Before she was an alluring mainstay of Washington’s watusi-era salons and soirees, Yolande Betbeze Fox was a rebellious, convent-educated, Alabama-born beauty queen. As Miss America of 1951, she alarmed organizers when she refused to squeeze into a bathing suit for cheesecake photos, publicly lambasted the pageant for excluding minorities, and picketed for civil rights.
In a life as nonconformist as it was glamorous, she was also an off-Broadway producer, lighted off to Cuba with a rodeo, married a onetime Hollywood “wonder boy,” and was the longtime companion of an Algerian revolutionary-turned-diplomat.
When in 1966, she contemplated running for Congress in an Alabama district that included her home town of Mobile, her then-paramour, the architect Edward Durrell Stone, observed that she would dramatically improve her chances if she renounced her membership in the NAACP.
Fox, whose independent-mindedness in that era was perhaps best defined by her quip, “I’m a southern girl, but I’m a thinking girl,” died Feb. 22 at an assisted-living home in Washington. She was 87 and the cause was lung cancer, said her daughter, Dolly Fox.
Raven-haired and statuesque, she first began turning heads as Yolande Betbeze (pronounced Yo-lond, Bet-bees). While attending an Alabama Jesuit college, she won the campus title of “Miss Torch.” She was also a coloratura soprano, well read in philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer and David Hume, and was determined to harness her brains and beauty to advance her opportunities.
“I entered the Miss Alabama contest because it was still a via aperta,” she once told The Washington Post, “and because it was one possible way to get out of the South. I knew that I was really a very good singer and that I could do serious opera even though my braces made me sing German lieder with a pronounced lisp.”
A Mobile music critic, beguiled by her talent and charm, urged her to enter the Miss Alabama contest, which she clinched (braces removed) with her performances of works by Schubert and Gershwin. Then it was on to Atlantic City, singing the “Caro nome” aria from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”
That was when problems began. She didn’t mix well with the other contestants, whom she found both intellectually wanting and cutthroat. One scrawled the phrase “hairy sits here” on her mirror, referring to her thick eyebrows.
After her triumph – as the first winner from Alabama – she infuriated a major sponsor, Catalina bathing suits. She had, perhaps inadvertently at first, neglected to sign the standard contract obligating her to make promotional appearances modeling their new line of swimsuits, and then outright refused to be bullied into it.
“I’m a singer,” she declared at the time, “not a pin-up.”
As she later recalled, a man representing Catalina “stood up and fumed. He looked at me and said, ‘I’ll run you off the news pages. I’ll start my own contest. You’ll see.’ I said, ‘That’s splendid. Good luck to you.’ . . . Anyway, he did indeed start the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageant. So people can thank me – or blame me – for that.”
She used her public platform to condemn de facto exclusionary policies in some Miss America preliminaries. She also stood vigil outside New York’s Sing Sing prison in 1953 to demonstrate against the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been convicted of conspiracy to pass atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union.
She tried to make the best of goodwill ambassador roles foisted on her by the Miss America pageant. That once meant babysitting across the Atlantic a small container of Hudson River water meant to be poured into the Seine “in the name of Franco-American amity,” she told journalist Frank Deford for his book “There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America.”
“I think the Pageant earnestly believed that I was America’s answer to Lafayette at last,” she said. “All the damn water ran out of the vial on the plane over, and I had to refill it with water from the faucet in my hotel.”
She rebuffed movie offers but not the 1954 marriage proposal of entertainment executive Matthew M. Fox, whom she met at a party in New York.
He was stout and twice her age, but she was drawn to his ballroom dancing skills, his agile mind and his drive. A onetime Universal Pictures wunderkind, he ventured presciently but disastrously into a subscription-TV service in the 1950s and lost millions of dollars. He also immersed himself in shadowy economic and political ventures in Indonesia, playing a role in engineering its independence from the Dutch and bringing Sukarno to power.
Her marriage to Matty Fox, as he was often called, brought many privileges. They included property from Hollywood to Paris, including a Park Avenue penthouse in Manhattan. She formed tight friendships with movie stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor and other grandees of culture and politics, including Clark Clifford, who became godfather to her only child.
Fox had a stint as an off-Broadway producer, putting on works by Aristophanes and Shakespeare at a theater she started over a bagel bakers’ union office on East Houston Street. She and two other former Miss Americas played the three witches in her 1955 staging of “Macbeth.”
She also was a volunteer with the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality and the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.
Outside of a Woolworth’s near New York’s theater district in 1960, she was photographed by the New York Times hoisting a placard that slammed the department store’s segregationist lunch counter policies.
According to Deford’s history of the pageant, her outspokenness made her persona non grata with Miss America organizers, who liked their winners to avoid offending viewers.
The Miss America pageant gradually started to include black and Asian contestants – in 1983, Vanessa Williams became the first African American winner – and Fox was not demure in assigning some of the credit to herself. “I spoke out against the pageant when it was needed,” she told People magazine in 2000. “The pageant has changed, thanks to me.”
Yolande Margaret Betbeze was born in Mobile on Nov. 28, 1928. Her first name, she said, derived from a book about medieval history that her mother was reading at the time. Her father, whose family was of Basque heritage, owned slaughterhouses.
After 12 years of schooling in a convent, she attended Spring Hill College in Mobile and throughout the 1950s continued her studies of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York.
By the time her husband died of a heart attack in 1964, Fox was a frequent visitor to Washington. She soon settled into a historic home in Georgetown that had once belonged to Jacqueline Kennedy.
Fox, who became a Democratic Party fundraiser, lured hostesses and presidents into her orbit. She also enticed many powerful eligible bachelors, and she hinted also some who were not so eligible.
But her most enduring attachment was to Cherif Guellal, a dashing Algerian who helped secure his country’s independence from France and served as its first post-colonial ambassador to the United States.
As socialite and author Barbara Howar once wrote, Fox contributed show-business luminaries to Guellal’s wild Georgetown parties already teeming with “the keener political minds, celebrated academicians [and] international radicals.”
Guellal, whom she considered her spouse although they never wed, died in 2009. Besides her daughter, of New York, survivors include a granddaughter.
Two years ago, Fox told an Alabama reporter that it was her hope to write a memoir but was delaying out of tact. “There’s still too many people who aren’t dead yet,” she said.