NEW YORK—Rows of black and white Miss Subway beauty contest photos from the ’40s to the ’70s line up in juxtaposition above their colorful present day ones. The exhibit currently showing at the New York Transportation Museum is a display of a forgotten history of New York, and brings insight that overturns our notions of what women from that era can accomplish.
Miss Subways was a beauty contest run by the Subways Advertising committee from 1941–1976.
Each month, a young woman from a middle- or working-class background had her face on display on all the subway cars, along with a brief excerpt about herself and her aspirations.
The purpose of the beauty contest was meant to draw attention to nearby chewing gum and tobacco ads, but it soon became a notch for civil rights debates, becoming the first interracial beauty contest in the United States.
But the forgotten contest, today, is more than a historical breakthrough for racial barricades. It is a display of women whose lives became much more than their 30-word extracts, much more than what textbooks teach about women from that period.
Juliette Rose Lee Franzini, the second Asian woman to become Miss Subway, was more than just “the most beautiful subway rider of the month.” She also graduated from Columbia University with a doctorate in physics. She is in her 80s now, and living with her husband in Rome, where they run their physics lab.
“A lot of Miss Subways are, in a way, very ahead of their time,” said Fiona Gardner, who tracked down and photographed 40 former Miss Subways.
“We might have an idea of what women were doing in the 1940s and 1960s, but Miss Subways archives gives us an insight into the fact that maybe there was a lot more going on than what we often think of.”
Gardner and journalist Amy Zimmer spent five years tracking down former Miss Subways, and taking their portraits in their present environments.
“It’s such a big part of city life, but it wasn’t preserved at all. There were no archives,” Zimmer said.
Out of the 200 Miss Subways that were crowned over the years, Gardner and Zimmer recovered 146 photo archives, and interviewed 40 women. Although the oral histories will no longer be collected after the publishing of their book, they hope to continue finding old photos for archive, until the last one is recovered.
Their book will be released on Nov. 14, at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, which is owned by a former Miss Subway. The book will include a two-to-three-page feature of the life stories of each woman, reflecting the reality of their lives three decades later.
“It’s a valuable experience. Older women are a group that gets fairly overlooked in media in general,” Gardner said.
Through tracking down these beauty queens, Gardner and Zimmer discovered that many of the Miss Subways not only graduated from college, but also graduated with multiple degrees.
Enid Berkowitz, former Miss Subway, said she was “plugging for a B.A, but would settle for an M.R.S.” in her 1946 bio.
“No matter what legend says, in fact, I got my B.A. and later on, when I had three children, I went back to school and got an M.A.,” Berkowitz said.
Berkowitz came from a poor family. Her father worked in the garment industry and her mother was unemployed. Her brother went straight to World War II after high school. Berkowitz was the first person in her family to go to college.
She had the opportunity only because she took a competitive exam and won a merit-based scholarship to Hunters College, where she studied art. “I went to college totally on merit, for free. If I couldn’t get in, then I wouldn’t have gone to college,” she recalled.Berkowitz sat underneath her poster each day on the way to school, but she was never recognized, and she didn’t mind.
“It surprises me to be known for just having my face up, rather than being known for what I produced,” she said.
“Can I take credit for that? I can’t. It’s a matter of genes. It wasn’t something I accomplished. I chose very good-looking parents, that’s what happened.”
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