Over the last 45 years, while she was in and out of movies and television, in and out of Hollywood and New York, and in and out of two marriages, Ms. Dennison wrote portions of her autobiography. She finally published it herself in September. She called it “Finding My Little Red Hat” — because, as an itinerant child, she had worn a red felt hat for courage when she went to a new school and faced yet another classroom of strangers.
“There was a definite Dickensian aspect to her story,” her son said, but her life, even the hardscrabble early years, “was absolutely crammed with wonderful characters.”
Jo-Carroll Dennison was born on Dec. 16, 1923, in a men’s state prison in Arizona.
At the time, her parents owned and ran a traveling medicine show in Texas. When her mother, Elizabeth (Brownd) Dennison, was about to give birth, her father, Harry Arthur Dennison, decided he wanted his child born in California, which he viewed as more glamorous than Texas. So they started driving west. By Arizona, her mother was in labor, and they stopped in the small town of Florence. The only help they could find was the prison doctor, who delivered Jo-Carroll in the prison infirmary.
They carried on to California in what Ms. Dennison called their house car, a Model T Ford with the flat bed of a truck. She quickly became part of the medicine show, in which her parents lured people in with entertainment and then sought to sell them elixirs. As a toddler, Jo-Carroll sang, tap-danced and performed in sketches.
When she was 7, her father left, which shattered her.
After Depression-era gigs with a circus and carnival — she rode trick ponies and roped steers — she and her mother moved back to Texas, first to the tiny town of Hale Center and then to Waco, where they signed on with another medicine show. In her autobiography, Ms. Dennison wrote that when she was 12, the snake-oil salesman who ran the show sexually assaulted her.
She and her mother moved back to Hale Center, where Jo-Carroll graduated from high school in 1940. She later moved in with an aunt in Tyler, in East Texas. She had enrolled in business school to become a secretary when the banker asked her to enter the beauty contest. She had no interest in parading before the public again, but he persisted — and offered her a free bathing suit.