Let it forever be stipulated that, no, Mary Leta Dorothy Slaton did not win Galveston’s 1931 International Pageant of Pulchritude.
The 16-year-old native of the Big Easy was, yes, named Miss New Orleans that year, but the crown awarded to the winner of the Pageant of Pulchritude went to another of the 40 or so contestants baring arms and legs on the Galveston beach.
Mary Leta Dorothy Slaton, albeit after she had changed her name and gained considerable fame, conceded as much. Still miffed years later by the perceived slight, she noted in a sniff that she had succeeded as a star of the silver screen despite the Galveston judges’ apparent wrongheadedness.
By then, the New Orleans beauty — she went on to become a popular World War II pinup alongside the likes of Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake and Lana Turner — had adopted the stage name of Dorothy Lamour and was adored as a comedic star alongside Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in their popular “Road” comedies.
Yet, she clung to her irritation over Galveston’s 1931 snub.
The island’s International Pageant of Pulchritude was the biggest beauty title of its day. Before its demise that year — an early victim of the Great Depression — the pageant annually drew nearly a quarter million spectators to Galveston and paid a hefty $2,500 prize to the winner.
Catholic Bishop Christopher Edward Byrne was not among those drawn to the spectacle. He viewed the pageant — philosophically, mind you, not with his eyes — as a lure drawing nothing but lechers, oglers and their ilk to the island.
The pageant was first held in 1920 as the prosaically named Bathing Girl Review until six years later someone, clearly an alert ally of alliteration, dubbed the event the Pageant of Pulchritude.
The good bishop made his feelings known in a 1927 epistle drafted inside his elaborate, 19,000-square-foot Galveston home, urging a would-be contestant from Austria — it was the International Pageant of Pulchritude, after all — to eschew the spectacle.
He wrote, as The Daily News duly noted, “The pageant is an uncouth, vulgar display for the purpose of advertising. If you come here you will be asked to parade in only a bathing suit before a motley crowd who will scrutinize you at close range as they would a beautiful animal. I cannot see how any self respecting or decent young lady would enter such a contest.”
Whether the Austrian attended or not is a detail lost to history.
Today, Byrne’s home is known as Bishop’s Palace. Previously it was known as Gresham’s Castle, built by and named for the Confederate Col. Walter Gresham, until three years after his 1920 death the Galveston-Houston Catholic Diocese purchased the palace for the bishop’s use.
Famed Galveston architect Nick Clayton designed the mansion, which took six years to build and opened on New Year’s Day 1893.
Clayton’s design comported to a Gresham predilection. Gresham, by then a prominent lawyer, had a thing for fireplaces and traveled the world over in a tireless bid to acquire the most handsome hearths and mantels he could find.
The rooms in the mansion — it required five chimneys to carry off the resultant soot — were designed around Gresham’s acquired fireplaces, one of which, that in the music room, was dressed in silver.
Gresham, like so many soldiers of the Confederacy, through the rest of his life carried the honorific “colonel,” a rank in the rebel cause so common it came to be a source of derision.
One wag, writing for the Chicago Tribune in early 1897, noted that “it has been a standing joke … that the Confederate army was composed almost wholly of staff officers and that the number of colonels … was materially greater than the number of male adult citizens.”
According to one account, Gresham at the end of the war in fact held the rank of private in the Confederate Army and was promoted to colonel well after the conflict.
Whether earned or not, the colonel retains the title to this day.
The same can’t be said for Mary Leta Dorothy Slaton, at least not so far as the 1931 International Pageant of Pulchritude goes. She lost.