She had dimples to die for. She wowed the judges by hammering away on a vibraharp, a cousin of the xylophone and marimba, and won the swimsuit competition in a black-and-white striped one-piece she later called “horrible looking.”
And no, said 18-year-old Beatrice “BeBe” Shopp of Hopkins in her 1948 pageant interview before being crowned Miss America, she didn’t think a career mixed with a woman’s role as mother and homemaker.
“You have to remember where we were,” 87-year-old Bea Waring — as she’s known today — recalled this month from her home in Rockport, Mass. “I was a little girl of 18. And being 18 in 1948 was so different than today. My 18-year-old granddaughter knows so much more than I ever knew at 18.”
BeBe Shopp was the first Miss America from Minnesota — predating Dorothy Benham (1977) and Gretchen Carlson (1989) — and became an overnight sensation and an instant celebrity when she was crowned in 1948.
Newsreel footage relayed the beauty pageant to local movie theaters from Atlantic City, N.J., and newspapers covered winners extensively and exhaustively. Shopp made headlines for denouncing the new bikini craze in France and sipping white wine with beef in England (“WHITE WINE, BEBE? MINNESOTANS AGHAST”), and sparked flaps over where she’d sit for Minnesota’s territorial centennial celebration and for endorsing certain brands of bread.
But my favorite story in the blizzard of BeBe coverage came during her visit to the nation’s capital nearly 69 years ago, when she lunched with U.S. Sen. Edward Thye and the state’s congressional delegation and toured Washington in a Nash automobile.
As she stepped out of the Capitol, a cop asked her mother: “Can she really clean a fish?” Correspondent Martin Took wrote: “Mrs. Shopp assured him that BeBe not only cleaned them but caught them. ‘Well, by dab!’ the cop said.”
“I don’t know where the 70 years have gone,” she said in a recent phone interview, noting that she’ll be back in Minnesota next June when state pageant officials commemorate her 70th anniversary as Miss America.
Born Beatrice Bella Shopp on Aug. 17, 1930, she took the nickname BeBe from her initials to avoid confusion with her mother, also named Beatrice. BeBe was 15 when her family moved from Downers Grove, Ill., to Hopkins, after her father Edward, a Cream of Wheat salesman, was transferred to the Twin Cities.
She never expected to win the Miss Minnesota pageant in the first place. She said her parents pressured her to enter the pageant to showcase her vibraharp chops.
“I was not old enough to know who I am,” she said. “I figured I’d try it and come back in a few years and win it. But fate determines where you are.”
Her reign was bumpy at times. When she stepped off an airliner in London on her widely covered European tour in 1949, a British reporter asked: “What do you plan to do about your surplus fat?”
She shot back: “What fat? I think I’m just right.”
Papers continually wrote about her weight and measurements. The Tribune even invited readers to answer the question of the day — “Do you think BeBe Shopp is too fat?” — in its “Just Ask …” column.
Today, she laughs it off: “Being Miss America means going to so many banquets, which can make it hard.”
As European papers quoted her on everything from American women wearing “falsies” to her rebuke of bikinis, her outspoken father back home would issue denials of the stories that reflected the geopolitics of the era.
“They are the work of some Red over there,” Edward Shopp said in 1949, suggesting that a Communist writer was misquoting BeBe “to undermine the character of my daughter, and through her, the American girl. …”
BeBe parlayed her $5,000 Miss America scholarship into a move to New York City, where she attended the Manhattan School of Music. She would go on to tour as a vibist in the early 1950s and play for weddings and bar mitzvahs and in the cocktail lounge of the restaurant she owned in Connecticut in her later years.
She was back on the front pages in 1954 when she came home to marry Korean War navigator Lt. Bayard Waring, making her the first Miss America to marry a Harvard graduate. Authorities braced for a mob of gawkers at their wedding at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis on Sept. 18, 1954.
“The uninvited are expected to create a traffic jam outside the big building,” Barbara Flanagan wrote in the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune. “BeBe isn’t worried about the crowds. ‘The sheriff said he’d send me some of his boys with sirens,’ she said.”
The couple now have been married 63 years, living most of that time in his native New England. She remains active in a regional theater in Gloucester, Mass., where she’s coaxed Bayard to join her on stage over the years. The Warings raised four daughters, have 10 grandchildren and are expecting great-grandbaby No. 5 next June.
An ardent supporter of pageants, she has attended and judged many and even joined younger winners on a 2009 trip to visit troops in Afghanistan when she was 79.
“I’m very loyal and protective of pageants,” she said. “You are not competing against the other girls, but you’re competing with yourself and pageants make you see who you are.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.