Fay Lanphier: Miss America in the Movies

We’re days away from the next Miss America pageant and today happens to be the birthday of one of the holders of that title (probably one of the few we’ll write about), Fay Lanphier (sometimes rendered “Lamphier”, 1905-1959). Unlike most, she rates attention today because she briefly used her title as a springboard to film and theatre.

A native of El Dorado, California, Lanphier was voted both Miss Santa Cruz and Miss California in 1924, the same year she graduated from Oakland High School. She worked as a model and a secretary when she wasn’t competing in pageants. In 1925, she won Miss California a second time, as well as Miss America, as well as the title of Rose Queen at the annual Tournament of Roses. She was the first Miss California to win Miss America, and the only Miss America to ever be Rose Queen during the same year. Her stint as Miss America took her on a lucrative public appearance tour, where she got to meet Rudolph Valentino, Mae Murray, and Will Rogers, and to ride on President Coolidge’s private railway car. She was honored with a ticker tape parade down Fifth Avenue.

In 1926 Lanphier had a co-starring role in the film The American Venus, alongside Esther Ralston, Louise Brooks, Ford Sterling, Edna May Oliver, Ernest Torrence, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. She played a version of herself, a beauty contest winner. As part of the film’s pre-publicity, an “American Venus” pageant had been held prior to the Miss America competition, and Lanphier had won that as well, prompting some grumblings that the whole thing had been fixed. Be that as it may, the film didn’t do that well, nor did Lanphier, prompting the studio, Paramount, to release her from her contract. This wasn’t her only movie, however, as is sometimes claimed. She also had a supporting part in the 1928 Laurel and Hardy comedy Flying Elephants, as a “blonde cavewoman”. At around this time, she also acted with Henry Duffy’s San Francisco stock company, around the time he opened his famous Dufwin Theatre. But one gets the sense from the brevity of these experiments that, her impressive pulchritude notwithstanding, Lanphier wasn’t really an actress.

In late 1928 Lanphier married Sidney Spiegel, son of the founder of Spiegel Catalogs, and father of Sidney Spiegel Jr, who co-founded the Essaness Theatre chain. The marriage was over by early 1929. The Spiegels were very much based in Chicago; Lanphier seems to have been very much attached to California. I don’t know if that was the crux of the strife, but possibly it played a role, for shortly thereafter (1930) she married her high school sweetheart, settled down and started a family in her hometown. Occasionally, as a former Miss America there would be additional attention in magazines, but other than that, she went on to live a quiet, normal life, far away from the limelight

To learn more about show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.