The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

January 9, 2019 by

New York’s Forgotten Subway Beauty Pageant

Beginning in 1941, a local New York City beauty pageant known as “Miss Subways” posted placards of winners, chosen each month, in the city’s subway cars. 

When the pageant ended in 1976, so did a bit of NYC history. But author Susie Schnall has resurrected those bygone years in her lively and delightful novel, The Subway Girls, which alternates back and forth between plotlines set today and the 1940s in New York, exploring female ambition and the limitations placed on it.

Schnall talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the dreams and drives that animated the young women of the pageant, and how the contest shaped their lives in unexpected ways.

YZM: What drew you to the subject of the Miss Subways contest?

SOS: I was listening to NPR in my car one day and heard a story on Radio Diaries about the contest. I had never heard of Miss Subways before and I was immediately fascinated. I was so curious about the women who entered the contest and how winning affected their lives. There was also a lot to unpack in the history about women’s ambition and the obstacles facing women who were trying to pursue professional and personal dreams. I thought all of those topics would make for an interesting premise for a novel. 

YZM: Do you know how many of the winners were Jewish? Who was the first Jewish woman to win the title?

SOS: I don’t know how many of the women were Jewish but there was a fair share. One of the missions of the contest was to have the makeup of the winners reflect the diversity of New York City. They certainly didn’t achieve that to the standards we’d expect today but there was definitely representation. I’m not sure who the first Jewish winner was, but one of the women I interviewed as research for my novel, Enid Berkowitz Schwarzbaum, entered the contest because she hadn’t recalled seeing a Jewish surname. She was curious what would happen if she entered. And she won! Enid was Miss Subways July 1946. Several people have come up to me at my talks and said they remember that Bess Myerson was the first Jewish Miss Subways, but she was actually the first (and only) Jewish Miss America, winning the contest in 1945.

YZM: Did you draw on personal experience to write about your character Olivia’s challenges in the field of advertising?

SOS: Before I started writing novels, I worked in marketing and communications and held several positions working for and with advertising agencies. That was a world I was familiar with and I enjoyed writing Olivia having knowledge of what goes on in agencies. I drew on my professional experience brainstorming creative, working on new business pitches, etc. Luckily, I didn’t experience the harassment that Olivia does, so that was all drawn from the realities of so many women in the workplace.  

YZM: Obviously a lot has changed for women in the workplace since the 1940’s.  But what do you feel hasn’t changed, or at least hasn’t changed enough?

SOS: I think the roles and jobs of women have been constructed and contrived for so long that we don’t really know how to define those roles anymore. The assumptions that we make about women — i.e. that they’re better caretakers (Are they really? Or have we just made them that way through generations of forced/expected work in the home?) — often make women who don’t fit into those boxes feel “other.”

Each woman should be free to pursue her professional and personal dreams without the being judged or condemned by society, her family, media messages, and even by her own ideas of who and what a woman should be. All of these issues are finding their way to the surface and clearly we’ve made a lot of progress because the conversations are being had and the articles are being written. It is fascinating to watch it all unfold before our eyes. (I could talk about this for days!)

YZM: What’s next on your horizon?

SOS: I’m writing a novel (working title: The Summer of Tomorrow) about two women in 1939 who are working at the New York World Fair. Vivi is a Hollywood starlet in-the-making who is sent, against her wishes, by her movie studio to star in the Aquacade, which was a synchronized swimming spectacular. Max is an aspiring journalist who wants to spend the summer before her senior year working at the New York Times, but instead is sent to work at Today at the Fair, the daily publication of the World’s Fair. Both women have to navigate these experiences and how they thwart their professional ambitions. It will be released in the summer of 2020.