Dennison, who held the title during World War II and broke convention by refusing to wear a bathing suit on stage after the pageant, passed away at his home in California last month, according to his friend Evan Mills.
Mills, who edited Dennison’s memoir and learned of his death directly from his family, said by email that the former Miss Texas could “serve as a role model for young women and men in a world where many are tempted to bow by social media expectations instead of trusting and following your own moral compass. “
Born in 1923 in Florence, Arizona, a young Dennison joined her parents’ traveling medicine program, where she sang, danced, and performed on trick horses. She then trained as a secretary before being selected for the Miss Tyler pageant in Tyler, Texas, where she was studying at the time.
Jo-Carroll Dennison, far right, competing in the 1942 Miss America pageant. Credit: Greenhouse Images / Shutterstock
In his autobiography “Finding My Little Red Hat,” Dennison wrote that he had “vowed never to perform in public again” after his days in medical programs. But she eventually agreed to compete in Miss Tyler with the promise of a free swimsuit from a high-end department store.
After winning the pageant, she won the titles of Miss East Texas and Miss Texas, before competing and winning the Miss America pageant in 1942 at the age of 18.
Jo-Carroll Dennison pictured in 1946 with her then-husband Phil Silvers. Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy
Crowned Miss America shortly after America’s entry into World War II, Dennison would visit defense plants, hospitals, and service camps to help improve troop morale. “Miss America was a tangible symbol of the country (that the soldiers) had enlisted to defend,” he recalled at the anniversary gala, adding: “It was her vision of democracy that made their hearts beat and their bodies tingle.” .
Dennison also signed a contract with 20th Century Fox, starring in such films as “The Jolson Story” and the war drama “Winged Victory.” Her proximity to Hollywood saw her cross paths with many of the celebrities of the time, and she embarked on relationships with Sydney, Charlie Chaplin’s son, and comedian Phil Silvers, whom she married in 1945 and divorced five years later.
Dennison went on to appear on the series “Dick Tracy,” and later worked behind the scenes in television productions. She married CBS producer and director Russell Stoneham, with whom she had two children, although they separated in the 1970s and later divorced.
In her autobiography, Dennison expressed her support for the #MeToo movement, revealing that she had been sexually assaulted at age 12. She wrote: “It is amazing how badly women have been treated in American culture. I am so proud of the ‘Me Too movement’ and the women who have been brave enough to speak out about the male sexual abuse they have suffered, and grateful to have lived long enough to see it. “
The editor of his autobiography, Mills, described Dennison’s story as “one of overcoming the adversities of a disjointed childhood and poor education, taking up social causes and creating a vibrant intellectual life.”