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Leona Gage, Miss USA for a day, dies at 71

October 9, 2010 |  5:51 pm

Gage Leona Gage, who in 1957 was named Miss USA but had the title taken from her the next day when pageant officials learned she was married and a mother of two, has died. She was 71.

Gage died of heart failure Tuesday at Sherman Oaks Hospital, said her son Rob Kaminer.

She was married and had her second child when she was 16, all forbidden for a pageant contestant. She also told pageant officials she was 21, but she was 18.

"It's both an accomplishment and a tragedy. She had mixed feelings about the whole thing," Kaminer told The Times on Saturday.

Gage, who was born in Texas in 1939, represented Maryland at the Miss USA pageant held in Long Beach in July 1957. In a Times article after losing the title, Gage said she entered the Maryland contest hoping it would lead to work as a model.

"We needed money desperately," she said in 1957. "I didn't expect to win and when I did I was told I would be sent to Long Beach for the Miss Universe contest [then held immediately after the Miss USA competition], I went to the sponsor of the Maryland contest and told him I couldn't go because I was married.

"He told me to forget that I told him I was married and to come out here and keep my mouth shut."

Pageant officials in Baltimore denied they knew she was married.

Her son called it "a cautionary tale.… She entered the contest because she needed the money.… She was only 18 years old and you only complete the seventh grade and you have men pushing and pulling at you. I definitely know she was influenced by the people around her at the time. It's a very powerful influence."

He said Gage had lived in Southern California since the 1960s and became extremely private later in life "because she wasn't the person people remembered." He said she suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a progressive condition that makes it hard to breathe.

Gage made many television appearances after losing the title, including a highly rated one on the "Ed Sullivan Show." With the attention came hate mail.

"I think one half of the U.S. hated me," she told the Baltimore Sun in 2005.

Gage had difficult years after losing the title.

"When you're 18 years old and you're the most beautiful girl in the room … and then you're 50 and you're on oxygen and you haven't taken the time to develop yourself in other areas, what are you left with?" Kaminer said. His mother was "really preyed on by men from an early age.… you understand the type of trauma that represents," he said.

In addition to Kamimer, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., Gage is survived by two other sons, David Ennis of Tyrone, Ga., and Nicholas Covacevich of Los Angeles; and three grandchildren.

-- Keith Thursby

Photo: Leona Gage in 1957.

Credit: Associated Press