Normally I only post “anniversary” articles that appeared on today’s date in the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s, but occasionally I come across a story that I can’t help but research. The story of Gloria Lockerman’s 15 minutes of fame and the “scandal” that ensued as a result of Martha Raye’s and Tallulah Bankhead’s display of affection toward the 12-year-old child, was just such a story!
Because there seems to be no existing footage of The Martha Raye Show on which Tallulah Bankhead and Gloria Lockerman appeared, I had never heard of the incident, nor had I heard of Gloria Lockerman, until I came across the following video on YouTube.
In the above video, Norman Lear recalls the incident incorrectly, but we are all prone to memory lapses, otherwise we wouldn’t be human. Nevertheless, this video was all it took to get me interested enough in the incident to do further research, as I could not find an in-depth article anywhere on the internet that told the story.
My first hurdle was to find information on the show, and in doing so, finally realized that the little girl’s name was not “June,” as Lear had recalled, but “Gloria Lockerman,” and she was twelve years of age, not nine.
Gloria Won First Round by Spelling
“Antidisestablishmentarianism” is not a word that most of us use on a daily basis, but it’s probably a word that many of us have heard from repeated plays of the following Dairy Queen commercial in which an an African-American father asks his young son to say “Antidisestablishmentarianism,” which the son successfully utters. (Coincidence? I think not!)
Gloria Lockerman first appeared on the $64,000 Question on August 17, 1955. The nation sat enthralled as the 12-year-old schoolgirl from Baltimore spelled “antidisestablishmentarianism” correctly on America’s most popular TV quiz show. On the morning after Gloria got the spelling correct, “antidisestablishmentarianism” was the most-uttered word in every office, factory and playground in the United States.
Many people who remember the incident believe that Gloria won her bankroll from properly spelling “antidisestablishmentarianism,” but that is not the case. The week after she had spelled “antidisestablishmentarianism” correctly, Gloria Lockerman returned to the show and again dazzled the nation by correctly spelling the entire sentence, “The belligerent astigmatic anthropologist annihilated innumerable chrysanthemums.” But the following week, on the advice of her grandmother, Gloria declined to gamble again. She took the $16,000 and said it would be put in a trust fund for her education. She left the show.
In 1987, the Free-Lance Star printed a where-are-they-now type article on Gloria Lockerman. The article related: “. . . There was a slightly racist aspect to people’s fascination with her: This was before the civil rights movement gained momentum, and Gloria Lockerman was black. Her brilliance was in direct contrast to many Americans’ stereotypes of black people, and there is no question that in countless living rooms, amazement was expressed not only that a girl of her age could spell the word, but that a girl of her color could do it. . . . . . The other fascinating thing is the aforementioned racial angle. Many a newspaper sentence began, “Gloria, a Negro. . .”
Unfortunately, I was not able to find such articles as mentioned by the Free-Lance Star, but I did, however, find the following letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, dated August 31, 1955.
Story on Spelling Victor Criticized
Editor, the Post-Gazette:
Your article on Gloria Lockerman was one of the nastiest, nice ones ever written.
Yes, she smiled and to most people it was not the grin of a Cheshire kitten, but the smile of any normal girl of 12. She was clean and neat, which is the way all the contestants have been. I am positive that she was not her Sunday best, just the current fashion for this particular season of the year. From the looks of her dress, it was an organdy with a crinoline, which all girls are wearing now. Did he expect her to appear in rags and scowling? I wonder what a daughter of his would have worn and how she would have frowned.
Could it have been that she was a Negro and was intelligent enough to have won $16,000 and not the fact she smiled and was clean?
Other persons have won, but never have I heard mention the nationality, nor the clothes they wore, and they were all clean and of some race, the human race.
Gloria is first of all a human, and one the people of America should be proud of, even your sarcastic reporter from New York. Could he have spelled so well? Would not he have smiled broadly if he had won so much, and been assured of a college education? continuing as she is, she will graduate when she is 15, and that alone is enough to make her smile.
This is the opinion, not only of myself, but hundreds of others, who realize Gloria is intelligent, regardless of being a Negro.
Mrs. Smith Williams, Pittsburgh
Editor’s Note: The report of Gloria Lockerman’s spelling victory, which ran in the Post-Gazette, was from an Associated Press dispatch which went to newspapers across the country.