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  • Writer's pictureCat T. Gardiner

The Big Apple's Story - #5

June's Photo Story comes to a close today with a spotlight on the women who rode New York City's subterranean transit lines. Step aside Miss America because The Big Apple had its own version of beauty queens from 1941 - 1976 - without the bathing suit category!

* * * M I S S S U B W A Y S * * *

What began as a simple publicity gimmick in a collaboration between the New York Subways Advertising Co. and an established modeling agency, Miss Subways was a monthly contest launched to generate eye traffic to the cardboard advertisements lining the upper perimeter of 6,000 train cars. And ... to spotlight for one month the photogenic lovely "regular riders." But the latter wasn't entirely true. The first Miss Subways, who went on to stage and screen and even dated Bing Crosby for three years, later admitted that she had never even been on the subway! Most of the women had modeling and Hollywood aspirations, and a few didn't even live in New York State, but all had a pretty smile, charm, and ambitions beyond being named "Miss Subways." From their car-card, they smiled down at travelers throughout the day, offering the weary some mental respite. In all, 200 women held the coveted crown title. The winner was selected by mail-in votes of everyday subway travelers. One admirer for June '41 actually drew up a petition of 130 names for his girl! IMHO, Miss Subways was New York City's own wartime pinup girl. The contest engaged everyday folks with something lighthearted, away from the worries of home front blues. It was a wonderful diversion and people were happy to help a girl "get that first break." Of course, not every crown had a fairy tale story: One queen was almost expelled from nursing school because of the publicity her crown brought, a Miss Subways in 1942, a stewardess, was killed in a tragic plane crash only four years later, another queen went to prison for stabbing her cheating boyfriend, and another was quite unhappy at the mustaches and goatees amateur artists added to her photograph!

But in all, the scheme was quite a success, and in 1948, New Yorkers crowned their first African-American Miss Subways, Thelma Potter a psychology student at Brooklyn College and p/t nurse receptionist at a dentist office.

Some of you film buffs may recall the fictional character "Miss Turnstiles" as Gene Kelly's crush in the 1949 musical "On The Town." Love that movie and the nod to an iconic piece of The Big Apple's advertising and morale-boosting history.

See you next time, friends. I hope you all have a wonderful summer. I'm headed up to D-Day Conneaut in August so look for an update. Until then KEEP 'EM FLYING.

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