‘Looking for Miss America’: If you loved the gown and the crown, you won’t be able to put it down
“Like Crazy: Life with My Mother and Her Invisible Friends”
- By Dan Mathews
- c. 2020, Atria
- $27, $36 Canada; 245 pages
Like a grand dame’s voluminous skirts, the house needed to be taken in.
And that was okay because, oh, she was beautiful, and you knew that a little nip-and-tuck in the form of new floors and fresh walls would make her look and feel better. Taking on this project could be fun, too, so you bought her and started the alterations – and then, as in the new book “Like Crazy” by Dan Mathews, you took in your mom.
“Like Crazy: Life with My Mother and Her Invisible Friends” author Dan Mathews. (Photo: Photo by Kamil Szkopik)
The old Victorian house needed a lot of work – paint, updated carpet, sanded wood floors, new plumbing, and the garden was in a shamble – but it would all be worth it. For the first time since he’d escaped his life in California, Mathews was finally stepping up to the plate with home ownership and the care of his elderly mother.
Everybody thought Mathews’ “life would be derailed” if Perry moved in. She was feisty, unabashed, loud, almost deaf, and mentally ill. Mathews adored her, but while she was in route from California to Virginia, he rather feared the future and what it might bring. He knew Perry needed help. She’d needed it her whole life.
She was never eager to discuss her past, her childhood abandonment, foster homes, or abuse but how could those things not affect her? Sometimes, as Mathews remembers, she was witty and joyfully impulsive, but she couldn’t raise her sons with anything except a hand-to-mouth existence and constant household moves. And yet, when Mathews came out as a teen, Perry was solidly in his corner and she mothered his gay friends whose mothers wouldn’t.
“Like Crazy: Life with My Mother and Her Invisible Friends” by Dan Mathews. (Photo: Atria)
It was a double-sided coin: he loved his mom but once he’d fled from her. Now, with COPD, possible dementia, general bad health at issue, and obviously at the end of her life, how could Mathews not take her in?
They’d get along. It would be okay. Maybe even fun.
Until the day, he says, that “Our funhouse … turned into a madhouse.”
So, here’s the thing: you know exactly what’s going to happen at the end of “Like Crazy.” You don’t even have to peek or cheat – you’ll know. But you’ll laugh and cry anyhow because it’s that kind of book.
Still, there aren’t any sappy violins in author Dan Mathews’ story. Nope, though readers may occasionally see the tiniest justifiable pity-party because the backdrop of this book is about parenting a parent which everybody knows is hard. So, go ahead and forgive, since there’s more celebration than death-watch here anyhow, and each small sweetness will make you wish you’d known Perry, too.
But don’t be lulled too far by those warm-fuzzies: there’s an electric current that lies just beneath this story, one that awakens slowly, quietly, and grows, popping sometimes like those bang-snappers that little boys love to throw.
When it finally explodes, watch it roar.
In the meantime, let yourself be thoroughly charmed. Laugh at “Like Crazy” and don’t be surprised if there’s a tear or two. Love your Mama and enjoy the story. Take it in.
“Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood”
- By Margot Mifflin
- c. 2020, Counterpoint
- $28, higher in Canada; 311 pages
The gown and the crown. Those have always been your favorite parts of the Miss America pageant: one has bling and the other has glitz, which is perfect. Sparkles and glamour mixed with drama and a mega-watt smile plus talent – what’s not to love? Yep, the gown and the crown, in “Looking for Miss America” by Margot Mifflin, make a show of renown.
“Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood” author Margot Mifflin. (Photo: Photo by Thea Dery)
At 15 years old, Margaret Gorman was a beauty: petite, with long hair and a shy grin that her fans adored. But looks apparently weren’t the only thing Gorman had going for her: after she won “a local beauty contest” on the strength of her attributes, reporters wishing for an interview found her “on her knees in a playground, shooting marbles in the dirt.”
That was in August 1921 and the Miss America organization was off to a charming start. It didn’t always stay that way, though, says Margot Mifflin; for its first few years, the pageant was held only occasionally, and it was mostly regional. The title of “Miss America” didn’t even show up until after Gorman’s reign.
“Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood” by Margot Mifflin. (Photo: Counterpoint)
Alternately then, the organization disbanded and restarted but by the time Americans were in the grip of the Depression, things were firmly back on track – although, not without a host of problems. Rules, for one thing, were largely unenforced until 1935, when Lenora Slaughter was hired to be the pageant’s director, a position she’d hold for decades. Slaughter laid down the law, ensuring at various times through the years that Miss America was at least 18 years old, chaste, and modestly dressed; not married, or a mother; and if she was strongly Christian, that was even better. She also had to be white; African Americans couldn’t even try for the crown for most of the twentieth century.
Oh, and as for talent – no live animal acts, for good reason; no using the same music as your fellow contestants… and no stripping.
Despite that it takes readers right up to the pageant as it is today, nearly a century after its inception, there’s something truly, wonderfully nostalgic about reading “Looking for Miss America.”
Maybe it’s because author Margot Mifflin presents the history of the organization with all its flaws, it’s blunders, embarrassments, and troubles. Maybe it’s because she dives into stories of contestants – and not just winners – that we didn’t know, or that had more to tell than just a glide down a walkway. Maybe it’s the surprising number of firsts here: the first “girl” to use “butt tape,” the first Native American contestant, the first lesbian winner, the first “girl” to stand up to sponsors. These are things that keep the book lively and fun.
Or perhaps the appeal of “Looking for Miss America” is that it’s like a long-ago Saturday evening in August with a load of pillows on the living room floor and popcorn while you wait for the pageant to start on TV. If you loved the gown and the crown, you won’t be able to put it down.
The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.
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