LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Phyllis George, former Miss America, television personality, and ex-wife of Kentucky Governor John Y. Brown Jr. have died in Lexington after being sick.
George, who was hospitalized at the University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler, is 70 years old.
He died Thursday due to complications from a blood disorder that he developed in his 30s but has been successful for years, Brown told The Courier Journal on Saturday.
“Phyllis is a great asset for Kentucky,” said Brown, who said he had maintained friendly relations with his ex-wife. He said he really appreciated their four years as governor and first lady.
“We have a great partnership,” he said. “I think we enjoy every day.”
Brown said the couple’s children had been with George in recent weeks providing care and support.
“We regret losing it,” he said. “He has become a big part of our lives.”
George, a Texan, became famous after winning the Miss America 1971 title at age 21 and moving to New York where he said his “Texas personality” helped him get his first television assignment.
Named Miss Congeniality in the Miss Texas contest, George described herself in a 1998 Courier Journal interview as a small-town Christian girl “very close to my family” who entered the Miss America contest determined to win.
“I’m focused,” he said. “I’m ready.”
In New York, after appearing in advertisements and a few minor roles, Geroge’s first big break was as a commentator with CBS Sports. He came to count among his friends Norman Vincent Peale, who led his marriage to Brown, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George and Barbara Bush and Sir Elton John.
But his marriage in 1979 to Brown, a self-made billionaire and Kentucky Fried Chicken figure, brought him to Kentucky and pushed him into the political spotlight when he decided, only 10 days after their New York marriage, to run for governor in his home country .
Although it would later end in divorce, the marriage of a handsome couple with “dimples on his partner” brought a spark of celebrity and national attention to the race that swept Brown into office as Kentucky’s 55th governor.
The Washington Post described them as “Phyllis from a million-dollar smile, and John Y., from a million-dollar checkbook” in the 1979 story about Brown’s campaign.
And while Brown’s personal wealth helped him win the busy Democratic primary and continue to win the 1979 general election, observers praised George’s appeal and celebrity’s appeal for giving Brown an edge in his first attempt at public office.
“He won it for him, there’s no doubt about that,” said Terry McBrayer, who was among the Democrats who lost to Brown. “They beat me fairly and honestly, but that was glamorous and hers too.”
The couple attacked the country by helicopter in a “honeymoon campaign,” according to The Courier Journal, a race that attracted widespread national attention.
A New York Times story about the race described it as a “kissing campaign.”
“John Y. Brown Jr., Kentucky Democratic governor candidate, and his seven-month wife, Phyllis George, constantly hugging and kissing like newlyweds on the campaign path,” the newspaper reported. “And everyone in Kentucky, it seems, wants to kiss the former Miss America who became a television personality.”
A story in the Washington Post titled “Phyllis George and Candidates Fried Kentucky” portrays the couple as “dreams of a media paradise campaign manager,” with George, as his adoring wife, warming the crowd followed by Brown with his sales promotion to become governor.
George, in a Courier Journal interview, gave Brown an award for his victory even though he acknowledged he might have helped increase his confidence.
“John is handsome, charismatic, successful, entrepreneurial, visionary,” he told The Courier Journal in 1998. “But he is rather shy.”
Sometimes Brown just needs encouragement, he said, recounting one event where they arrived at the campaign stop and he greeted a number of people who were watching with enthusiasm.
“Phyllis, don’t disturb them,” he recalled as he said. He answered, “John, if you want to be governor, you have to come here.”
Despite his popularity, George was also criticized for being too involved in the campaign and having a role that was too prominent when the wives of most candidates remained behind.
“John wants me to do all these things,” he told the New York Times, “and you can’t expect someone like me who has become an accomplished person to stay behind. They used to say, ‘Behind every strong man there is a strong woman ‘ Well, I like to say, ‘Beside every strong man there is a strong woman.’ “
During his four years as a first lady, George also supervised and helped raise money to renovate the old Governor’s House on Capitol land.
Brown and George divorced in 1998.
A native of Denton, Texas, George was a student at North Texas State University when he won the Miss America title that would change his life, leading to dozens of national appearances during his one-year reign before he settled in New York to try to get into television.
In 1972, she joined the cast of The NFL Today, hosting a pregame before the match and was one of the first women to have a national role in television sports. In early 1985, after four years as the first lady of Kentucky, she co-hosted with Bill Kurtis of CBS Morning News, a disappointing journey for George that lasted only eight months.
After leaving around 10 years to raise the couple’s two young children, Lincoln and Pamela, Brown will return to television and cable work, hosting interviews, shopping shows and promoting handicrafts.
He told The Courier Journal that he was pleased with the new role and his new life in New York, where he lived in an apartment overlooking Central Park.
“I’ve been through a lot,” he said in an interview in 1998. “I have a lot of life experience. … From now on, I want to count every day.”
He once said that his favorite place on Earth was “Kentucky in the fall” and had moved back to Kentucky in recent years, settling in Lexington, where John Y. Brown Jr. and their son, Lincoln Brown, a technology entrepreneur, also lives. Their daughter, Pamela Brown, a CNN news reporter, lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
Follow Deborah Yetter on Twitter at @d_yetter.
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