I’m no fan of the Miss America pageant. They make a big fuss about how many scholarships they provide, but they don’t personally provide most of them and most of them don’t get awarded because no one actually qualifies for them. Still, before the ‘40s, they didn’t offer any at all, and it seems the idea that they should was Jean Bartel’s; she was the first college student to win, and she only entered the pageant in the first place to come to the attention of one of the judges, who was a Broadway actor and producer. Presumably it worked.
Now, it’s true that the only Miss America winner I can reliably name without looking her up is Vanessa Williams, the deposed one. It’s further true that Williams has a more noteworthy career in many ways than Bartel, who had some minor Broadway success. It seems she had a travel show, based on her time touring as an entertainer, but my usual sources don’t have any information about it. I’ve definitely seen Bartel in things—she did an episode of Perry Mason and the first Rockford Files movie—but I’m not sure I’d recognize her if I watched Sanctuary, where she’s twelfth-billed, or archive footage of Of Thee I Sing.
Bartel is one of those people I have to dig a lot deeper to find things about. She spent some time in advertising, which I think is how she was initially brought to my attention—she seems to have done commercials for Colgate toothpaste, for example, and I think she was an inspiration for a Mad Men character. She seems to have worked at a travel agency. But I can’t even find much about It’s a Woman’s World, the travel series she hosted. It definitely existed; everyone agrees on that. But it doesn’t even appear in her IMDb credits.
From what little I’ve seen of her, I can tell you that she wasn’t a bad actress. She’s the victim in that first Rockford movie, and she sells her brief role as an old Hollywood star who raised a couple of entitled children because she never really bothered to parent them. (This is not true of the real Bartel, who had no children at all.) I’d be interested to learn more about her travel show, because that’s a time capsule that would definitely stand being opened, but it isn’t even a case of “I didn’t bother to watch it.” I couldn’t. It’s not available anywhere I could find.
Jean Bartel left a legacy in the pageant world, at least; there’s an award in the Miss America pageant named after her. And she gave a certain legitimacy to them by introducing the idea of the scholarship program. From what I can tell—and as established, that’s not much—she seems to have gotten a life she liked out of competing for Miss America, and good for her. At the time, fifty percent of the scoring was based on talent, and she qualified there. It’s just a shame that she’s so invisible other than that.