With her mother working two jobs and her father tending to the home, Leona Gage was on her own. At 13, Leona met 24-year old US Air Force airman Gene Ennis. The two were married and Leona gave birth to their first child at 14. Ennis shipped out for duty and never responded to Leona’s frequent letters. At the insistence of a friend, Leona married another airman, but Leona’s mother had the marriage annulled soon after.
Gene Ennis returned to Leona and the couple moved to suburban Baltimore from their native Longview, Texas. Leona gave birth to their second child, despite the marriage falling apart. Now, 16 years old, Leona was introduced to the world of modeling by a co-worker at the dress shop that employed her. The Walters Modeling Agency groomed and prepared Leona for entry into the Miss Maryland USA pageant — which she won. She told the head of the modeling agency that she was married and could not go to the Miss USA pageant. She claimed one of the pageant officials told her to lie to the public. Pageant officials, however, deny her claims.
In 1957, Leona Gage entered and won the Miss USA pageant, the first representative from Maryland to do so. Rumors surfaced regarding Leona’s age, marital status and the fact that she had children. A quick investigation was launched and, after questioning, lying and finally confessing, Leona was stripped of her title.
Her (infamous) notoriety brought on numerous television offers, including an appearance on the popular Ed Sullivan Show. She became sort of a novelty, but also received a fair share of hate mail.
After the scandal, Leona and her sons moved to Las Vegas, where she divorced Ennis and found work as a showgirl at the Tropicana. She married a fellow dancer, but divorced after she was brought up on charges of child abuse. She moved to Los Angeles where she met and married aspiring screenwriter, Gunther Collatz. She landed a small role in Roger Corman’s film Tales of Terror. She followed that with a few more small film roles. She divorced Collatz. She experimented with LSD and was romantically linked with John Drew Barrymore (actress Drew’s father) and Mickey Hargitay (ex-husband of actress Jayne Mansfield and father of actress Mariska). In 1965, 26-year-old Leona overdosed on barbiturates in a suicide attempt. She recovered and spent three weeks in Camarillo State Mental Hospital.
After her release from the hospital, she published a ghost-written book called My Name Is Leona Gage, Will Somebody Please Help Me? She released another film that bombed at the box office. She became a hairdresser, while singing in burlesque clubs on the side. She married for the fifth and sixth times and gave birth to another son, although she eventually lost custody of all of her children. In the 70s, she mounted an unsuccessful comeback, trying to break into commercials.
After six failed marriages, losing custody of her children (two of whom predeceased her), disqualification from a beauty pageant, a suicide attempt and a show business career that never took off, Leona passed away in 2010 at the age of 71.