Being chosen Miss Canada in 1949 meant a brief taste of glory for Margaret Lynne Munn, of North Vancouver. Now the tall blonde who hoped to sing at the Met dances in the Copacabana line and dreams of seeing her name in Broadway lights
MARGARET LYNNE MUNN, a former Miss Canada who now lives in New York and dances in a night-club chorus line, wakes up every noon to the blue walls of her apartment on the top floor of a brownstone in the west Seventies, a half block from Central Park. By leaning out the window she can see the trees in the park, and she also gets a view of » neighbor in his underwear.
“He must lie in show business too,” she mutters, pulling the blind and lighting a cigarette. Her apartment is one room, for which she pays fifteen dollars a week, with a refrigerator in the comer and two closets at the end opposite the window. One closet is for her clothes; the other contains some shelves, a sink and a two-burner gas plate. The bathroom is down the hall, shared by the three other tenants on the same floor.
A dim mirror over the fireplace reflects the dusty gold trophy she won in a Miss America talent contest in Atlantic City, two weeks after the August night in 1949 when she was crowned Miss Canada. Stuck in the frame around the mirror are yellowed clippings announcing that Margaret Lynne Munn has been named Miss North America in a contest in Lima, Peru.
Lynne rarely has time to dwell on these souvenirs. She rinses some clothes out in her small sink, ties a rope from the radiator to the closet door and hangs them to dry while she presses a skirt on the l>ed. She drinks black coffee while she dresses, ties back her blond hair with an elastic band and stuffs shorts and a blouse into her purse. She turns the burner off under the percolator and starts down three flights of stairs, cheesing the mail on the hall table as she leaves.
Her first call is the Roxy Theatre, the stage entrance on Fifty-first Street, where she explains to the doorman that she is going to rehearse for a television show.
“You with Doug Cowdy’s girls?” he asks, and when she nods he grunts “Ballet rehearsal room,” and turns back to the Racing Form. In the elevator one girl says to another in front of Lynne, “Honey, you’ve got a tan! Where have you been, Florida?” and the other answers “No, I’ve been home in Canada.” Lynne grins to herself—she spends a lot of time trying to assure the girls at the night club that Canada isn’t a land of ice and snow.
When she gets out of the elevator she walks down a narrow hall to a big bare-floored room with mirrors down one wall and a collection of satin horses pawing each other at one end. She changes into her shorts and blouse and for two hours, with seven other girls, she practices manipulating the horses in a dance sequence that will be used on a commercial TV' show the following week. The director, Doug Cowdy, a soft-voiced former ballet dancer who also produces the floor show at the Copacabana, the night club where Lynne works, takes special pains instructing her. The other girls are dancers but Lynne has had no previous training. Doug has included her because he wants to give her a break. She’ll get about one hundred dollars for this bit.
After rehearsal Lynne and Doug check the time, find they have a few hours before they have to be at the Copacabana and decide to walk over to Madison Square Garden. Upstairs in the Garden is a small ice surface, open all summer, where they like to figure skate hot afternoons. Both are so skilful—Lynne picked it up when she sang with the Ice Capades—that professional skaters sometimes stop them to ask what ice show they are with. Lynne has been told, and she finds it is true, that once you have been in show business another professional can pick you eut of a crowd. “It’s something special about the way we walk, our assurance,” she once said in trying to explain the phenomenon.
Walking to work
LYNNES DAY IN THE WORLD'S MOST COMPETITIVE BUSINESS
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afterward, through the crowds streaming for the subways to take them home to dinner. Lynne reflects that she hasn't had her breakfast yet. She stops in the Blue Room, a murky shabby bar around the comer from the Copa, and orders a gin and tonic and the roast beef special at two dollars and fifty cents. The Blue Room has a scattering of Copa employees, all watching the clock as they bolt down their breakfasts. At seven-thirty Lynne gives a yelp and hurries out of her booth, leaving the waiter standing helplessly with her dessert. “It is always this way,” he comments sadly, “she never allows enough time for her coffee.” Around the comer is the Copacabana, a twelve-year-old night club devoted to the care and cultivation of tourists. According to a sign near the entrance Billy Eckstine is the new star of the floor show, assisted by two feature acts and the Copa Girls, “The Most Beautiful Girls in the World.” Supper patrons are entering under a striped marquee, guided by an elegant doorman, but Lynne doesn't give them a glance as she scurries down the ad-
joining cellar stairs, past barrels of garbage and along a hall next to the kitchen, emerging into the club itself for an instant before ducking into a door marked Private.
The room she enters is lined along one wall and part of another with dressing tables, each separated from its neighbor by a glaring naked electriciirht bulb. At the back of the room is a curtained partition concealing the racks of costumes and near the door is the costume supervisor’s sewing bench. Mirium Alexander, a former dancer now in her sixties and a feared scold if a costume is tom or not returned to its proper hanger, is watching the television screen that cackles on a shelf over her head as Lynne arrives and strips off her clothes.
The dressing room is a babble of excited sopranos as the girls, sitting before their mirrors in stockings and almost nonexistent G-pants, greet Lynne, borrow cosmetics and shrilly report on the day’s adventure.
“Next time I’m gonna pick a guy whose gonna stick around for a while,” a black-haired beauty mourns as Lynne pulls her stockings out of the shoe box under her dressing table.
“Another tragedy?” asks Lynne, drawing on the coarse mesh hose and fastening them high on her hips with
durable elastic and several safety pins. The brunette nods. “I should want to kill myself tonight,” she sighs, “but instead I'll be broken-hearted. Besides. I’ve got a date.” Lynne pins her shoulder-length hair into a small knob high on the back of her head and fastens over it the pincushion of false hair that is the trademark of a Copa girl. “We’re supposed to look sweet and old-fashioned, I suppose,” muses the girl on the other side of Lynne. The brunette protests hotly: “We’re supposed to look sophisticated! What’s the matter with Next Lynne mbs pancake make-up into her face and neck, puts blue eyeshadow on her upper lids and pencils a black line darting upward from the comer of her eyes. She mbs in rouge, paints a mouth slightly larger than her own and adds lip gloss, which makes her mouth shine as if she had just wet her lips. Over the black mascara on her eyelashes she applies melted black wax, called beading, which causes her eyelashes to mat in sooty spikes. As the girls study their faces and mutually confess that they will never be ready in time, Doug Cowdy strolls in, leans against one of the dressing tables and comments on the sunburn of a sleepy-eyed blonde. When he
goes out a moment later Lynne confides to her neighbor what a shock it gave her when Doug did that the first night she was i Copa girl. “Not a girl in the room had anything on but pants,” she recalls, ‘‘and the new girls all grabbed for something to put in front of them. I noticed that the girls who had been with the previous show kept right on powdering their faces so I carried on too. Now I never think of it.” “Some places you work guys walk in and out all the time,” said a girl in the corner. “At the Copa they really protect the girls—no one is allowed in but Doug.” Just then someone called “Cover up, girls! Here I come!” and Johnnie Ray, the crying crooner, bounded into the room. He had been the star vocalist some weeks previously and came into the dressing room to say hello to the girls. They greeted him gaily, hugging their dressing gowns around their shoulders, and a few minutes later he left.
“Well, practically no one but Doug,” said the same girl, sitting down again.
Xavier Cugat’s new wife, wearing her hair combed to one side of her head, came in next, advised the girls where she and her husband were sitting and exchanged gossip. When she went out one girl moaned. “What a lucky doll! When
they were here she got a diamond clip after the first show, a diamond bracelet after the second show and a mink coat after the last show. He’s crazy about her.”
Just then the warning buzzer sounded and the girls stood up to get their costumes, peach satin knee-length Gay Nineties affairs with the plunging neckline gone mad. Each costume has builtin foam rubber pads; although the girls are of normal proportions the night-club public desires even more than nature can provide and for some years now all costumes have been bountifully padded.
The eight girls line up just outside the swinging doors of the kitchen to wait for their cue. With indignant pardons the waiters weave through bearing shrimp cocktails on crushed ice and steaks doused with mushrooms. Lynne keeps an eye on the announcer, suddenly starts off to lead the line down the steps to the Copacabana’s sunken dance floor between whitecovered tables that look blue in the darkness. She marches across the floor in the bright bath of the spotlights with a gay smile—all the girls, even the sleepy-eyed blonde, are smiling as though they were being presented to Darryl Zanuck—and the orchestra swings into Please Mr. President Don’t Put a Tax on Love, one of the three songs especially written for the Copacabana’s floor show.
Doug Cowdy, working the panel of switches that control the spotligTits, explains to a visitor that the Copa’s floor show contains three production numbers, in which the girls take part, and that the shows are repeated three times a night and seven days a week for three months. Then they are junked for an entirely new show and most of the girls are fired at the same time, with maybe two or three hold-
“We put an ad in the paper,” continues _Doug, frowning at one of the girls who unaccountably has stopped smiling. “It says‘One Hundred Dollars a Week—No Experience Necessary.’ Next day five hundred girls turn up and we hire two.”
The girls are screened for youth, an interesting face, high cheekbones and a turned-up nose, and good legs. Doug can tell by watching them walk whether they’ll be able to learn his simple dance steps or not.
“If their steps match, regardless of the tempo, then they have a sense of rhythm,” he says, beaming at the girls
as they hurry past him into the dressing room. “You’d be surprised how many people walk off beat.”
In the dressing room the girls are pulling off their costumes and putting them away while Mirium nags bitterly about a broken zipper. “You’ve got more weight around your middle than any other damned girl in this room!” she squeals at a red-faced chorine. The other girls are too occupied to notice.
“Did you see Frank Sinatra?” one girl asks Lynne. “He’s in my comer at the table by the post.”
“Migawd,” moans another, “my falsies nearly fell out. Who’s been ripping them out of this costume?”
“I did,” says the sleepy-eyed blonde. “I’m a 34 B and I don’t need falsies.”
Silence. Another blonde picks up a bottle of cologne and idly sprays herself. “I guess there are Bs and Bs,” she comments and everyone laughs.
Lynne’s next costume is her favorite, a long white sheer with red eyelet embroidery. In a minute the buzzer sounds again and the girls hurry out with Lynne trailing behind fussing with an earring. The dressing room is quiet except for the agonized voices from the television set.
In the darkened night club Doug Cowdy watches his charges and groans. “One way you can tell a Copa dancer from any other dancer — she can’t dance.”
AÍ Freeman, the Copa’s publicity man, hastily interrupts. “We’re interested in starting girls up the ladder of success,” he remarks. “June Allyson was a Copa girl and so was Olga San Juan. We’ve got lots of girls in Hollywood, lots on Broadway, plenty in television. This is where they get their first break.”
After the next number the girls have fifteen minutes to change to their bathing-suit costumes for the final number of the show. “I says to this guy, ‘Thanks for the bag. and he says ‘I’m sorry about this and that’ and I just accidentally kicked him,” a dimpled brunette reports.
Lynne grins, though when she is dancing she rarely talks to the people near her and doesn’t approve of it. The girls talk through their teeth to the customers without changing expression or looking directly at the tabl° they're addressing. Lynne occasionally tells off the odd bounder who leers over his drink at her and offers her a selection of obscene proposals.
After the third number, about nine
o’clock, the girls are through until midnight. This is when they meet dates who will have to get up early the next morning; their later dates are almost invariably with musicians or other dancers who can also sleep until noon. Lynne almost never has a date.
She hurries up the stairs and strides along Sixtieth Street, ignoring the whistles that greet her bright blond hair and stage make-up. She heads for a practice room she rents over a pawnshop six blocks away, a brief case of music under her arm. The hall outside the room she uses is busy with women fencers but Lynne shoulders through and closes the door behind her. Inside are some stage props, a few battered tables and chairs and an open grand piano. She sets her music on the rack of the piano, sets an ash tray on the end of the keyboard and practices singing for the next two hours. She warms up with scales and Broadway tunes, climaxes with coloratura arias from the operas.
Walking back to the Copa around midnight, Lynne considers the spell that holds her in New York, scrambling for a break in the most competitive, heartless business she has ever known. Nothing in her childhood in North Vancouver, where she was i tomboy and a track-and-field champion, indicated such a future. Her father, William Campbell Munn, was a steamfitter and her mother a gifted manager of the family’s sometimes slim finances. Lynne recalls that one year during the depression her mother stretched six hundred dollars to feed, clothe and house the family of four and give Lynne piano lessons besides. Her younger brother Gordon is now an insurance adjuster in Vancouver. She herself was a good stenographer—how did she get switched to show business? What had happened to her?
Part of it happened when she found she wanted to sing. She lost interest in her piano lessons and sunk herself in the lead roles in the commercial high school’s operettas. When she was sixteen she was touring with a troop show that left Vancouver two or three nights a week. In the summers she was in the chorus of Vancouver's Theatre Under the Stars.
Then her dentist introduced her to Lester Cole, of a singing group called Lester Cole and the Debutantes. A few months later when Mrs. Cole (one of the Debutantes) got pneumonia Cole called on Lynne to help him fill a
Vancouver supper-club date. She sang with the group for three weeks and after that her stenographer’s job in an anchor-chain manufacturing plant had little appeal.
Months later when Cole wired her from San Francisco she threw up her job at once. He had arranged for her to be lead soprano with a quintet in the Ice Capades. The singers stood on the platform with the orchestra and accompanied some of the production numbers. Lynne noticed she was putting on weight, so she worked out with the skaters in the afternoons when there wasn’t a matinee.
She had other troubles as well. A Hawaiian named Eddie was also a soprano and sang in the same key as Lynne did. In Pittsburgh the Ice Capades fired all the singers but Eddie. “He could also play the steel guitar,” she recalls. She was then eighteen and she hated to go home. She dallied on the way in Seattle, working in a shipyard and spending most of her working day singing at shipyard bond rallies. She finally went home, became engaged and broke it, tried three different jobs, ultimately won a Vancouver talent contest with a broken foot in a cast.
“That’s where I learned about contests,” she says. “The prize was a trip to Hollywood, a screen test and some bookings in California night clubs. When I won, the promoters explained the contest had fallen through and had me sign something that made it all right for them to give me tw'o hundred and fifty dollars instead. I signed. I was stupid.”
After this Lynne remembers leaving for Toronto in 1947 to make good, and coming close to starving. She had a few bookings, starting with the King Ed ward Hotel and getting steadily worse, and she was obliged to get a job as a stenographer to pay for her singing lessons at the Royal Conservatory of Music. After two years someone suggested she
enter the Miss Canada contest and try to win a scholarship to help her with the expense of her lessons.
Crossing the Avenue of the Americas, Lynne stares through a young man in a Cadillac who hollered “Oh honey doll!” at her and reflects that she has never considered herself a beauty. The night she stood on the platform in Maple Leaf Gardens with five other finalists and heard their names called was the biggest thrill of her life.
“They start with the girl who's sixth, and then they call out the girl who’s fifth and so on. When there were just two of us left and the other girl’s Dame was called for second place I just Btood there in a blank before I realized that I was Miss Canada.”
Her mother couldn’t get through the reporters and photographers around her. She was given a thousand-dollar diamond ring, hosiery and lingerie to last for years, a complete summer wardrobe, some bathing suits, the use of a private plane and three thousand dollars in scholarships. She was in demand to sing at conventions and supper clubs, at about twenty-five dollars an appearance, and once got four hundred and fifty dollars for being the guest of honor at a banquet in North Sydney, N.S. She presided at a field day at the RCAF station at Trenton, Ont., was received on the steps of the City Hall in New York City, opened a radio station in Oshawa, and took part in a Red Feather campaign and the opening ceremonies of the International Trade Fair in Toronto.
Hurrying down the street to the Copa she decides the best by-product of being Miss Canada was entering the Miss America contest at Atlantic City. That had been a really strictly run contest: Every girl had to tell reporters she didn’t smoke or drink and at breakfast they all pretended to prefer milk to coffee; no conversations with men were permitted, even on the telephone, and a chaperone was with every girl constantly; no falsies were allowed either and a woman had been hired to peek to make sure.
Lynne was an early favorite to win the contest but even when the photographers took her to the beach to take special pictures that could be used after 6he won, and even after the Philadelphia Inquirer, with a record for infallibility in such matters, selected her to win and put her picture on the front page, she was not greatly encouraged. She was twenty-four and had been disappointed often enough to hedge her hopes cautiously.
She didn’t win the contest but she won a talent award, narrowly edging out Miss Montana who exhibited a horse on-stage. Lynne sang an aria from La Traviata before thirty-five thousand people and was so frightened she couldn’t remember singing it at all. She had also planned to play Chopin’s Minute Waltz but she dropped it at the last moment and was almost hysterically glad she did. While the judges were making their decision a five-yearold toddled to the concert grand and played Chopin’s Minute Waltz.
Lynne was close to being a nervous wreck by the time the contest ended She had gone down from the one hundred and_twenty-four pounds she weighed as Miss Canada to one hundred and nine pounds and she was so thin she was astounded to be among the fifteen semifinalists in the Miss America and not at all surprised to be absent from the five finalists.
Going down the steps into the Copacabana again Lynne observes several cabs of girls in pastel gossamer and youths with shining faces have drawn up beside the marquee and as she enters the dressing room she announces to the girls, “The prom crowd has
just arrived.” The girls all groan.
Lynne undresses again, freshens her make-up and waits for the warning buzzer. The girls aren’t allowed to sit down in their costumes for fear of wrinkling them, so they don’t dress until the last moment. Five minutes later the dressing room is empty again except for Mirium and the bam dance on the television set. When the girls pour in again they are shrilly excited.
“What dolls! They’re really living tonight, watching big bad chorus girls.” “If my mother saw the way they’re looking at me she’d slap their faces!” “I’m giving one of them a thrill he’ll never forget. Didja see me wink?” “Bunch of tourists!”
“I’ve got news. I’m not gonna even smile at them. Just trash. They never look at our feet at all.”
“Do you know there isn’t one of those little innocents out there who
isn’t older than we are?”
Lynne winces at that. A few Copa girls, like herself, are older and absentminded about their age but the majority are only eighteen and nineteen.
After the second show, around one in the morning, Lynne has her second meal of the day—a sandwich at the bar of the Blue Room. Tonight she runs into the deskman of the Fourteen Hotel which adjoins the Copa and is used by the headliners as a dressing room. She gets talking to him about her trip to
“I got invited to come down for a month, all expenses paid, right after I was Miss Canada,” she begins, “and that included a chaperone. The plane fare alone was fifteen hundred dollars. All the way down the pilots would let me come up front and watch them fly. The Peruvian Embassy in Ottawa gave a reception for me and so did the consul-general in New York. I got so I could stand in a receiving line like I was a grand duchess.
“Lima was having an October Fair, something like our Canadian National Exhibition, and they decided a beauty contest would pep it up. Only two other girls went from North America, Miss Washington and Miss Miami. We all stayed in a gorgeous apartment in a private home, with servants to wait on us hand and foot. We had marvelous escorts provided; mine was a part-time bullfighter We discovered right away that the South American girls entered were all daughters of multimillionaires and that our hosts supposed that we were too. We never let on we worked for a living. The beauty queen of Peru was worth fourteen million and hadn’t yet received her full inheritance. She once gave a
party at her castle for seven hundred
"The beauty contest was over in fifteen minutes. It was held in private and the judges were all diplomats. I figured that since they weren't professionals the sweet, demure, ladylike approach would go over better than T^na Turner. The two other American girls modeled for them, forward and backward and turn, with stony faces. I just stood there, smiling shyly. They crowned me La Reina de Belleza de Norte America. The two Americans
never spoke to me again.” The room clerk laughs.
Around two in the morning Lynne bolts down the last of her sandwich, avoiding the crusts and flings a "See you later” at the bartender. The girls in the dressing room are tired from the heat. One girl is trying to coax another to go to the beach with her after the last show. They'll get there around dawn and sleep on their towels all morning. ”1 can't,” the other girl pouts. “My mother is here tonight and she'll want me to go home to sleep.”
The last show is over about threethirty and the girls perk up again, wipe off their make-up with grease paint and replace it with lipstick on their suddenly pale faces. Lynne goes back to the Blue Room again.
A minute later Doug Cowdy settles beside her and they sip their drinks in companionable silence. It is almost four and the street outside the bar is still as busy as some Canadian cities at noon. Taxi drivers are leaning on their horns, some people pause in the doorway laughing voluptuously and
two sailors stroll past talking seriously. Lynne watches and wonders at the magic of New York that can produce so much bustle in the hour before dawn.
She left Toronto because she was twenty-seven and her opportunities were slipping by. The modeling jobs she found didn’t compensate for the dwindling singing dates; she realized one morning that it was too late for her ever to train her voice for the Metropolitan Opera, her lifetime ambition. She had come to New York to try and make a success while she could.
First she had her hair dyed a bright yellow, which her friends agreed improved her appearance, and she has never stopped worrying what people in Toronto would think of it. She went to Powers and started doing some modeling, turned up at a Sportsmen’s Show held in the New Yorker Hotel to help Mike Tum esa demonstrate golf clubs. Bradshaw Crandall used her in the composite pictures he drew for Coca-Cola and Gillette. He liked her eyes, her coloring, her hair and her arms. Then, just as she was ready to start auditioning for a singing role, she came down with a cold that dragged on for two months. In despair she took a job as cigarette girl in the Copacabana.
There she received only thirty dollars a week and was advised to tum in all her tips. “They expected us to clip a certain percentage, however,” she once assured a horrified friend. “Seme nights when the tips weren’t so good I’d only take two or three dollars and other nights I could clip maybe five or
Then she got a break. .Timmy Durante came to the Copa as the headliner and included her in his act. “Hey! There’s Lynne, the cigarette girl!” he would rasp. “Come here honey . .. aw. come on. This may be your big chance.” Lynne would approach gingerly and Durante would cover her with kisses, muttering aside to the audience, “Durante the woodpecker.”
When Durante left he gave Lynne a cheque for one hundred dollars and shortly afterward she was offered a chance to be a Copia girl. After three weeks of rehearsing she was ready to lead the line.
Sitting at the bar she and Doug begin to talk in low voices about the television show. Twice last week the deal had been off and both had covered their disappointment gallantly, but now that rehearsals have started it is safe. Possibly it will lead to big choreography jobs for him. maybe some producer will wonder about the tall blonde in the back row—you never know who may be watching. Outside, the street is quietly turning grey with the dawn: the bar has locked its door and a Filipino is swabbing the floor around the bar stools with a rag mop. Reluctantly the Copa gang slips away as the streetwashing trucks lumber past leaving empty cigarette packages awash in the gutters.
Lynne walks a block to Fifth Avenue where she has a better chance of catching a cab. Riding through Central Park a few minutes later with the sunrise a yellow haze in the trees, she reviews what Doug has said about her chances in television. Next month she can make the rounds of the Broadway producers: maybe there would be a part for her. possibly she could understudy the lead and then there was always the chance that the lead would develop laryngitis . . .
Maybe she should spend more time figure skating. There are plenty of people who do tricks on ice, but there hasn’t yet been a singer on skates. Television would be the right medium for an act like that. You never know, you just never know ... ir