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Miss Subways Return via NY Transit Museum

For more than 30 years, photos of Miss Subways were seen in New York City subway cars. The images of these young women were accompanied by capsule bios and statements about their hopes and aspirations. Now you can see many of them again -; as they were and as they have become -; in a historical retrospect at the New York Transit Museum's newest exhibit, Meet Miss Subways: New York's Beauty Queens 1941-76. It opened at the Museum's main site in Brooklyn on October 23.

The display includes original posters of 140 of the 200 winners, mounted near ceiling level as straphangers would have seen them. Alongside are current photos of 40 of the women, along with their reminiscences. The text accompanying the exhibition places the MTA's Miss Subways campaign in historical perspective, encompassing World War II, the post-War years of the 1950s, and the Civil Rights and Women's Liberation movements that followed.

"To me, Miss Subways was far more than a beauty pageant," Gabrielle Shubert, Transit Museum director, explained at the exhibit's opening reception. "Though undoubtedly all of the winners are great beauties, this pageant was really about every young woman's hopes and dreams for their futures. Though the ad agencies that wrote the copy sugar-coated or even invented sound bites about Miss Subways winners, this group was a good sampling of New York women with very real and diverse ambitions."

The material for the display draws on a new book, to be available at the Museum, by photographer Fiona Gardner and journalist Amy Zimmer, with an introduction by Kathy Peiss, the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania. Gardner and Zimmer tracked down former contestants and interviewed and photographed them. Many of the placards were supplied by the Miss Subways themselves -; adding to materials in the Transit Museum's collection.

At a media preview, several of the former Miss Subways talked about their experiences and how their lives have turned out.

"Your picture was in every car on the subways and in every bus in the five boroughs. Imagine!" said Peggy Byrne, who was Miss Subways during March -; April 1952. Her sister submitted her name to the modeling agency, she said. "I wanted to get married and have babies; I wasn't looking," she recalls. Today she works, at the Church of Our Savior in midtown Manhattan as an accountant, having attended Fordham University.

Enid Berkowitz Schwarzbaum, who reigned as Miss Subways in July 1946, recalls, "I traveled by car into the city from my home in North Woodmere, but that was when gas was 35 cents a gallon. Now I take the subways all the time. I have a transit card even though I live on Long Island. It gets me everywhere I want to go in the shortest period of time. I prefer it to any private transportation." She worked early on as an abstract sculptor with a studio in Union Square for 11 years, closed the studio after she began working for an investment firm, and then took up painting in retirement. Meanwhile, she raised three children and obtained a Master's degree in art education from Adelphi at night.

Maureen Walsh Roaldsen was the 150th Miss Subways during Feb.-Aug. 1968 while she worked at Downstate University. After 25 years there, she went to Brooklyn College at night and then to law school. She retired two years ago from the New York City court system, where she worked as an attorney.

Ellen Hart Sturm's Miss Subways poster (March-April 1959) said her aspirations included acting, singing and giving speech lessons. "Speech lessons went down the drain, because I still sound like a New Yorker," she says. "I did sing in the bungalow colonies in Rockland County. I sang the national anthem at the Ranger and Knick games. And I sang the national anthem at City Hall." Nowadays she operates several Manhattan restaurants, including Ellen's Stardust Diner, where she has posted her collection of Miss Subways placards; a half interest in P.J. Clarke's at Lincoln Center; and the jazz/rock nightclub Iridium, where other entertainers perform.

The Miss Subways contest was groundbreaking for the diversity of the women selected, according to Ms. Zimmer. "It was not framed in that way," she says, "but it really, really was. There was pressure to include African American women."

"Originally conceived as a way to draw attention to nearby ads for chewing gum, tobacco and other products, the contest became a compelling platform for civil rights debates in the city," according to a TM news release on the exhibit. "In the 1940s, African-American advocacy groups pressured John Robert Powers, the modeling agent in charge of selecting winners, to integrate the contest, finally succeeding near the end of the decade with Thelma Porter. As the first black Miss Subways, she was celebrated on the cover of Crisis Magazine. . . . In 1949, Helen Lee became the first Asian-American winner."

Was there a particular type of woman who became Miss Subways? "There was no particular type or look," Ms. Zimmer said. "They were not always working women. And sometimes their aspirations were to get married. The common element was they were all New York women, and as New York women they were all ambitious."

The exhibit runs through March 25.