In the early 1940s, at age 13, Leona Gage met a 24 year old pilot in the U.S. Air Force named Gene Ennis. Ennis would soon go off to war, but not before leaving Gage unmarried, underage, and pregnant. Gage ended up marrying another airman, Edward Thacker, soon after her 14th birthday, as a fill-in of sorts — but the marriage was annuled within a week. She carried the pregnancy to term and, when Ennis returned, married him. Two years later, they had another child together. By the time Gage turned 18 in 1957, they were divorced. Barely an adult, Gage was the twice-married, single, mother of two. Her next step?
Beauty pageant champion. (Of course!)
On the advice of a doctor who feared that Gage was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Gage found herself a job. Specifically, she took up employment at a dress shop. One of her co-workers there convinced her to try modeling, and on a lark, Gage entered the 1957 Miss Maryland pageant — and won. With that honor came the opportunity to compete in the Miss USA pageant, held later that year in California. She won that, too. (To date, she’s the only Miss Maryland to win the national prize.)
A day later, she was stripped of her title. Miss USA rules prohibited contestants from being married previously, so her youth caused her to be retroactively disqualified. Out the tiara and the prize money, Gage was not, however, out of luck — yet. Scandal fed the fire of fame, and she rode it to numerous television appearances including one on the era’s premier tastemaker, the Ed Sullivan Show. Gage would later land a job as a featured showgirl in Las Vegas and briefly date Frank Sinatra. But her career never took off beyond early moderate success and some roles in B-movies and outright flops. Her personal life was also pockmarked with failure: six marriages, each of which ended in divorce or annulment; and five children, over whom she lost custody.
Gage passed away earlier this month at age 71.
Bonus fact: Gage, by virtue of the fact that she won the Miss USA crown, was immediately entered into the Miss Universe pageant (until her subsequent disqualification). The 1957 Miss Universe winner, Gladys Zender of Peru, turned out to be 17 years old, and therefore ineligible to win — contestants needed to be 18 or older. However, officials turned a blind eye to the violation, citing an alleged Peruvian custom which treats people 17 years 6 months and older as 18.
From the Archives: Sleeping Beauty Syndrome: One need not win a pageant to have something in common with Sleeping Beauty.