Get a glimpse of what it took to be Miss Subways July 1949 in this exclusive excerpt from Susie Orman Schnall’s engaging upcoming novel The Subway Girls.
Miss Subways, which ran from 1941 through 1976, was a sort of beauty contest run by the New York MTA and the John Robert Powers Agency that selected “girls next door” to be the faces of advertising in the subway. These women were not only chosen for their physical appearance, but for their intelligence and composure as well.
While it may be a work of fiction, The Subway Girls gives us all a glimpse into the fascinating world of Miss Subways and the women who were involved in it (both on the MTA advertisements and behind the scenes). Told from the perspective of two women, this novel is the story of two women, one a Miss Subways contestant and the other a modern-day advertising executive, who fight against their circumstances to live the lives they’ve always dreamed of.
In this exclusive excerpt, July 1949 finalist Charlotte meets all of the other Miss Subways hopefuls for the first time and, as you might expect, drama abounds.
Check out this exclusive excerpt from ‘The Subway Girls’
MONDAY, MARCH 7, 1949
Charlotte pushed open the large glass door, its height and heft trumpeting its importance (or at least ensuring its regard as such), and approached the reception desk, which was staffed by three exquisitely cheekboned young women: a bevy of rouged birds answering telephones. The middle creature made eye contact. “Welcome to John Robert Powers. How can I help you?”
Charlotte held her letter aloft, her gilded ticket to the ball. “I’m a Miss Subways finalist?” she asked more than said, her nerves threatening to overtake the calm she had so carefully, along with a full palette of makeup, arranged on her face.
On Friday night, after Charlotte had mercilessly rerelegated Miss Diana Fontaine’s ridiculous letter to the garbage, she put herself to sleep ransacking the backcountry of her brain for memories from the World’s Fair: the feeling that she was finally someone, the hubbub of the crowd, the cloying stench of the monkeys, the sundry bits and bats that hung like frayed tassels from the edges of her memory. But she could not recall much. The details, which had once been so vivid, had hazed over like a mirror too close to the bath.
Thus, early the next morning, decidedly and with the urgency of a late-summer hurricane barreling toward an out island, she salvaged Miss Diana Fontaine’s gracious letter and brought it upstairs to her bedroom. After rereading it two, three, maybe sixteen times, Charlotte decided that a) depositing a new experience into her memory bank was cardinal and b) despite—perhaps because of?—her father’s certain disapproval, she would see what this Miss Subways stir was all about.
Because Charlotte’s wardrobe was judiciously suitable for her college courses, the occasional wedding, dates and groups at the soda shop, and not a turn of hem more, she owned neither top nor bottom chic enough to wear to the John Robert Powers Modeling Agency on Park Avenue. Eventually, due more to lack of than confidence in choices, Charlotte settled on a will-just-have-to-do navy skirt and striped blouse.
As soon as she’d found a seat on the subway into Manhattan that morning, she’d looked up. Next to the placard advertisements for cigarettes and life insurance, for shaving cream and shoes, there she was: Miss Subways.
“Meet Miss Subways Vivacious Thelma Porter,” the poster announced in its distinctive clipped voice, next to a photograph of a smiling beauty. “Psychology student at Brooklyn College and part-time nurse receptionist in dentist’s office. Is active in social welfare work and ardent church worker. Sings in a choral group and is a Gershwin devotee.”
Though confused by her curiosity and fascination, Charlotte had stared at these posters since they began appearing seven or eight years ago. In a way, the Miss Subways winners seemed so glamorous to her. So out of reach but also not, since Miss Subways could be the girl sitting to her right or across the aisle. Charlotte simultaneously looked up to and down upon these girls who were brave enough to go for it and, in at least part of Charlotte’s mind, silly enough to bother.
Charlotte didn’t know much about how the Miss Subways process worked, only that each month there were rumored to be hundreds, maybe thousands, of applicants and only about ten finalists. What she did know was that, despite the part of her that derided the whole enterprise, this was one of the most exciting things she’d ever done.
“Your name, please?” “Charlotte Friedman.”
The exquisite bird checked her list, nodded, and pointed Charlotte in the direction of a large, bustling waiting room. There must have been thirty girls in there, many who looked as frightened as children. Some were in the latest fashions, holding portfolio books. Others were more confident, most likely already Powers Girls. There were a few actual children, too, all dressed up—not appearing the least bit frightened— mothers tending, wiping imaginary smudges off their faces with saliva-dampened thumbs.
Charlotte found an empty seat and sat down. “Miss Subways?”
Charlotte turned to the girl on her right who had asked the question. She was a petite blonde with cartoonishly large blue eyes, and she stared intently at Charlotte, a huge smile across her face. “I’m Bella London. Not my real name,” she whispered. “But I thought it sounded more cosmopolitan. And you are?”
“Charlotte Friedman,” Charlotte said, extending her hand to Bella’s.
“Isn’t this just the most exciting thing ever? My girlfriend Marge was a finalist three months ago. A Powers man plucked her off the street. Can you imagine? But she didn’t win. She was devastated, poor girl. Says her life was ruined. I’m not so sure of that. It wasn’t much to begin with. Where are you from, Charlotte Friedman?”
“I’m a Bronx girl.”
“Have you been waiting here long?” Charlotte asked. “No, just a few minutes. I asked the girl up front and she
said that when all the finalists arrive they’re going to speak to us about the contest and what we should expect moving forward. I can hardly believe it!”
Charlotte smiled and looked around, trying to guess which of the other women were there for Miss Subways. The ones she decided were finalists all looked approximately her age and were beautiful. Charlotte couldn’t fathom being considered among these girls. Though she never believed it, she’d always been told she was pretty. Not by her parents, of course, but by JoJo and her other friends. And, of course, by Sam. Always by Sam. Her green eyes were clear and bright, her porcelain skin had a rosiness of its own accord, and her light brown hair was glossy. She watched what she ate, so she was slim—she’d never had to reduce—but had curves in the right places.
Bella continued yapping in her ear and Charlotte nodded politely. But she wasn’t listening. She was lost in her own thoughts about what becoming a Miss Subways could mean.
Just then, Charlotte noticed a striking brunette sashay by in a stylish, cinched-waist, emerald-green dress and a fashionably curled hairstyle. Charlotte straightened in her seat, assuming that was the woman from the modeling agency who would be giving them instructions.
But the brunette sat down across from Charlotte. She removed her gloves, opened her clutch, and took out lipstick and a compact. Charlotte couldn’t stop staring. The woman (she was no girl compared to the others clutching their finalist letters) must have felt Charlotte’s eyes, because she glanced up. Charlotte looked away quickly and turned to Bella, feigning interest in her interminable chatter.
“Ladies, hello, may I please have your attention?” It was the middle bird from earlier. “Will the Miss Subways finalists please come this way?”
Charlotte was surprised to see the brunette stand up. They walked down the corridor, heels clicking on the gleaming floor, and stopped in front of a closed door.
“Miss Fontaine will address you in our conference room.” She opened a door, a portal to a new world, and directed them inside. A statuesque woman—she could have been Rita Hayworth’s towheaded twin—wearing a stylish navy suit, a blond chignon, and an air of influence, stood just inside the entrance to the conference room and silently watched the finalists file in, nodding, assessing them like so many gussied-up horses at a farm auction.
Charlotte had never been in a room like this. It was massive, with a long gleaming wood table in the middle and upholstered white fabric chairs with wooden armrests all around. There was coffee and tea service on a wooden credenza lining the back wall, but neither the bird nor Rita’s twin offered. Charlotte couldn’t have swallowed a sip even if they had. Her stomach was raw.
“Please sit down,” the woman said curtly, with a tight smile. Unfortunately, Bella was still to her right. Charlotte looked around to see where the procession had deposited the brunette: across the table and a couple of seats down.
“I’m Diana Fontaine,” Rita’s twin continued. “I’m the director of model services here at the John Robert Powers Modeling Agency. And part of my job is to oversee the Miss Subways program. Now first, congratulations are in order,” she said, visibly softening. “This is a highly competitive contest, and you should all give yourselves a little clap for making it to this room.” She clapped softly while the finalists looked around at each other uncomfortably until the brunette starting clapping. The rest joined in.
“You have been selected as finalists for Miss Subways July 1949. Today, I will tell you all about the Miss Subways program. If, after learning about it, you’re interested in pursuing the opportunity further, you’ll need to return to this office on Friday at ten o’clock to meet Mr. Powers. During that interview, he’ll ask you questions—”
Charlotte felt, before she even saw, Bella’s hand shoot up with the velocity of a rocket, startling Miss Fontaine.
“Yes?” Miss Fontaine looked at Bella sternly, seemingly affronted by the interruption.
“What kinds of questions?” Bella asked.
Charlotte heard a hmph and looked over to see the brunette rolling her eyes. Charlotte looked back at Bella, who had also heard it, and noticed Bella glaring at the brunette. My goodness.
“Questions about your school or your job,” Miss Fontaine said. “Questions about your family and what becoming Miss Subways will mean to you. Nothing to worry about. Just be yourself.”
“Or not, in some people’s case,” the brunette said under her breath. Miss Fontaine didn’t seem to hear. Or if she did, she agreed.
“I’m now going to give you a little background about the Miss Subways program.”
“See, this is what I was telling you,” Bella whispered in Charlotte’s ear.
“Shhh,” the brunette said, shooting daggers at Bella. Bella straightened in her seat, raised her eyebrows haughtily at the brunette, and turned her attention back to Miss Fontaine.
“As I was saying. The J. Walter Thompson advertising agency developed Miss Subways for the New York Subways Advertising Company, which is responsible for selling advertising space in all the subways and elevated trains. The thought was that it would be a good morale boost for subway riders to see a pretty face on their commute each day, and the posters would draw attention to the neighboring ads. The campaign began in 1941, and some of you might know that our first Miss Subways was—”
“Mona Freeman,” Bella piped in. “That’s right. Thank you, Miss . . . ?”
“Miss London. I’m Miss Bella London.”
Miss Fontaine stopped to write something on a small pad. While she was looking down, the brunette whispered loudly in a mocking lilt, “Bella London, I’m sure.”
Miss Fontaine looked up like a third-grade teacher to see who had said that but not before the brunette lowered her eyes demurely. Miss Fontaine glanced from girl to girl but only found Bella with a scowl on her face and the rest of the girls smiling innocently and attentively in Miss Fontaine’s direction.
“Mona Freeman went on to Hollywood and is finding great success, having already appeared in over a dozen pictures, including Isn’t It Romantic?, Black Beauty, and Mother Wore Tights. And many of our past Miss Subways have gone on to exciting careers as models.” Miss Fontaine surveyed the room, as if expecting another interruption. Charlotte would have enjoyed stuffing a sock in Bella London’s big cosmopolitan trap.
“Since John Robert Powers is New York’s preeminent modeling agency, J. Walter Thompson hired us to manage the program. It’s clear by taking a quick glance at all of you that we are looking for attractive girls. But it’s also important that the winners have a New York story, which is why we don’t just use professional models. As Mr. Powers likes to say, he’s not looking for ‘glamour-gal types or hand-painted masterpieces.’ He likes to connect with the Miss Subways on a personal level, to feel as if they could be any New Yorker out and about riding the train. That’s why he takes the time to personally interview each finalist.
“If you’re selected, your poster will be seen for an entire month by over five million riders each day. And as you know, it’s a huge honor to be chosen. You’ll be interviewed for magazine articles, and you’ll most likely be recognized not only when you’re riding the train, sitting under your own poster, perhaps, but also on the street. So we look for respectable girls, girls who will uphold the dignity of the contest.”
Charlotte could have sworn Miss Fontaine looked directly at Bella.
“Now, that’s all for today. How many of you plan to re-turn on Friday?”