Not to be boastful, but the world has New Jersey Monthly to thank for The Night She Won Miss America (HMH Books), the new page-turner by Michael Callahan.
As NJM’s senior editor in the early 1990s, Callahan wrote a story for the June 1994 issue headlined, “Why Miss New Jersey Never Wins.”
“Anybody I told the story to was fascinated,” says Callahan, now 53 and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
The main character in the NJM story was Bette Cooper, the first of only two New Jersey contestants to win Miss America. Cooper, who grew up in Hackettstown, won in 1937. But before she had a chance to start gallivanting in her crown, she disappeared. Ultimately, she abdicated and spent the next half-century dodging questions from reporters—including Callahan.
Cooper—now 96 and living in Connecticut—never replied to Callahan’s letters. In 2015, still struck by her story, Callahan turned to his imagination and his beach house in Ocean City. There, he crafted The Night She Won Miss America, his second book. (The first, Searching for Grace Kelly, came out in 2015.) In the new novel, Cooper becomes Betty Jane Welch—Miss Delaware. Her disappearance is tucked into a messy love affair.
In his acknowledgements, Callahan thanks the researchers at the Atlantic City Historical Museum and the Atlantic City Free Public Library for helping him sculpt a sense of time and place. “I wanted the details to be as authentic as possible,” he says. “The judges I named are the real judges from the pageant, and the final question is the real final question.”
Callahan also thanks his real NJM editor at the time, Jenny DeMonte, “for letting me write the story that planted the seeds.”