Basque Fact of the Week: The “Basque Spitfire” Yolande Betbeze, Miss America 1951

Sometimes during my foraging of the Internet for interesting stories about Basque culture, I come across a cool tidbit like this week’s fact about Yolande Betbeze. Almost all references to her note her Basque ancestry. However, this is a case where I can’t really confirm her Basque heritage – it seems that her first immigrant ancestor came from nearby, but not necessarily from, the Basque Country. Regardless, given how ubiquitous the references to her Basque background are, I’m moving forward with writing about her.

Portrait of Miss America contestant Yolande Betbeze surrounded by her music, taken by Dick DeMarsico and found on Alabama News Center.
  • Yolande Margaret Betbeze was born on November 28, 1928, in Mobile, Alabama. Her parents, William and Ethel (nee Meyer) Betbeze, owned slaughterhouses – William was known as “Alabama’s Barbecue King.” William’s family is often noted as being of Basque descent, from Iparralde. Yolande often referred to her Basque ancestry – hence the nickname the “Basque spitfire.” It seems that it was her great-great grandfather, Jean Betbeze, that immigrated to the United States. Jean was from Chelle-Debat, Hautes-Pyrénées. Certainly close to the Basque Country, but I can’t tell if he was actually Basque…
  • Betbeze grew up in a strict Catholic household and attended a convent school before attending Spring Hill College in Mobile. She became an accomplished soprano and, as one way to get scholarship monies to continue her musical education, she entered her first beauty pageant, winning “Miss Torch” in 1949. She then entered the Miss Alabama contest as, in her own words, “one way to escape the South.” She was crowned Miss Alabama in 1950 and represented the state in the 1951 Miss America contest.
  • Betbeze wasn’t the standard Miss America contestant for the time. Most of the women were blond and fair-skinned – her darker complexion and hair stood out. Once, she found “hairy sits here” scrawled on her dressing mirror. However, her striking beauty and her amazing performance of the “Caro nome” aria from Verdi’s “Rigoletto” led her to be crowned Miss America 1951.
  • Her rebellious spirit immediately came through. One of the Miss America sponsors, Catalina bathing suits, pulled out as a sponsor of the competition when Betbeze refused to sign a contract demanding she parade around in a swimsuit – “I’m a singer, not a pin-up” she told them. Catalina went on to create the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants as a result of Betbeze’s actions. Betbeze ushered in a new era of the Miss America pageant, in which scholarship, talent, and intellect were valued as much, if not more, than pure beauty.
  • Betbeze’s activism didn’t stop there, as she participated in the NAACP, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and SANE (The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy). She protested the executions of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. She became a fund raiser for the Democratic Party and at one time considered running for office herself. She also became an opera singer and co-founded an off-Broadway theater.
  • In 1954, she married movie mogul Matthew Fox, who died 10 years later. They had lived in New York where Betbeze studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research. Betbeze never married again, but she had a long relationship with Cherif Guellal, an Algerian businessman and diplomat who helped Algeria gain independence and served as an ambassador for Algeria.
  • Betbeze died on February 22, 2016, in Washington DC, where she had moved after Fox’s death, living in a house previously owned by Jacqueline Kennedy.

Primary sources: Yolande Fox, Wikipedia; Yolande Betbeze Fox, 87, a Miss America who rebelled, Boston Globe; On this day in Alabama history: Yolande Betbeze Fox was born, Alabama News Center; Yolande Betbeze, Encyclopedia of Alabama; Yolande Betbeze, el «volcán vasco» nacido en Alabama, 7k

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