Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
"Write this down, young man"
Augusta and Adeline. And, Margaret.
Two milestones from history today, which seem a bit entwined even though they were mostly unrelated back when they actually happened:
September 8, 1916: Sisters Augusta and Adeline Van Buren arrive in Los Angeles, as they complete a 60-day motorcycle tour across the United States.
September 8, 1921: A 16-year-old named Margaret Gorman won the Inter-City Beauty Contest and the Atlantic City Bathing Beauty Contest, which was eventually retconned as the first Miss America.
Let's talk about the Van Buren sisters first. Asteriskally (made that word up), they were following in the footsteps of a mother-and-daughter team named Avis and Effie Hotchkiss who had ridden a motorcycle with a sidecar from New York to California the year before.
Still, I remain impressed. Challenges along the way:
Lack of roads and easily available gasoline,
Lack of navigation tools and maps, and
Angry local law enforcement kept arresting them for wearing pants. (Not kidding.)
To put the achievement in perspective, the Van Buren sisters were riding four years before women could vote in the U.S., and three years before a lieutenant colonel (and future president) named Dwight Eisenhower led a famed and epic 81-vehicle convoy from east to west, which took 62 days.
Unencumbered by men and military bureaucracy, I suppose, the Van Buren sisters did it two days faster. Their goal was to demonstrate that women could be counted on to do things like serve as military dispatch riders in the upcoming U.S. entry into World War I, and generally to act like badasses.
(Additional asterisk: I learned while reading up on all of this that I'm not the first Bill Murphy to write about the Van Burens' trip. That honor goes to a Michigan writer named William M. Murphy, who wrote a short book about them called Grace and Grit back in 2021.)
Their adventure is striking to me because five years later—and no offense to anyone involved in pageants, but I've never liked the whole concept—the milestone of the first Miss America contest seems a little out of place.
Details: Gorman was a high school junior in Washington D.C., still only 15, who was apparently "scouted" months before the contest by a pair of Washington Herald reporters trying to find pretty girls to send to Atlantic City.
Come to think of it, assuming these reporters were grown men, the whole idea of “scouting” 15-year-olds sounds more than a little creepy. But, that was then, I suppose, and so they met Gorman's family in Georgetown and convinced them all to head north so that Gorman could pose in a bathing suit for the contest.
Granted, this was an early 20th century bathing suit: "dark, knee-high stockings and a chiffon bathing costume with a tiered skirt that came almost to her knees." I’m wearing a t-shirt and shorts as I write this, and probably showing more of the ol’ skin than Gorman’s getup did back then.)
It's not clear to me what (if anything) Gorman got out of winning the contest besides a trophy.
These days the winner gets $100,000 in scholarships plus a salary for the year (which honestly, I don’t know; still doesn't seem all that much) but Gorman said the pageant organizers were cheap and didn't even reimburse her for her expenses years later, when she agreed to attend contests as the winner number-1.
The obituaries that appeared around the time of Gorman's death in 1995 suggest that being crowned Miss America—and then carrying the crown like a burden for the next 70+ years—seemed to sum up her life story.
As for the Van Buren sisters, Adeline went on to law school at New York University, while Augusta became a pilot active with the Amelia Earhart-led women's flying group known as the 99s.
Anyway, here we are more than 100 years later in both cases, and I doubt most readers will have known any of the three women’s names but for this article (or perhaps another one like it).
Of course, the Miss America pageant continues, and a few years ago about 200 women retraced the sisters' ride across the United States together on motorcycles to mark the one century anniversary. So even if their names aren’t on the tip of everyone’s tongue, their legacies endure.
Frankly, its the juxtaposition of these two events, the trip and the pageant, five years apart but on the same day that stand out to me. I think it's worth it simply to point out their anniversaries in history.
I think I'll let Gorman have the last word, quoting this line from a 1980 interview. I like it because reading it made me question my assumptions once again. Also, because while she was directing it to someone else, it sounds as if she were talking to me:
"Write this down, young man. Life has been extremely, I say extremely, kind."
(I’m back! Well, sort of: Back home after vacation but still unpacking and organizing. So, one more day of “low power mode,” which means we’re skipping the “7 other things.” But I invite you to share links to things you think your fellow readers would appreciate or enjoy in the comments.)