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Throwback Tulsa: Ex-Miss America's divorce case scandalized Tulsa in '34

Throwback Tulsa: Ex-Miss America's divorce case scandalized Tulsa in '34

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Two weeks of racy divorce court testimony filled with revelry, adultery and a tipsy toddler, shattered in 1934 the demure image most Tulsans had of our very own Miss America, who had married oilman Thomas Gilcrease.

The crowning of Norma Des Cygne Smallwood was hailed as an anti-flapper victory by the Tulsa World. Smallwood didn’t bob her long, chestnut hair but wore it rolled into buns on either side of her face, somewhat like Princess Leia in “Star Wars.”

“Chosen for beauty, intelligence and personality, Miss Tulsa … is a type entirely apart from the bobbed-haired, boyish flapper popularly acclaimed as the exponent of American girlhood,” read the Associated Press story bannered on the front page of the Tulsa World on Sept. 11, 1926.

A Bristow native, Smallwood was described by her mother, Mrs. Mahala Smallwood Dickerson, as “a real girl” with a “liking for taking corners on two wheels when she is driving.”

Smallwood soon showed the telltale signs of a flapper – rebelling against conventional ideas of ladylike behavior, drinking and enjoying the company of numerous male admirers.

Criticized for earnings

As Miss America, Smallwood turned out to be a public relations nightmare for pageant officials. During her reign, she was sharply criticized by the press for raking in approximately $100,000 (more than either Babe Ruth or the U.S. president earned) in personal appearance fees and for a highly publicized romance with the son of a prominent Pittsburgh businessman. She received more negative headlines by demanding $600 from the pageant to crown her successor in 1927.

After her reign, Smallwood abandoned plans to resume her art studies at Oklahoma College for Women in Chickasha when the Orpheum vaudeville circuit offered her $1,500 a week.

Following months of touring vaudeville theaters, Smallwood was in Tulsa attending a party when she met Thomas Gilcrease, a wealthy, divorced father of two sons and future benefactor of the museum and art collection bearing his name.

Whisking Norma off to Paris, Gilcrease presented her with a $7,000 4.5-carat diamond engagement ring and had a prenuptial contract drawn up.

Smallwood and Gilcrease were married Sept. 3, 1928. She was 20 and he was 37. The marriage was “happy and harmonious for two years” until her mother moved in, Gilcrease said in his divorce petition, filed in Osage County in 1933.

The oilman asked for custody of the couple’s young daughter, Des Cygne L’Amour. Gilcrease’s divorce suit accused his mother-in-law of taking “complete charge of the wife and child and began a course of conduct for the express and willful purpose of alienating” their affection.

'Taking liberties with her person'

He said while he was away on business, his wife and her mother would entertain men in his home and serve liquor against his wishes. When he returned unexpectedly, he found cigar stubs and empty liquor bottles “and other evidence of disorderly parties,” Gilcrease charged.

He also accused Norma of allowing various men to “take liberties with her person” and of committing adultery with Charlton Genet, son of a Tulsa businessman. She vehemently denied the charges.

During the trial, a witness told of visiting Mrs. Dickerson at her apartment with Norma, her baby daughter and Genet present.

“The baby was given sips of whiskey, and soon it could not walk straight and lay down on the floor and went to sleep,” the witness said.

Mrs. Dickerson vehemently denied the accusations against herself and her daughter. She testified that she had reared her three daughters in an atmosphere of piety and maintained that she and her daughter limited themselves to an occasional “social glass of wine.”

Thomas Gilcrease Jr. testified that his young stepmother spent much time in her art studio with Genet.

“I tried often to get into the studio and found the door locked,” young Gilcrease said. “The blinds were drawn, too. After two or three minutes, I would be admitted and find Norma and Charlton inside. She was painting his portrait at the time.”

The elder Gilcrease testified that he was hosting a potential business client at his home when “Norma raised her skirts and whirled about the room.”

The potential customer “left the house and I never heard from him again,” Gilcrease said.

Gilcrease was granted a divorce on May 2, 1934, and was awarded custody of the couple’s 6-year-old daughter.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court upheld the divorce settlement in 1936. Mrs. Gilcrease received $15,000 in alimony, to be paid at a rate of $250 a month.

Norma Gilcrease married Wichita oilman George H. Bruce in 1936. Her final appearance in Tulsa was in 1964, when she attended the Miss Oklahoma pageant. She died at age 57 in 1966.

Read more Throwback Tulsa stories.

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Debbie Jackson 918-581-8374

Hilary Pittman 918-732-8182


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