Only a handful of people can describe the view from the Miss America stage in Atlantic City’s famous Boardwalk Hall. Author Michael Callahan is one of them.
“Walk the runway,” Callahan said, recalling his own experience when he was a first-time Miss America reporter. “It’s kind of a bucket list thing.”
“When I got to the end and saw all the empty seats, I thought, ‘Wow, this must be the head rush of a lifetime,” and it got me really interested in a way that I wasn’t before.”
Beginning his career in 1987 reporting on the annual scholarship competition for Atlantic City Magazine and continuing for several years, Callahan took the knowledge he stored about pageant winners and stories and wrote his second novel, “The Night She Won Miss America.”
The book is a work of fiction set during the 1950 pageant but inspired by Miss America 1937, Miss New Jersey Bette Cooper, who reluctantly entered the pageant and infamously ran off after taking the crown, disappearing for about 24 hours, saying she was overwhelmed by the responsibility.
“I always thought ‘if I ever wrote fiction, this would be a great novel,’” Callahan said. “You know, what if she didn’t just go home, but what if they took off, like Romeo and Juliet or Bonnie and Clyde?”
Callahan, who spends his time between Philadelphia and Ocean City, calls himself a nostalgic and seems to have a fascination with the pageant and past culture, as most from the South Jersey area do.
Describing a time when people dressed for the Boardwalk and dined at candlelit supper clubs, Callahan said he believes there’s a local yearning for “old-school cool.”
“I think, in America, we don’t have that many great traditions, because we’re not an old country. We don’t have royalty, either,” Callahan said of the pageant. “Is it a little past it’s prime? Probably, but it’s fun.”
His research was done through the Atlantic City Library and the Atlantic City Cultural Museum, as well as his local connections, to get the details about the mid-century Atlantic City just right.
“I wanted to set my pageant in 1949 for a very specific reason,” Callahan said. “Starting in 1950, they started post-dating the title. If you won in 1950, you were Miss America 1951, so technically there is no Miss America 1950, so I decided to slot my character in there.”
Adding some of his own experience into the story, Callahan came up with the character Eddie Tate, an Atlantic City Press reporter, who at first is just another reporter, writing about “every step, word and wave” of the pageant contestants.
Though looking back to his days as a Miss America reporter gave him fond memories, Callahan has no plan to author more stories about the pageant.
His book, while a tribute to the glory days of Eisenhower-era pageantry, has not received any nods from the Miss America Organization.
“I’d be really curious to hear what they thought,” Callahan said. “I certainly hope they see it as the Valentine to Miss America that I intended.”
Callahan, who lives in Philadelphia, said he plans to hold a book event in September during the preliminary competitions in Atlantic City.
He also wrote “Searching for Grace Kelly” and is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair magazine.