Oh, don't you remember, a long time ago
When two little babes, their names I don't know
Were stolen away one bright summer day
And lost in the woods, I've heard people say
As a mother, she would sing it to her children. As a child, she would sing it to her pets. And whenever the world came crashing down around her, as it often did for Mary Leona Gage, she would sing it to herself.
Growing up in the Piney Woods of east Texas, her friends were mostly imaginary or four-legged - fairies, "weed people" and wildlife. She remembers a rabbit, getting closer every day to taking lettuce from her hand. One day, sprawled on the ground, arm extended, she waited as motionlessly as a 3-year-old could as it drew nearer than it ever had. Then a shot rang out. The rabbit collapsed in a headless lump. She screamed for a long time.
That night, the chorus of the lullaby ran through her head:
Pretty babes in the wood
Pretty babes in the wood
Oh, don't you remember
Those babes in the wood
The daughter of a once-wealthy landowner (and expert marksman) and his wife, Mary Leona was born after the Depression in 1939. She was still a toddler when her parents moved from Longview to Wichita Falls. There her mother worked two jobs; her father, paralyzed in an industrial accident, stayed home; and Mary Leona grew up.
And did she ever grow up - huge and alluring blue-green eyes, legs too long to fold under her school desk, a body that blossomed before it had any right to. She was drawing whistles from the soldiers at nearby Sheppard Air Force Base by age 11, propositions by 13.
Her beauty was part blessing, part curse. It was also her ticket - first to Maryland, where, representing Anne Arundel County, she was declared the most beautiful woman in the state, then to the Miss USA pageant in Long Beach, Calif., where, after she and a friend pooled the last of their money to buy a dress for the competition, she would be crowned Miss USA 1957.
Once the tears of joy subsided, Gage answered questions from reporters, easy ones at first. She liked to sing, play piano and cook, she told them. No, she didn't have a boyfriend. "I want to wait until I'm 26 before I become seriously interested in the opposite sex," she said.
It took one day for the fairy tale to blow up.
The competition's next phase, choosing a Miss Universe, was already under way when Gage was called before pageant officials. Allegations about her had surfaced. At first she had dismissed them, waving off reporters who brought them up. Now, though, she tearfully admitted to officials she was 18, not 21. And she wasn't a "Miss" at all.
She had been married - not allowed under Miss USA rules - since age 14. And, though none of the eyes that scrutinized her figure during the swimsuit competition had detected it, Leona Gage was a mother of two.
All that had been bestowed the day before was taken back: the trophy, the tiara, the prize money, the trips, the studio contracts and the title itself. That went to the first runner-up, a Mormon girl representing Utah. Gage got a one-way ticket back to Maryland and the life, or at least the husband, that she was trying to get away from.
That was the story they all missed - all those smooth-talking reporters, all those tripping-over-themselves photographers, all those vultures, in her view, who fed on her tears and all but gloated when, in subsequent years, she would end up divorcing another husband, losing custody of a child, singing in strip joints or being hospitalized for drug overdoses.
Did they actually enjoy her misfortunes? Did her travails really merit all that newsprint? Were they out to get her?
And how would her story play today, nearly 50 years later: Girl, 13, pursued by older man, pregnant and married by 14, a housewife before she got a chance to enter 9th grade, a mother of two by 16, spending her days in a strange state where the diapers froze when she hung them outside to dry, and the house was never clean enough and dinner never ready soon enough?
To escape that oppression - not too strong a word, she says - she, at the suggestion of a friend, sought a modeling job. This led, at the suggestion of that friend, to the statewide beauty contest, which led, as that same friend proudly watched from the sidelines, to her being crowned Miss USA.
Think, as they might say in Hollywood, Cinderella meets Thelma and Louise.
But Hollywood, where countless happy endings are scripted, did not provide one for Gage, the only Maryland contestant ever to win the Miss USA title.