Texas Myth# 31

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE REALLY HAPPENED.

False. The 1974 film of the same name, which propagated a spatter-happy horror genre, was based on a real story—but one that didn’t involve Texas, a chain saw, or a massacre. In 1957 police in Plainfield, Wisconsin, were searching for a missing woman when a tip led them to local oddball Ed Gein, whose farmhouse proved to contain rotting parts from fifteen female bodies. Film-makers later used details from the case to flesh out the story of Leatherface and his cannibalistic clan.

Q: I heard that Neiman Marcus got its start because the founders blew a chance to invest in Coca-Cola. Is this an urban legend?

A: It’s the real thing. In 1906 Herbert Marcus, his sister Carrie Neiman, and her husband, Al Neiman, had each been working for years at Dallas’s nicer clothing stores and wanted to strike out on their own. They moved to Atlanta, where they pondered various business opportunities, including an offer to acquire the Kansas or Missouri franchise for Coca-Cola, which even then was one of the nation’s best-known brand names. Nonetheless, they turned Coke down flat, choosing instead to go back to Dallas and test a new fashion concept: high-quality ready-to-wear. (Until then, good clothing had always been custom-made.) The Coke story became family legend; the late Stanley Marcus, one of Herbert’s sons and the store’s longtime CEO and spokesman, liked to joke that Neiman Marcus was “founded on bad business judgment.” This year Neiman Marcus turns one hundred years old.

Q: I found a cool old piece of sheet music titled “Texas Tommy.” It shows a couple doing what might be the jitterbug, but it doesn’t say who Texas Tommy was.

A: He was an it. The Texas Tommy is a dance—arguably the first swing dance, because what set it apart was a daring new move: the twirl. It appeared around 1909 and became a hit thanks to a rug-cutting hot spot, San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, whose other contributions to twinkle-toedom included the memorable turkey trot as well as the forgettable grizzly bear. Sheet music for the Texas Tommy was first published in 1911. The steps were conveniently outlined in the chorus, and the cover art exploited the enduring theme of Western romance. Later that year the dance was showcased on Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies.

The Texas Tommy influenced many other dances, notably the Lindy Hop. But whereas Lindy was a real person—aviator Charles Lindbergh, celebrated for his 1927 transatlantic flight—Tommy appears to have been a complete invention. However the name came about, the formula was foolproof; adding “Texas” to “Tommy” produced an instantly memorable moniker—catchy and alliterative, with a dash of myth. (“Connecticut Tommy” just wouldn’t have worked nearly as well—nor, come to think of it, would The Iowa Chainsaw Massacre. )

So the Texas Tommy has nothing specifically to do with the state. But there is a connection, albeit vague, to the Old West. A terpsichorean predecessor to the Texas Tommy was the Apache, an infamous brawl of a dance that arose as early as the 1880’s. It was named for its practitioners, who were not Native Americans but Parisian street criminals so vicious that locals compared them to the famously fierce Plains Indian tribe. The Apaches even loved violently; when they danced with their girlfriends, they threw them around so forcefully that the women often sustained bruises or broken bones. Eventually, as the dance spread, the moves softened; the non-thuggy public preferred twirling to hurling.

I hope you dance, but I know you eat, so let me also mention that another definition of “Texas Tommy” is a particular hot dog preparation: a wiener stuffed with cheese, wrapped in bacon, and then deep-fried (pre-bun). One suspects that it has a twirl-and-hurl history as well.

Q: When was the last time a Miss Texas became Miss America?

A: A month after Richard Nixon resigned. It’s an ugly fact but true. Shirley Cothran, Miss America 1975, was crowned on September 7, 1974, becoming the third Texan to win the title. Her predecessors were the 1942 queen, Jo-Carroll Dennison, of Tyler—who spent most of her reign waving at crowds of wolf-whistling soldiers—and 1971’s charmer and celebrity-to-be, Phyllis George, who, like Cothran, was a Denton girl. But we all know that Miss America isn’t a pageant; it’s a scholarship competition. Does Texas’s long losing streak mean, then, that our girls aren’t getting plainer—just dumber? You can test that theory on January 29, when the event is broadcast live from Las Vegas. The current Miss Texas is a Frisco beauty, Shilah Phillips, and we’ll see how she shapes up.

As long as we’re being (pretty) sexist, let’s tip our tiara to Miss America’s rival event, Miss USA. It began 31 years later, in 1952, and from the get-go featured far more vavoom and bazoom. Plus, there’s no talent requirement; perhaps that’s why Texas women have taken that title eight times. The state boasted a legendary winning streak in the eighties—five Texas belles in a row beat out the competition—and the 1995 champ, Chelsi Smith, of Deer Park, went on to become Miss Universe. Today the Miss USA organization is co-owned by Donald Trump and NBC and is astonishingly titillating. If Miss America is a show, then Miss USA is a shebang.

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