The history of Greeks in the United States has never been a topic restricted solely to the actions of men. Without question during the prime migration years of 1880 to 1920 more Greek men arrived in North America than women. Yet at the same time it is also true that American notions of things and persons Greek have never been solely focused exclusively on just the men. Even a passing glance at the activities and histories of Greek women in North America confirms this fact. Just because Greek-American writers or scholars do not systematically examine the role of Greek-American women and their impact on the broader culture does not mean such influences never occurred.
As a case in point we need only review the experiences and actions of Cleo Maletis during her time as Mrs. America for 1957. The 1950s was an era when American motherhood experienced something of a redefinition. Remember the 1950s is now recalled as something of a Golden Age. Popular culture forums such as the then new and expanding electronic medium known as television began to reshape American notions. In terms of mothers, it is common knowledge that week after week television mothers such as Jane Wyatt, Donna Reed, Harriet Nelson and Barbara Billingsley all served (intentional or not) as examples of how modern American mothers should behave. As we look back in time and the society, then in motion, we can see how the actions and thoughts of Cleo Maletis, the Mrs. American pageant titleholder for 1957 also had its impact on the broader society. It is a tale that needs some attention to details.
On March 11, 1925, Cleo Nicki was born to Greek immigrants Tom and Pagoula “Peggy” Michas in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada and subsequently raised in Vancouver, British Columbia. She always credited her life achievements to the determination inherited from her immigrant parents.
In 1946, she graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor’s degree in home economics. Approximately one year later, on June 28, 1947, she married former classmate Chris C. Maletis, Jr. in Vancouver.
After becoming an American citizen Cleo Maletis moved with her husband to his hometown of Portland, OR. In time the Maletis couple became the parents of four boys: Chris Maletis III (born 1948); Tom (b 1951); Ed (1954) and Rob (1957).
Reports exist that Cleo Maletis did not, herself, apply to be a Mrs. America contestant but that her friends submitted her name. The Mrs. America pageant was unquestionably a creation of its time whose popularity and influence was fueled by the then wide-ranging advent of television. The Mrs. America pageant was created by public relations executive Bert Nevins in 1936 as a promotion for his New Jersey-based client, Palisades Amusement Park. As Mark Dunn, notes in his book Quizzing America: Television Game Shows and Popular Culture in the 1950s, the Mrs. American pageant: was deliberately emulative of the Miss America pageant, its participants judged on attractiveness, poise and personality. But, unlike its companion pageant, contestants were also graded on family psychology, and such homemaking skills as cooking, sewing, ironing and party planning.” When Nevins sold the pageant in 1963, it was the only nationally televised beauty pageant for married women.
The Mrs. America participants were graded on cooking, sewing, ironing, party preparation and other home making abilities, family psychology, grooming, poise, personality, and general attractiveness. After a week of homemaking events at Elliner Village Fla near Daytona Beach on May 12, 1956, Maletis was selected by the judges to be the 19th Mrs. America for 1957. Maletis, who had won the crown over 49 other contestants was also the first Mrs. Oregon to win the Mrs. America contest.
As with any televised contest of the 1950s, Maletis won a wide array of prizes. Among them was a brand new $15,000 gas kitchen for her new Portland suburban home. As part of her contract as Mrs. America, Cleo toured as something of a Good Will Ambassador to various cities in the United States and Europe. Available documentation is unclear but a wide array of remaining photographs and news reports attest to the fact that Maletis never traveled alone but was accompanied on all these trips by not only her husband but often also her parents.
As Maletis traveled to various American cities, she was a prime time topic for the local television stations in Daytona Beach, Portland, Dallas, New York City and elsewhere. Maletis also took part in a six-week European tour (with her husband) traveling to such cities as London, Paris, Brussels, Copenhagen and other elsewhere. Historic photographs from this time period chart something of her journey as Mrs. America. Examples of these movements would be her November 11, 1956 participation at the reception held at the Savoy Hotel in London. Maletis always asserted it was her cooking that won the Mrs. America title for her and as proof of this claim she served samples of her cooking and baking skills at this gathering.
Maletis was no starry-eyed pushover. According to a report by Senator Richard L. Neuberger (1912-1960) of Oregon in the June 28, 1956 Congressional Record, “when New York photographers asked Maletis, this year’s Mrs. America, to strike a cheesecake pose, she snapped back, “I don’t pose for it, but I make it.” Truer words were never spoken. In fact, they best sum up this sweet brown-eyed brunette contest winner, who is first and foremost a homemaker for a wonderful husband and their three sons.”
On November 15, 1956 she visited a day-care center in Copenhagen. Once there, Maletis lauded the Dutch on having such a child-care center which allowed both parents to work. While scheduled to continue on to the Soviet Union, Cold War events of the day prevented her from representing the Mrs. America pageant in Moscow. In 1958 Maletis passed her crown on to Linwood Findley.
After her tenure as Mrs. America she returned home and not only raised her family but also in time took part in her husband’s business. Since 2002, Cleo Maletis suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and on November 9, 2009, in Portland, she passed away surrounded by her family. Over the years following her time as Mrs. America, Cleo Maletis was fond of saying that her proudest achievement in life was in raising her four sons and 10 grandchildren all within the same city. But there is far more to Cleo Maletis’ story.
Social scientists have long recognized that events such as beauty pageants, far from merely frivolous affairs, can in fact be studied to discover the inherent and underlying beliefs and values of the times as well as the society in which they take place. How Greek-American women, who have participated in beauty pageants all across America since, at least the 1920s, have influenced this kind of event has yet to see systematic study. For those who would like to see more of Cleo Maletis’ personal journey at least two YouTube videos show something of her life through home movies beginning in the 1950s. Clearly, there is a great deal of research on Greek-American women, past and present, that needs to be undertaken.