In May of 1921, Mary Simmonds (1896-1976) was named “The Prettiest Girl in Chicago” in a contest sponsored by The Chicago Daily Tribune, featuring entrants from across the Midwest. Her win earned her a $1000 prize and placed her in finals competition for a $10,000 grand prize. Her portrait, along with those of five other beauties, was prominently displayed in the pages of the Tribune during the suspense-filled days leading up to the crowning of the grand prize-winner. Ultimately, Mary lost the competition to Miss Flora Mae Hackett, 19, of Indiana.
But, as I wrote earlier on this blog, it was Mary’s photo, not Flora’s, that interested me. I thought I recognized her as a model in photos by Beatrice Tonnesen, including, most notably, several in which Mary, though of English/Irish extraction, had portrayed beautiful Native American women in forest settings. I first tentatively identified her in 2010. But it took me until just recently to trace her through Ancestry.com and assorted public records, assemble a list of probable descendants, and contact them.
Mary and her husband, James J. O’Grady (1894- 1985) became the parents of eight sons, three of whom survive. Over the past few weeks, I’ve talked with their son, Donald, his wife, Agnes, and granddaughters Ann Ventura and Mary Grenning, all of suburban Chicago. They’ve been kind enough to exchange photos with me and to fill me in on Mary’s remarkable life, following her days as a beauty queen and model.
As far as is known, none of Mary’s children knew she had modeled. They knew only that she had won a beauty contest in Chicago and they had seen some of the news accounts and photos. They also knew she was a talented painter and pianist, who gave up her dreams of a career in the arts to marry “her handsome Irishman” and raise a family. Throughout their childhoods, Mary channeled her talents into civic and church organizations in their Rogers Park neighborhood, serving as musical director or providing piano accompaniment for holiday programs, and organizing field trips to special exhibits at Chicago’s art institute.
As Donald O’Grady tells it, in 1921, the title “Beauty Queen” was seen as a ticket to Hollywood – others from Chicago had used it to launch silent film careers – and Mary was being urged, perhaps invited, to do the same. This nearly caused James O’Grady, who was courting Mary at the time, to despair of ever winning her hand in marriage. In fact, it had been James who had submitted Mary’s photo to the Tribune! But after all of the acclaim, publicity and offers that came Mary’s way, James suddenly stopped turning up at Mary’s house for his usual Sunday afternoon visits. When Mary, who thought he had lost interest, asked him where he had been, he replied that she was so famous now, he was sure he, then an assistant manager at an insurance company, could no longer hope to win her. Whatever Mary said in response must have restored James’ confidence. They were married November 9, 1921, less than six months after Mary had been named “The Prettiest Girl in Chicago”…and they lived happily ever after!
The accompanying slide show contains an image of “Whispering Waters,” signed Beatrice Tonnesen, believed to feature Mary as the Indian maiden; two 1923 monthly advertising calendars featuring photos of Mary (photographer/s not identified); a 1934 photo of Mary and her eight sons; a 1938 photo of James O’Grady, by then an insurance agent/underwriter, taken from a news account of his civic activities; a photo of sons Donald and Patrick taken last month. Roll over the images for captions containing further information about them. See previously posted photos and stories about Mary by entering “Simmonds” in the “search” box in the right hand column of this page.
© 2014 Lois Emerson