Miss Maryland from 1957, who had Miss USA title stripped, dies

  • This July 20, 1957, file photo shows Leona Gage Ennis, deposed from the Miss U.S.A. throne because she was married, poses at Washington National Airport in D.C., during a stopover en route to her Maryland home. Leona Gage was named Miss USA in 1957 but had the title stripped the next day when pageant officials learned she was married and a mother of two.
This July 20, 1957, file photo shows Leona Gage Ennis, deposed… (Charles Gorry, AP )
October 22, 2010|By Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun

Mary Leona Gage, the 1957 Miss Maryland USA pageant winner who was Miss USA for only a day before officials stripped her of her title because she was a married mother of two, has died in Los Angeles at 71.

A son, Robert Kaminer, told the Associated Press Saturday that Gage died of heart failure at a Sherman Oaks hospital Tuesday.

Gage was the only Marylander ever selected as Miss USA. And, like beauty-pageant contestants Vanessa Williams and Carrie Prejean decades later, she became famous after a pageant scandal.

Immediately after she lost the Miss USA title, she was featured on the Ed Sullivan Show and appeared in other television shows.

But her life later continued in a heartbreaking direction, including drug overdoses, hospitalizations, suicide attempts and multiple marriages. At times she lost custody of and contact with her five children.

"I think it's really unfortunate; the different tragic things in her life really affected her along the way," said Gage's friend, Daryl Schabinger. "She did not have the same advantages as other young women who went on to bigger and greater roles."

Schabinger, a Chicago resident and a media representative for the Miss Illinois USA pageant, wrote a letter to Gage after reading a 2005 Baltimore Sun article about her life. She wrote back and the two had weekly phone conversations, he said.

Gage, a Texas native, had a loveless childhood that ended when she became pregnant at 14, Schabinger said. She married the baby's father, an airman in the U.S. Air Force. The two moved to Manhattan Beach, near Severna Park in Anne Arundel County, where she had a second child by 16.

It was not a happy relationship, and a doctor suggested she get a job to avoid a nervous breakdown. She began working in a dress shop, where she met Barbara Mewshaw, a part-time model. Mewshaw introduced her to the Walters Modeling Agency and helped her enter the state pageant. "I think going to the pageant for her was a way to get out of that bad situation," Schabinger said.

The two women flew together to Long Beach, Calif., for the national competition. But being married and a mother were both forbidden under contest rules.

"When you win a title — Miss USA, Miss Universe — you belong to the organization for an entire year," Schabinger said. "You're traveling all the time, doing appearances. It's probably hard to expect a married woman with small children to do that."

Rumors began circulating the next day, when she was representing the United States in the Miss Universe pageant. She originally denied the facts when questioned by reporters, but her mother and mother-in-law confirmed their suspicions. "She finally broke down and told them she had been married and had two children," Schabinger said.

Her crown and other prizes were given to the first runner-up, Miss Utah, too late for her to replace Gage in the Miss Universe competition. Gage had placed in the top 15 in the Miss Universe pageant that year, but the international officials gave her spot to number 16.

When she returned to Maryland, Gage received baskets of hate mail, Schabinger said. "People were astonished by what she had done," he said.

Following her spot on Ed Sullivan and several other television appearances, Gage got a job as a performer at the Hotel Tropicana in Las Vegas. She divorced her husband and moved there with her two sons.

She moved in and out of the celebrity spotlight, dating Frank Sinatra and former Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay between marriages.

After an unsuccessful movie career, Gage began touring the country as a stripper. She attempted a comeback, acting in several commercials, but ultimately failed.

In her 50s, she became ill with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and she was confined to her home using oxygen 24 hours a day. She painted and wrote poetry and watched television — including the Miss USA pageant every year.

Gage converted to Judaism later in life, and services were held Friday at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary in Los Angeles.

Her three surviving sons visited her while she was in and out of the hospital at the end of her life, Schabinger said. (Her eldest son, Gene Ennis Jr., died in 1988; her daughter Cynthia died of hepatitis in 2002.) She had three grandchildren.

liz.kay@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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