Andrew Dys

At almost 90, Rock Hill’s 1945 Maid of Cotton is still a ‘Gorgeous Grandma’

Jennie Erle Cox Jaco at her Rock Hill home.
Jennie Erle Cox Jaco at her Rock Hill home.

Jennie Erle Cox Jaco had no idea Thursday is Gorgeous Grandma Day in the United States – even though she could be the pin-up girl.

At 89, Jaco is a gorgeous grandma supreme at Rock Hill’s Park Pointe Village retirement community – a place so hip that some ladies gather at 4 p.m. every day to drink wine, not tea, and tell plenty of jokes, many of which would never make it past TV censors.

Jaco’s magnolia-sweet voice is straight out of her hometown of West Point, Miss. – the Magnolia State. In 1945, she was the South’s top pin-up girl – the Maid of Cotton – and she was more famous than Miss America. She met President Harry S Truman. She was on the radio with Bob Hope. Her picture was on the front pages of newspapers across dozens of cities.

Just months from turning 90, Jaco still turns heads. She wears the same ruby-red lipstick she wore when three soldiers proposed to her as she toured military bases and hospitals for the wounded during World War II.

“I never thought I was more beautiful than anyone else, but some people thought so,” Jaco said. “I didn’t even enter that contest myself.”

Her family sent a photograph to the prestigious southern contest in 1945. The competition was sponsored by the cotton industry, which was so important to the nation’s economy and to the war effort – think uniforms and other cloth products soldiers needed.

Jennie Erle Cox – she was still single and just a teen then – won the crown over many rivals. She took time off from college to go on a 30,000-mile train ride as an ambassador for cotton and to promote the sale of war bonds. She made appearances in big cities and small towns east of the Mississippi River.

Her exploits were huge news in places where cotton was king, such as Memphis, New Orleans and Birmingham. A scrapbook from those heady days of train travel – before there was a television in every home – shows breathless society page accounts in local newspapers, recounting her every move on every stop. The Memphis newspaper even assigned a reporter to follow her for months.

There were photos in bathing suits – not skimpy like today – and in clothes that sponsor stores provided. She played piano and met thousands of troops and did all she could to help the war effort.

“That was my duty, my way to help my country,” Jaco said. “I was proud.”

In those photos, Jennie from Mississippi was simply stunning. Beautiful, gorgeous, some would say, and they would be right.

She appeared at fashion shows and on radio shows. Soldiers – just back from the war or preparing to go – lined up to meet her.

“At one Army camp, I received three proposals,” Jaco recalled. “One handsome young fellow, he asked me to dance, and I had to tell him, ‘That’s as far as it goes.’ ”

See, this beauty had a fiance at West Point, N.Y., the Army training college for officers. Jennie would have just one beau, Charles Jaco, and the romance would last for more than six decades – right up until the day he died in 2007.

For the last 30 years of their marriage, after Charles’ long military career that took the couple around the world more than once, the Jacos settled into the River Hills community in Lake Wylie.

Just a few years ago, this mother and grandmother came to the Park Pointe Village, where she almost immediately established herself as a character. But few knew of her beauty queen past.

The secret is now out, but there was never any secret about one thing.

At 89, Jaco remains a beauty – a Gorgeous Grandma if there ever was one.