The oldest surviving Miss America has passed away of natural causes at age 97.

Jo-Carroll Dennison grew up in a traveling medicine show during the 1920s and 1930s, when she had little money or formal education. She aspired to be a secretary.

She was the first of her family to attend college, and she became a philosophy major at Boston University. Despite this, she still felt compelled to compete in beauty pageants. One day in 1942, when she was 18 and walking down the street in Tyler, Texas, she was asked by a local banker to participate in his bank’s beauty contest.

She traveled to military bases on the home front, sang and danced for the troops, and sold war bonds during World War II. According to Stars and Stripes,

She went on to develop a successful career in television and film, including playing the sultry singer Marla Kage in “Mannix” (1971-1978), which was canceled after eight seasons. That didn’t stop Hollywood from calling. Ms. Dennison appeared in a number of movies, notably Winged Victory (1944

She never became a household name as an actress, yet she spent decades rubbing shoulders with Hollywood royalty. She became a regular at Gene Kelly’s Saturday night parties and song fests, where André Previn played the piano and she rubbed elbows with Judy Garland and Gregory Peck through her brief marriage to the comedian Phil Silvers. Writers like Ray Bradbury.

But life wasn’t all sunshine and roses. She was sexually assaulted at the age of 12, which she called “indentured servitude” during her reign as Miss America. And she was constantly fending off attempts to put her on the casting couch as a starlet who was frequently objectified by powerful males. She became a feminist before there

“I’m happy to have lived long enough to witness how women’s struggles against inequality, sexual misconduct and abuse have come to the surface,” she said in a video she posted in September for this year’s celebration of the Miss America pageant’s 100th anniversary.

Ms. Dennison was the oldest former Miss America and the mother of four children when she passed away on October 18, 2011, at the age of 97. Her son Peter Stoneham announced her death.

Her family was traveling a medicine show in Texas when she was born. After her mother, Elizabeth (Brownd) Dennison, was about to give birth, her father, Harry Arthur Dennison, decided he wanted his kid to be born in California rather than Texas. So they set out for the west. Her mother went into labor while

In what Ms. Dennison referred to as their house car, a Model T Ford with the flat bed of a truck, they journeyed on to California. She was quickly accepted into the medicine show in which her parents lured people in with amusement and then attempted to sell them elixirs as a baby. Jo-Carroll sang, tap

Her father abandoned the family when she was seven, which devastated her.

She and her mother returned to Texas after performing Depression-era shows with a carnival and circus when she was three years old, riding trick ponies and roping steers. They relocated to Waco, where they worked for another medicine show, when Elizabeth was 12. According to Ms. Dennison’s autobiography, while she was 12, the

Jo-Carroll moved back to Hale Center after graduating from high school there in 1940. She later lived with an aunt in Tyler, located in East Texas. She was studying business administration at the time when the banker asked her to participate in the beauty contest.