me," but almost all of them wanted to see her.

In Las Vegas, a short-lived marriage to a dancer produced her third son. She moved to Hollywood, and married her fourth husband, Gunther Collatz, an aspiring screenwriter who, as Peter Collins, would later write I Remember Marilyn, a memoir of his supposed affair with Marilyn Monroe. The marriage lasted three years, and Gage had a daughter. She appeared in Roger Corman's Tales Of Terror (1962) and had a small role as a prostitute in A House Is Not A Home, where her colleagues included Raquel Welch. She was firmly established on the Hollywood party circuit and drug scene and dating John Barrymore, Jr. and Mickey Hargitay, the strongman who had been married to Jayne Mansfield. When, in 1965, she disappeared for over a month her daughter was taken by social services. She attempted suicide by overdosing on barbiturates, but because she was also carrying marijuana, found herself sentenced to seven months at the state mental facility in Camarillo.

Her first words when she was found had been "my name is Lorna Gage, will somebody please help me?", which became the title of an exploitative biography ghostwritten by Devra Hill, for which she was paid $900. Her final film role came that year in the eminently forgettable Scream Of The Butterfly. She turned to burlesque, though she always insisted she was never a stripper, did commercials, and eventually became a hairdresser. In 1978 she appeared in James Bacon's gossip column pleading with her estranged sons to get in touch with her.

She was married twice more, with two more sons. Both marriages ended in divorce, but one of the exes continued to pay the rent on her apartment. She returned to using her given name, Mary, converted to Judaism and took a vow of celibacy. She was reunited with her sons, though her eldest, Gene, Jr. died in 1988, and her daughter Cynthia also died.

She suffered from pulmonary disease, and spent her last years needing oxygen on an almost full-time basis. In a touching 2005 profile by the Baltimore Sun, Devra Hill summed up Gage's life: "She was just so young. She wasn't stupid, just naive, and I think men took advantage of her. Everybody took advantage of her."

Mary Leona Gage born Longview, Texas 8 April 1939; married four times (four sons, and one son deceased, and one daughter deceased); died Hollywood 5 October 2010.

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