Margaret G. Cahill, 90, Is Dead; Was First Miss America, in 1921
By ROBERT McG. THOMAS Jr. Published: October 5, 1995
Photos: Margaret G. Cahill, as a contestant in the first Miss Americacontest, in 1921
(Associated Press, 1921),
You may not know this, but the First Miss America was a born and raised Washingtonian.
The beauty pageant might be seen as completely irrelevant and anachronistic today, but
there was a time when it was a really big deal. And, our own Margaret Gorman held the
inaugural title of Miss America.
Margaret was the young, 16-year-old daughter of Michael J. Gorman, the executive clerk
to the Secretary of Agriculture. The family lived in a rented home at 3015 Cambridge
Place (Trulia real estate listing) in Georgetown, close to Montrose Park. She was the
second oldest child, with an older brother John, and a younger sister Elizabeth and
In 1921, Margaret was a rising junior at Western High School (now the Duke Ellington
School of Arts) when her photo was entered into a Washington Herald city popularity
She was chosen as one of six finalists and ultimately won the prize to become the first
Miss Washington, D.C., the prize for which was a trip to Atlantic City as an honored guest
of the Second Annual Atlantic City Pageant.
Margaret came away as the crowd favorite, winning the title of “Inter-City Beauty” and
“The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America,” both horribly awkward pageant titles.
Her victory was big news back in Washington, making all the newspapers. One amusing
story that of a telegram she received from one of her high school friends back in
D.C. It read: “Congratulations. Don’t get stuck up.” To make it even better … the telegram
was sent collect, with the delivery boy asking for 35 cents upon receipt.
She returned to Western High School that fall to continue her studies, returning to Atlantic
City the following year to defend her titles. Unfortunately, the Washington Herald had
awarded another young woman with the Miss Washington, D.C. award for 1922. Pageant
officials in Atlantic City decided to merge her two previous awkward titles into the more
succinct “Miss America.” The first Miss America winner was born (a year after she
actually won it).
Margaret Gorman Cahill, who became the first Miss America in 1921 and spent the
better part of the next seven decades trying to live down the bathing beauty image, died
on Sunday at a nursing home in Bowie, Md. She was 90 and had lived her entire life in
Unlike latter-day Miss Americas, who can assert that it was really their talent or their
poise that made the difference, Mrs. Cahill could make no such claim. In September
1921, when she beat out seven other contestants, including a New York showgirl, the
pageant was an unabashed beauty contest. Lest there be any misunderstanding, the
organizers billed it both as the Inter-City Beauty Contest and the Atlantic City Bathing
Beauty Contest and conducted it on the beach.
To be sure, the swimsuits of the era were demure by modern standards, none more so
than Mrs. Cahill's. While some of her rivals violated a local modesty ordinance by
appearing barelegged on the beach, she wore dark, knee-high stockings and a chiffon
bathing costume with a tiered skirt that came almost to her knees.
A petite, blue-eyed beauty whose long blond ringlets made her a Mary Pickford look-
alike, Mrs. Cahill was not only the first Miss America, but also set two pageant records
that still stand.
At 5 feet 1 inch and 108 pounds, she remains the smallest Miss America, and with a 30-
25-32 figure that was close to the flapper era ideal, the slimmest.
But Mrs. Cahill had a certain advantage. When she won in 1921, she was only 16 years
old, and by some accounts, only 15. When she defended her title in 1922, a year older
and more mature, she lost to Miss Ohio, Mary Campbell, who beat her again the next
year to become the only two-time winner.
Whatever her age was at the time -- Mrs. Cahill would never discuss the matter -- when
reporters from The Washington Herald came to her Georgetown home in the summer of
1921 to notify Margee Gorman that on the basis of a photograph submitted by her
parents she had been selected to represent the newspaper in the Atlantic City contest,
they found her in a nearby park shooting marbles in the dirt.
(Mrs. Cahill later took great pains to correct what she saw as the implications of the
activity. "I was not a tomboy," she said. "I loved all the boys.")
In later years, as the contest grew into a major annual event, Mrs. Cahill, who in 1925
married Vincent Cahill, a real estate broker, sought to distance herself from her role in the
pageant, especially the beauty queen label. "My husband hated it," she said. "I did, too."
Even so, three years after her husband's death, she was persuaded to attend the 1960
contest, but she later called the organizers cheap for not reimbursing her for $1,500 in
She is survived by a brother, William L. Gorman of Fort Myers, Fla.