Mary Ann Mobley dies at 77; Miss America starred on TV, in films

 Mary Ann Mobley dies at 77; Miss America starred on TV, in films
Mary Ann Mobley and her husband, Gary Collins, in 2005. They were active with World Vision, and she appeared in two Elvis Presley movies and in numerous TV roles. (Associated Press)

When William Faulkner's niece burst into his library with the news that one of her sorority sisters at the University of Mississippi had been crowned Miss America, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist paused for a moment before returning to his typewriter.

"Well," he drawled, "it's nice to know somebody has finally done something to put Mississippi on the map."


Mary Ann Mobley, the 1959 Miss America who described herself as "a short girl with a face as round as a Moon Pie," went on to become an actress, TV personality, and philanthropist. She died at her Beverly Hills home Tuesday of complications from breast cancer, her family said in a statement.

Mobley, who was married to actor and TV host Gary Collins for 45 years until his death in 2012, was 77.

An Ole Miss majorette who was described by the Associated Press as "a brown-haired Southern belle," Mobley projected a down-home, wholesome image even in roles that were supposed to be sexy.

On a movie set, her fellow Mississippian Elvis Presley once upbraided a man who swore in her presence.

"Ma'am," he told her, "someday I'm gonna have a party that I can invite you to."

In Presley's "Harum Scarum" (1965), she was the vampy Princess Shalimar, costumed with "about 17 million yards of orange chiffon and I don't know how many pounds of fake hair," she told the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 2007. She also appeared with Presley in "Girl Happy" (1965), the story of a Fort Lauderdale spring break where, according to the trailer, "thousands of the faithful neck up a storm!"

On TV, she played a wide variety of roles, including stints as a regular on the series "Diff'rent Strokes" and as recurring characters on "Falcon Crest" and "Hearts Afire."

She and Collins were also well known as representatives for World Vision, a Christian relief organization that filmed them interacting with impoverished children in refugee camps throughout the Third World. They also helped establish a group home for children and a hospital pediatric unit in Mississippi.

Born in Biloxi, Miss. on Feb. 17, 1937, Mobley grew up in the small town of Brandon. The daughter of a prominent lawyer, she was raised in privilege. Her family's friends included the woman she knew as "Miss Eudora" — the noted writer of Southern fiction, Eudora Welty.

Mobley became Miss Mississippi in 1958. Two weeks after taking the state title, she was in Atlantic City, N.J., with an off-the-rack evening gown and a single sheet of music transcribed for her by the organist at her hometown church.

"I didn't know I was supposed to have an orchestration!" she recalled in an essay for the 2013 collection, "Coming Home to Mississippi."

For her showpiece display of talent, Mobley started singing the Puccini aria "Un Bel Di" but suddenly changed course, doing a mock striptease to reveal the shorts she wore beneath her gown while launching into the jazzy "There'll Be Some Changes Made."

The act "still defies explanation to this day," she wrote. "I was so naïve."

Among the contestants Mobley bested were runner-up Anita Bryant, the Miss Oklahoma who became well known as a spokeswoman for Florida orange juice and a vocal opponent of gay rights.


Mobley's survivors include daughters Clancy Collins White and Melissa Collins; a son, Guy Williams Collins; a sister, Sandra Young; and two grandsons.

She maintained homes in Beverly Hills and Mississippi, where her funeral will take place.

Mobley was her state's first Miss America. The second — Lynda Lee Mead, one of Mobley's Chi Omega sorority sisters — was crowned the next year, about the same time the university became a football powerhouse and drew national attention.

"Mary Ann helped this place develop a bit of a mystique," Sparky Reardon, the University of Mississippi's recently retired dean of students, told The Times. "People were wondering: Where did these football players come from? Where did these beauties come from?"

Twitter: @schawkins