Jo-Carroll Dennison, Miss America during World War II, died at 97

For the past 45 years, having been in and out of movies and television, in Hollywood and New York and beyond, and in two marriages and beyond, Mrs. Dennison has written parts of her autobiography. In September, she finally published it herself. She called it “Finding My Red Hat” – because as a traveling child she wore a red felt hat for courage when she went to a new school and faced another classroom of strangers.

“There was a certain Dickensian aspect to her story,” her son said, but her life, even the early years, which are hard to save, “was totally full of wonderful characters.”

Jo-Carroll Dennison was born on December 16, 1923 in Arizona Men’s State Prison.

At the time, her parents owned and ran a traveling medical show in Texas. When her mother Elizabeth (Brownd) Dennison was about to give birth, her father Harry Arthur Dennison decided he wanted his baby to be born in California, which he thought was more glamorous than Texas. So they started driving west. At Arizona, her mother gave birth and they stopped in the small town of Florence. The only help they could find was a prison doctor who gave birth to Jo-Carroll in a prison clinic.

They drove to California in their pet car, which Mrs. Dennison named, a flat Ford T-truck model. She quickly became part of a medical show in which her parents lured people with entertainment and then tried to sell them elixirs. As a child, Jo-Carroll sang, danced and performed in sketches.

When she was 7 years old, her father left, which shattered her.

After performing during the Depression during the circus and carnival – she rode ponies and ropes – she and her mother moved back to Texas, first to the small town of Hale Center and then to Waco, where they signed up for another medical show. In her autobiography, Ms. Dennison wrote that the snake oil salesman who ran the show sexually assaulted her at 12 years old.

She and her mother moved back to Hale Center, where Jo-Carroll graduated from high school in 1940. She later moved in with her aunt in Tyler, East Texas. She enrolled in business school to become a secretary when a banker invited her to enter a beauty pageant. She had no interest in parading in public again, but he insisted – and offered her a free swimsuit.

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