Tube City Almanac

October 19, 2008

Famous Sculptor Caused Local Scandal

Category: History || By

State officials last week unveiled a historical marker honoring the late Frank Vittor, a sculptor famed for his bronze statues of Calvin Coolidge, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

Vittor also designed a 1938 half-dollar commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. An article by one of my old bosses, Craig Smith, in the Tribune-Review notes that Vittor "did more than 50 memorials and fountains throughout the Pittsburgh area, including many that have become landmarks."

But as with every other story, there's a McKeesport connection to this one, too --- and it's a semi-scandalous one.

In 1935, Vittor crafted a controversial statue that depicted city resident Henrietta Leaver --- better known as Miss America 1935 --- in the nude.

It's not Vittor's only Mon Valley connection. He designed the bas reliefs on the George Westinghouse Bridge in North Versailles and the larger-than-life bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson that stands near the entrance of Jefferson Memorial Park in Pleasant Hills.

But the Leaver statue created the most controversy of anything in Vittor's career. It left Depression-era newspapers shocked, and Vittor was threatened with legal action.

. . .

Henrietta Leaver was a native of Monongahela, born March 28, 1916, to George and Celia Applegate. She never knew her father, who left before "Hen" turned one year old.

Celia Applegate then married George Leaver, a foundry worker, who adopted infant Henrietta. The Leavers moved from place to place as George looked for work --- to Charleroi, Washington, all the way to Cleveland, and back to Mon City, where they divorced.

When Henrietta was 15, she moved to McKeesport along with a baby sister, her mother and her grandmother, Hettie Ebert. In McKeesport, Ebert and Celia Leaver secured an apartment in the back of a building at 416 Ringold St. in exchange for cleaning the offices and a beauty parlor.

Henrietta entered McKeesport High School, but dropped out at age 16 and got a job behind the cosmetics counter of G.C. Murphy Co.'s five-and-10 at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Sheridan Street. There she worked, on and off, for the next two years.

. . .

In the summer of 1935, Henrietta's friends encouraged the 5-foot-9, blue-eyed brunette to enter the "Miss McKeesport" pageant being held at the Liberty Theater on Fifth Avenue. Cox's sponsored her and donated a dress.

To Henrietta's surprise, she won the Aug. 1 pageant (defeating 12 other contestants) and was automatically entered in the "Miss Greater Pittsburgh" pageant, held one week later at the Skyvue Supper Club on Lebanon Church Road near Bettis Airport.

Among the five judges of the "Greater Pittsburgh" pageant was Frank Vittor. Leaver won that pageant, too, which meant that she was automatically entered in the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City.

. . .

There was one tiny problem --- Henrietta Leaver wasn't a "miss" any more. In May she had traveled with 24-year-old John Mustacchio to Wellsburg, W.Va., where they were secretly married.

Leaver met Mustacchio, whose parents owned a tavern on Locust Street, during a picnic at Olympia Park.

The marriage would have disqualified her to serve as Miss America (and for a job at the G.C. Murphy Co.), so John Mustacchio drove back to Wellsburg and bribed a records clerk to alter the names on their marriage license.

By the time the happy couple confessed their deceit, Leaver had been Miss America for nearly a year.

. . .

The months following Leaver's Sept. 3 crowning as Miss America were a whirlwind of activity. Twentieth Century-Fox wanted Leaver to come to Hollywood for a screen test. A group of department store executives named her "Miss Model America."

And Vittor, calling her a paragon of American beauty, asked her to pose for a sculpture. Leaver wore a bathing suit during both of her modeling sessions, but when Vittor unveiled the statue, she was stunned to see that he had depicted her in the nude.

Worried that the Miss America Pageant would strip Leaver of her crown for moral turpitude, her manager, George Tyson, threatened a lawsuit. Henrietta "is an old-fashioned girl," he said, and very modest.

The story caused a national sensation, though a few newspapers suspected Tyson was just trying to keep Leaver's career alive. ("Sounds like press agent hooey to us," sniffed the Uniontown Daily News Standard.)

"Go ahead and sue," said Vittor, who commissioned a jury of local artists to examine the sculpture and decide whether it was "licentious."

. . .

The art experts included Henry Hornbostel, head of the architecture department at Carnegie Institute of Technology; Raymond Simboli and Joseph Bailey Ellis, art professors at Carnegie Tech; painters Pio Pizzi and Vincent Nesbert; sculptor Sue Marshall Brown; and art critic J.B. Davis.

Along with Leaver, Tyson, and several newspaper reporters, the jurors gathered in Vittor's studio on Nov. 1 to view the statue. What the Daily News described as a "long and voluble discussion" followed.

Tyson's suggestion that the statue be draped to cover Leaver's breasts and hips was greeted with "hoots of derision," the newspaper reported.

"If you are not proud of your body, you might as well close up shop," Hornbostel told Leaver.

"If she is so modest, why did she enter the contest in the first place?" Nesbert asked. The jury ultimately pronounced the statue tasteful. A group of Carnegie Tech art students invited to examine the sculpture agreed.

. . .

Leaver promised to "poll her friends" to decide whether to pursue her lawsuit, but nothing ever came of it.

Nothing came of Leaver's screen tests in Hollywood, either. She reportedly made one small appearance in a Dick Powell film called "Stage Struck," and tried out for a role in a Shirley Temple film, but was rejected.

In August 1936, a month after finally confessing to their secret marriage, the Mustacchios told the McKeesport Daily News that Henrietta was "awaiting the visit of the stork" and retiring from show business.

"Hen had a chance to go to an acting school and continue her career if she wanted to do that," John Mustacchio said, "but she figured that I had given up enough for her while she was Miss America, and that she ought to give up something for me."

He admitted that concealing the marriage had been "a mistake," but said the couple was scared.

"The Miss America business and the hope for a stage career are all over now," Celia Leaver said. "'Hen' is now Mrs. John Mustacchio, and that's all there is to it."

. . .

Leaver eventually had two daughters, divorced Mustacchio, and remarried. She settled in Columbus, Ohio, where she became a clothing buyer for Montaldo's, a chain of clothing stores. Leaver died of cancer on Sept. 18, 1993, age 77.

Besides the Gettysburg coin, Vittor went onto create the statue of Honus Wagner that stood outside Forbes Field and the Christopher Columbus monument in Schenley Park. He died in 1968.

But what became of the Henrietta Leaver statue? No one seems to know. If it's on display somewhere, its owner isn't advertising the fact.

So even if Henrietta Leaver wasn't successful getting the statue draped or destroyed, its current obscurity apparently means she's gotten the last laugh after all.

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