Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpWhatever became of Arlington’s most famous beauty queen?

A reader slipped me clippings from the old Washington Star and Alexandria Gazette reporting the pulchritudinous triumphs of Gail Renshaw, who in 1969 was named Miss USA-World.

At the time Miss Renshaw was en route to London to compete to be Miss World (she won first runner-up). But there would soon be the small matter of her engagement to world-famous crooner Dean Martin, a married man 30 years her senior. It seemed a tale worth running down for an update.

Gail Renshaw, who graduated from Washington-Lee High School in 1965, grew up at 1711 North 17th Street, as reported by the Star, whose male writer provided, in his fourth paragraph, her measurements – five-foot-eight, 39-25-37.

I reached Gail Renshaw Blackwell by phone at the home she shares with her retired banker husband in Parrish, Fla.

A young ballet and tap dancer who by 15 was teaching ballroom at the old Arthur Murray’s in Arlington, Renshaw was a teen model. She appeared as “Miss Good Grooming” for the National Institute of Dry Cleaning, was queen of the Washington International Ski Show, and posed for an auto show for $100 for a couple of hours’ work.

After an early marriage and divorce, she was 22 when she hit the national pageants and traveled to Las Vegas. (A promoter named Sidney Sussman told the Star he “discovered” her on a Potomac River cruise, but Renshaw told me he was just a nice friend trying to capitalize on her fame.)

Martin, then 53, was easing off the peak of his rat-pack popularity but still hosting his own TV show and selling millions of middle-brow records. He was also separating from Jeanne Biegger, the second of what would be three wives.

“I really wanted to meet his daughter Gail, herself a good singer,” Renshaw told me. Having seen Martin’s live show and chatted at a photo session, she went for a drink at Dino’s Den bar in Vegas’s Riviera Hotel. It wasn’t long before Martin asked her on a date. “Well, I have a chaperone,” Renshaw told him, but Martin’s daughter said she could fix that. Soon her chaperone was Dean Martin, and the next night his daughter was conveniently unavailable.

The two fell fast, and Martin’s daughter encouraged Renshaw – “You’d make my dad very happy.” The singer “was always considerate about his wife and family, who gave me a wonderful reception,” recalls Renshaw. “Men loved him, and women loved him.”

But after a few days of anguished phone calls, Renshaw told Martin face to face that she couldn’t go through with the marriage. “The age difference was a hindrance, and I felt bad missing my parents,” Renshaw said, noting that her father back in Arlington wouldn’t fly on airplanes.

The retired beauty queen then moved to Prince George’s County, Md., where she studied and became a registered nurse, specializing in dialysis. She and husband Bobby built a house, dabbled in contracting and raised a girl.

Renshaw today earns income as a certified gemologist, plays video games and enjoys her three grandchildren (the eldest resembles her). At one W-L reunion, she recalls, she sat all evening with “a family” of classmates she’d been with through Wilson Elementary and Stratford Junior High.

Is she still beautiful? I asked. Her demure reply: “Some people say so.”