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Pretty as a picture
By ROY PETER CLARK, Special to the Times
© St. Petersburg Times,
She is eternal youth, radiant icon of the home front, resting on a tropical beach, framed by a spray of sea oats and a summery sky. A warm girl for a cold month.
Except none of it was real. The beach was nothing more than a sandbox next to a swamp, the sea oats trucked in, the soft sky a cold January illusion.
One dramatic picture shows a medical corpsman clutching his throat where he fell to the frozen earth. "The picture above has been retouched to obscure the dead man's face," notes the caption. "Many of the men's faces were mutilated when Germans shot the wounded at close range."
The languid photo of Amelia on the cover and the lurid one of the dead corpsman inside are both photographic illusions, one the product of staging, the other of retouching. The editors of Life, ever the loyal propagandists, made the image from the home front more inviting and the one from the battlefield a little less gruesome. To use the language of war, Amelia Crossland was a diversion.
How did she end up on the cover of Life? And a far deeper mystery, if she was Florida's prettiest girl: Why was she having such a hard time getting a date for the junior prom?
* * *
To the boys fighting the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, January 1945 was the cruelest month, the forest of Ardennes a frozen wasteland of fear and death. A half a world away, there was no escaping the war, even in the seaside oasis of St. Petersburg.
Military men in training by the thousands turned the hotels and rooming houses into barracks and public parks into tent cities. Amelia and her pals would save stamps to buy war bonds, take the trolley downtown to listen to the marching bands and salvage the foil out of cigarette packs and Ipana toothpaste tubes.
On special days they would be let out of school early. They'd bend back their necks to view a deafening apparition, squadrons of bombers from MacDill darkening the heavens during war games, a military-industrial eclipse of the sun. The kids looked on in awe -- then went fishing.
Along St. Pete beaches, military men kept a lookout for signs of submarine attacks, and citizens taped over car headlights and enforced blackouts. Gasoline and rubber were rationed.
With gasoline rationing restricting his travel, Pope came up with a brilliant idea: bus the bathing beauties to Cypress Gardens. But Winter Haven is in the middle of the state. No powdery beaches. No romantic dunes. No delicate sea oats.
Cultural mythologies are often constructed upon illusions, and Pope, the pre-Disney, pre-air conditioning genius of Florida escapism, was not about to let World War II get in the way.
As Life reveals in five pairs of funny photos, Pope posed Amelia in a variety of faked settings. The beach turns out to be nothing but sand on a platform; a palm branch is attached to a wooden holder; a tall palm tree turns out to be a sawed-off trunk.
To the young Amelia -- 5 feet 9, 115 pounds and freezing in her polka-dot two-piece -- the Life photographer who shot her was a nameless "short woman in a fur coat." She turns out to be Nina Leen, a remarkable photojournalist whose worked graced more than 40 Life covers over three decades. A Jew who escaped Nazi Germany, Leen had an eye for the offbeat, which fit perfectly with Pope's optical illusions, and she could reveal a model's inner beauty, which was a lucky break for Amelia.
Proclaimed the prettiest girl in Florida, Amelia wasn't even considered the prettiest girl back at St. Pete High.
The pages of the No So We Ea, the Class of 1946 yearbook, include no reference to Amelia's appearance in Life, no images of her among the "Favorites of 1946." The "Most Attractive" girl is Nancy Keener, with soft blond hair and a wide, shining smile. "Most Popular" is Maggie Strum, glamorous, gregarious and garrulous. "Most Athletic" is Natalie Parramore, dazzling in her tennis outfit. The head cheerleader had the best name in the class, Delight Treffeisen.
The administrators at the school were less so, especially after boxes of mail landed on their doorstep. Amelia would be called up to the office, again and again, to pick up the pieces of her celebrity.
After war casualty George Lott appeared on the cover of Life one week before Amelia, he received more than 3,000 letters, most of them sweet missives from back home. Amelia's fan mail -- letters in the hundreds -- carried a different tenor. To use a bygone parlance, Amelia was inundated with "mash notes."
In language less tender than this, men offered to pluck Florida's sweetest flower. Until then the raciest thing to ever happen to her was to get her brassiere strap snapped by a slobbering sophomore. None of the lovelorn scribes -- lonely soldiers, traveling salesmen, cheating husbands, old farmers wanting to move to Florida -- appealed to Amelia as a potential prom date.
Why didn't Big Bill Pyle, most likely to succeed, or Jimmy Powers, the most athletic, or any of the other St. Pete High Green Devils ask Amelia to the prom?
"I've never really figured it out. It's probably because I was too sharp to them. And I didn't giggle and I was taller than most of them.
"Five foot nine is not a good height to get a date. You always wear flat shoes. When you dance, you're too tall to be twirled. The guys wind up hitting you on the head."
* * *
Now where did that disembodied voice come from? The voice has a slight Southern lilt to it, punctuated by the lash of snappy laughter. It has some of the qualities of the image on the cover, warmth, intelligence and humor, but it is by no means the breathless sound of a teenage girl.
The voice has seen the world and now travels a diagonal across the continent, 3,151 miles, from Seattle to St. Petersburg. The voice is 72 years old.
To the invented title of "Florida's prettiest girl," Amelia Crossland Canaday can add the following to her resume: wife, mother of three, grandmother, master's degree holder, Phi Beta Kappa, elementary school teacher, college teacher of writing, literature and linguistics, liberal social activist. A different kind of life model.
Most interesting in her personal chronicle is how little her appearance in Life influenced what was to come next. She felt claustrophobic in St. Petersburg, limited by the cultural expectations for women and with few resources to escape them. She was never paid for her modeling, except for an occasional free lunch or a swimsuit.
"I didn't fit in with that world," she says of Florida in the 1940s, "and didn't have the guts to be independent." The only imagined path to adventure was to marry. As she recalls the arc of her life, she can only ridicule the narrowness of her early perspective, a life of white Southern privilege, of manners, of restraint, of prejudice, of sailing classes, dance lessons and country club cotillions.
For years she told people that she went to the "only" high school in St. Petersburg. It was not an intentional slight against Gibbs High, where black students were segregated, but an acculturated myopia, an illusion of being at the center of the universe. "We were totally oblivious, totally isolated," she says, "and just plain stupid."
In her off-to-college photo with her pal Natalie Parramore, a newspaper item shows the two of them dressed in fitted suits, fashionable hats and ladylike gloves. But Amelia wrote this in Nat's yearbook: "We'll have a gay time in Tally -- and we'll be intelligent too."
That little declaration of intelligence would become the North Star for the rest of her life. An engagement to a young man she met in college was broken off two weeks before the wedding, leaving her, in the words of a friend, "with an arrow in the heart."
Things changed for the better when she met Nick Canaday at a friend's wedding. He was the best man, she the maid of honor. He didn't know she had been on the cover of Life, but he had the evidence of his eyes that she was Florida's prettiest girl: "I thought that myself," he says, "but didn't know it was official." They've been together for 50 years.
From 1957 through 1971, with Nick teaching literature at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Amelia played the Donna Reed mom, raising three children, driving to every clarinet lesson, orthodontist appointment and Cub Scout meeting.
With her kids older, Amelia banged on the doors of the LSU law school but was rejected. Instead, she was hired by the university to teach freshman composition, literature surveys and linguistics, putting down her Dr. Spock in favor of Dr. Chomsky.
In Louisiana, she witnessed the bitter consequences of the Jim Crow South, a reality that had been invisible to her in her cloistered St. Petersburg world. During the Vietnam War, she and Nick became peace activists. She kept expanding her horizons, traveling with Nick to fellowships in Japan, New Haven (Yale), Norway and China.
They retired in 1986 and moved to Washington state to be close to their daughter. In Seattle, Amelia works with the Episcopal Church on issues of social justice, especially the problems of homelessness and hunger.
Every move west from St. Petersburg has liberalized her perspective. "Children have to be exposed to the social realities in school. We've got to keep mixing the pot -- not melting the pot, but mixing it. We need to rub shoulders.
"I see the gated communities, the private schools as a real threat. There's a loss of community spirit. There's too much separation by economic class, by background."
She rejects the idea of an enclosed universe, like the one in which she grew up. Long dispelled are the illusions of that girl on the cover.
* * *
So why couldn't Florida's prettiest girl get a date for the junior prom? That mystery was solved on the evening of May 4, 2001. It is the 55th reunion of the St. Pete High Class of 1946.
Eighty-one members of the class, out of the original 400, gather behind the Dolphin Beach Resort on St. Pete Beach. A cool evening breeze blows in off the gulf as God paints another amazing sunset. A guitar player sings Elvis and Jimmy Buffett.
But, guys of 1946, why didn't you ask her to the prom?
"If I'd known she needed a date," says Jim Powers, "I could have dumped mine."
Bill Pyle, now a civil engineer from Perry, says he carried around Amelia's image from Life for weeks. "She was something else," says Bill as his wife looks on, amused. "We all stood in awe." The boys were shy, and she was tall and sharp and beautiful. "We were all available. She could have just rung the bell."
All she had to do was say the word.
The sun sets into the Gulf of Mexico as, three hours later, it will set in Amelia's Pacific sky. "You know life moves on," she reflects, "things don't last when you're 16." Maybe some things do.
Staff writer Mary Evertz, St. Pete High Class of '49, contributed to this report.
Amelia's 1946 yearbook photo and credits
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