There she was, Miss America, disappearing before dawn with her male chaperone.
In 1937, Bette Cooper ran away, historians say, because she didn’t want to be Miss America. So the 17-year-old Hackettstown girl was whisked away after winning the crown by her chaperone, Lou Off.
And off they went, in a motor boat, out to sea before anyone noticed. That morning, when she was to participate in a press conference, Cooper was nowhere to be found.
Cooper never returned that day and never served as Miss America. Miss America officials were outraged.
And no one from New Jersey has won the contest since.
“There’s a voodoo, and it’s lasted 80 years,” said Dena Blizzard, Miss New Jersey 1995.
Call it the Curse of Bette Cooper.
In sports, teams vie for home-field advantage in the biggest games. But for the state that hosts Miss America, there appears to be no home-runway advantage. New Jersey hasn’t won Miss America in 78 years, and hasn’t been in the top 10 since 2000.
“Every year we’re like, ‘This is our year. This could be it because we’ve waited 80 years for this to happen,’” Blizzard said.
Miss New Jersey 2013 Cara McCollum also thinks Cooper has cursed the state, ruining her chances to be Miss America.
“I personally blame her for myself not winning the Miss America crown,” McCollum joked.
One Miss New Jersey did get the crown after Cooper, thanks to a pornographic scandal. Miss New York’s Vanessa Williams had to relinquish her title when Penthouse magazine bought and published unauthorized nude photographs of Williams. Williams was succeeded by Miss New Jersey and first runner-up Suzette Charles, who served for seven weeks. Still, Charles is only recognized as “Miss America 1984-B” on the Miss America Organization website.
And speaking of Miss New York: Can a state other than New York win the pageant this year?
Miss New York has won the contest three years straight — a pageantry dynasty, if you will. As if the New York Yankees having the most World Series titles wasn’t enough, Miss New York is tied for the most Miss America titles too, with six.
“I think everybody would just like to see somebody other than New York to win this year,” Blizzard said. “I don’t even think we care if it’s Miss New Jersey. But we’re like, ‘Please just don’t make it Miss New York again. You’ve got to spread it around.’”
This year’s Miss New Jersey, Lindsey Giannini of Hammonton, said she isn’t sure if there’s any voodoo going on. But she does think Miss New Jersey’s title drought needs to come to an end.
“It’s time for a Miss America to come from New Jersey,” Giannini said.
Giannini said winning Miss New Jersey was a long-term goal, and being Miss New Jersey is rewarding and an honor in itself.
“But of course, I’d love to be Miss America,” she added.
Giannini said she’s confident going into the pageant because she’s working hard to “be the best that I can be.” She said she wants to represent New Jersey well on the national stage, and is going into the competition “with the intention to be the next Miss America from New Jersey.”
“It’s not necessarily about competing against other girls. It’s about competing against yourself and working towards your best self,” Giannini said. “I feel like I’ve done that.”
But can she break the curse?
“She does have that competitive mentality,” McCollum said. “If anyone is going to break the Bette Cooper curse, she may be the gal to do it.”
Blizzard said Giannini’s platform, the dangers of distracted driving, could play well with the judges.
“All of them have to talk about what are the biggest things that plague their generation,” Blizzard said “Distracted driving kills so many people now. I think her platform is very timely.”
As for Cooper, the earliest and oldest living Miss America, she still doesn’t want to talk about it.
“Bette still refuses to talk to reporters, the Pageant staff and others about her involvement,” Miss America Organization says on its website.
Off died 11 years ago, said his wife, Carla. Carla said Lou and Cooper kept in touch after the pageant. The last Carla heard from Cooper was 20 years ago, when she called to wish Lou a happy birthday.
Accounts of that fall night in 1937 vary.
Weird NJ magazine said Cooper broke down in tears hours after winning and her parents, who thought she was in over her head, called Off.
Frank Deford, in his book “There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America,” suggests that Cooper may have had a crush on Off, and feared her new fame would ruin their relationship. Miss America Organization said on its website that Cooper had “second thoughts about her commitment.”
“I think she was overwhelmed,” Carla Off said.
Regardless, Lou Off was called at 2 a.m. that night, and the two had vanished by the next day. The boat returned unnoticed to Atlantic City about 24 hours after leaving, and Cooper was returned to Hackettstown.
After the disappearance, Miss America instituted a strict set of rules that prohibit contestants from spending time alone with any man — even their fathers — during pageant week. Future contestants were required to sign agreements on what’s expected of the winner.
A public records search for a Bette Cooper born in 1920 came up with two results: one in Kansas, another in New York state. Both calls requesting comment were not returned.
Much like that day in 1937, Cooper could not be found.