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IDYLLWILD, California (September 13, 2021) -- At 97, former Miss America Jo-Carroll Dennison today published her memoir, “Finding My Little Red Hat.”
Born in a men’s prison in Florence Arizona in 1923, Dennison learned to walk (and dance and sing) on a medicine show traveling the American West and later taught herself to trick-ride horses in the circus. The huckster and snake-oil salesman who ran the medicine show tried to rape her at age 12 — she fended him off.
Dennison was crowned Miss America in 1942 — a ritual celebrating its centennial this month. She is currently the oldest living Miss America. She delivered an invited video message during the event.
Dennison shows us the underbelly of the Miss America organization of that time, and shares an unvarnished view of a starlet’s life in Hollywood through the 1940s.
Her marriage to Phil Silvers opened many doors in that town and brought laughter to life.
It was rarefied air. Invited to dance by Howard Hughes and having a deep love affair with Sydney Chaplin (son of Charlie), “normal” life revolved around the Hollywood party scene at the homes of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Gene Kelly. The highlight was being part of the core group in weekly gatherings at the Kelly’s, full of song (including impromptu piano with Andre Previn and Paul Robeson) and “radical liberal intellectualism,” punctuated by occasional drop-ins the likes of Garbo (at a Tupperware party, no less), Garland, and Monroe.
Unseduced by the glitter of men in power and their infamous casting couches, Dennison found that superstars and entertainment industry power brokers are mere mortals, and often worse. Eighty years before the Me Too movement, Dennison endured inhumane treatment by boys, men, and institutions: among them charlatans, producers, directors, and therapists. Her second marriage, to producer Russell Stoneham, inspired the storyline for Redford and Streisands’ dilemma in The Way We Were. Later in life, she witnesses the ravages of McCarthyism on friends and colleagues throughout the cultural world, which today reminds her of the dark times of today’s America.
Writing that “to stifle one’s natural impulses, is to eventually destroy oneself,” Dennison ultimately steers away from film roles that would have propelled her to a higher level of stardom — including Chaplin’s Limelight — but would also have required some form of existential compromise.
In a bid to recover her little red hat of courage — worn as a child to ever-changing schools while on the road with her parent’s medicine show — in 1976 Dennison decamps to Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende to write. Whether stroking poisonous Gila Monsters, being unexpectedly hoisted high in the air curled in a circus elephant’s trunk, or finding soulmates among her many four-legged companions, a common thread through her life is a sublime connection with nature.
Serendipity and intuition are everything in this story. Key forks in the road made all the difference. Through choices born of being true to herself, Dennison crafts a life entirely worth living while threading the needles of anger and fear with love and fearlessness.
The book is heavily illustrated with vintage photos going back more than a century. The story includes mature content.
Finding My Little Red Hat is available on Amazon.
A review copy is available upon request.