Longform

Crowning Achievement

Page 2 of 5

On her wedding day, Van Derbur wore The Smile like a mask as her father led her down the aisle. She wore The Smile on stage in Atlantic City, along with Miss America's sparkling tiara balanced atop her flawless hair and the winner's sash draped over her strapless, snow-white gown. Her father commissioned a portrait of Marilyn in that pose, wearing that costume, and he hung her wearing The Smile, captured in oil paint, over the white sofa in his office. The Smile also starred in a Parade magazine cover story that ran a few weeks after she became Miss America, in which her parents made this joint statement: "Marilyn's 35-25-36 figure didn't come by accident. She fought for it, by skiing, swimming, playing tennis and riding horseback. Sports gave her self-assurance, poise and vitality. Those qualities clinched the title for her." When the reporter compared their daughter to Princess Grace of Monaco, her mother countered, ''Actually, she is more like a queen.''

Today, Marilyn Van Derbur will not refer to her mother as her mother, only as "the woman who gave birth to me."

"She was not my mother; I did not get a mother," she says. "Real mothers protect their young." Van Derbur believes her mother knew all about her father's nighttime predations, yet did nothing out of fear of damaging their image as the perfect Denver family and of falling from social grace, of losing face and position.

"If my father came into my room one night a week for thirteen years, that's 676 nights," Van Derbur writes in Miss America. "One night is my most vivid memory. My father had come into my room that night later than usual...around midnight. I was awakened by feeling his hands on my skin. He had been in my room for at least thirty minutes when we both heard footsteps. We hadn't heard my mother on the carpet walking down the long hallway but the second she stopped on the top linoleum step, we heard the click of her shoe. She always dressed for bed in a light pink or blue negligee and dressy slippers with leather heels.

"Click. She was on the first step. Then slowly, very slowly, click, down to the second step. Then even more slowly we heard the third click as she stepped down the third step. My door was less than six feet away. Finally! My mother was coming. Finally it would be over. At the sound of the first click, my father had frozen. I had frozen. We remained motionless...It was a dramatic moment in time when each of us knew what the other was thinking. Then we heard another click, but she wasn't coming to save me, she was going back up the steps. She knew.

"There was never any doubt in my mind after that night that she knew. She walked away from me, back into her perfect world -- a world in which she was admired, respected, and charming. I knew she would never come back, and for the hundreds and hundreds of nights remaining she never did."

In 1978, when she was forty years old, Van Derbur confronted her father. "I was absolutely terrified," she remembers. "I told him that what I was telling him was the most difficult thing I had ever done, and he said, 'Just a minute,' and climbed up the winding staircase, two steps at a time, to his room on the second floor."

She knew he was going to get a gun. He came back downstairs and then listened to his daughter in silence for twenty minutes as she told him what she remembered and how it had damaged her. He did not deny anything. He said, "'If I had known what this would do to you, I never would have done it."

Then he pulled the gun from his pocket and said that if she had threatened him to go public with her accusations, he would have killed himself, right then and there. She felt an implicit threat in this statement. "I sensed that he would have shot me first, then himself, and I know he would have done it," she says. "He was that cold."

Van Derbur and her father never spoke of incest again. He died in 1984, and one year later, when Marilyn confronted her mother, "Bootsie" Van Derbur refused to accept as true the accusations her daughter made against the late, great Van.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse