3:45 pm Oct. 23, 2012
“I got some letters from guys,” Enid Berkowitz Schwarzbaum told me. In 1946, those love letters from strangers were all she got for winning the “Miss Subways” beauty pageant.
Each year, from 1941 to 1976, the city subway system took applicants for its Miss Subways contest; winners' images were promoted in advertising throughout the system and they became spokesmodels of sorts for the city's subways and buses and the agency that made them go.
There was no prize apart from appearing in those subway ads, really. But on Monday morning, those bygones seemed almost to really be bygones: There was Schwarzbaum smiling, in a periwinkle suit and a high, frilly collar, to celebrate the opening of an exhibit at the New York City Transit Museum commemorating the old contest.
Schwarzbaum and three other former winners of the beauty pageant had come to the press breakfast for artist Fiona Gardner and journalist Amy Zimmer’s Meet Miss Subways exhibition. It was as odd a location for a promotional breakfast as it always has been for a museum, tucked away inside the decommissioned Court Street subway stop on the A line (the station was open for only 10 years, from 1936 to 1946, before reopening as the museum three decades later). On display there are dozens of compelling latter-day portraits of the city subway system's promotional beauty-contest winners, as well as photos and ephemera from the contest's 35 years. But it was the living beauties, the former contest winners, who were the main attraction here.
“Look at them here when they come out!" one museum staffer exulted. "They’re beautifully poised. They could be models, still."
There was Maureen Walsh Roaldsen (Miss Subways 1968), the tall redhead who appeared in a maroon pantsuit; Peggy Byrne (Miss Subways 1952), a saucy, beaming woman, also wearing a suit jacket; Ellen Hart Sturm (Miss Subways 1959), who looks as young as one of the waitresses at her restaurant, a 1950s-themed diner in Midtown; and, of course, the talkative Schwarzbaum (Miss Subways 1959), one of Gardner’s personal favorite Miss Subways.
Photographers from various news outlets and TV stations rounded up the women for photo-ops in the museum’s historic subway cars. It was dark down there, like a dungeon, so the photographers opted for the most well-lit car, the somewhat garish, blue-and-yellow floored IND R-7A model from 1947.
And the women did not disappoint. Their smiles seemed endless; they hadn’t forgotten how to pose for a camera. Yet they also hadn’t forgotten that, while the MTA got to use their photos for brand marketing—images appeared in the city’s subway cars with captions listing the women’s careers and dreams—none of the winners received anything for their victory.
“It was nothing!” Enid said. “I was still commuting to college, I was still sitting underneath the posters and nobody knew it was me.”
Only her “personal friends, college friends thought it was fun.” She never became a model or a real beauty queen, and after her Miss Subways run, she pretty much returned to her daily life.
Peggy Byrne told a similar story; she picked up a career in advertising soon after the portrait ran, never to go on the beauty-queen circuit. We chatted beneath her two portraits; the full-color one by Fiona Gardner floated just below the original “Miss Subways” ad from 1952.
She’s still absolutely petite, and she was studying to be an insurance broker, but that’s pretty much the only thing that’s stayed the same. Unlike her pursed-lip portrait, taken when she was just a teenager, she’s opened up since then—in Gardner’s portrait, look no further than her open-backed leopard print heels for evidence.
“I was shy!” she said. “I thought I couldn’t just go there and pose. I’d go there and say, ‘Did you hear the joke about...?’ The photographer [on the original Miss Subways shoot], Michael Barbero, told me, ‘You were the worst subject. All you wanted to do was entertain.’”
Back then, the shy teenager thought all she needed to do was “get married and have babies”, adding that she “wasn’t looking for any career.” Byrne told the studio what they wanted to hear.
I pointed back up at the original “Miss Subways” poster, curious about what her “childhood sweetheart” was up to nowadays.
“I kind of made that up,” she shrugged. “I had a lot of sweethearts.”
The New York Transit Museum is hosting a special event to complement the ‘Meet Miss Subways’ exhibition on Nov. 29 featuring City Lore’s Steve Zeitlin.
Photos, from top: 'Enid Berkowitz Schwarzbaum, Miss Subways July 1946'; 'Peggy Byrne at Church of Our Saviour, New York, New York 2007'; 'Peggy Byrne, Miss Subways March-April 1952'; 'Enid Berkowitz Schwarzbaum at home amid her artwork in Valley Stream, New York 2008'; All photos by Fiona Gardner.