NJ icon Sondra ‘Miss Liberty’ Fortunato dies at 75 following lengthy illness
For the last six decades, Miss Liberty brought smiles to the faces of so many people of all ages – from football stadiums to Halloween parades. Her real name was Sondra Fortunato, but she went by many self-proclaimed titles – Miss Seaside, Miss Funtown Pier and Miss Big Blue among others. Fortunato died on Thursday after a lengthy illness. She was 75.
“A great person, beautiful person, we all have beautiful thoughts and memories of her,” said Michael Carbone, Sondra’s friend and owner of the Beachcomber in Seaside Heights.
“She would come here very quietly not cause a big scene, go in the corner there, check out the sun, get some sun rays, a lot of times she had the aluminum foil to spice it up a bit.”
Before the Kardashians, before the Paris Hiltons of the world – there was Fortunato – famous for simply being herself.
Wonderfully weird, always smiling, and ready to brighten any occasion – Miss Liberty etched her image into New Jersey lore.
“If I had a party with 50 people at it, she would come with 50 presents for each person and she would know them all by name, everyone there,” said Karen Larsen, Fortunato's cousin.
Fortunato's Cadillac encased in her homemade signs would often be seen running up and down Routes 9 and 37 – the Toms River native basked in the spotlight.
In the 1990s, “Weird New Jersey” founders Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman featured Fortunato at their live events and in their magazine.
“There was this air of mystery to her, and we took everything she said at face value, we didn’t try to question what she said or follow up, we just went with it,” said Moran.
Fortunato loved the annual Halloween parade, making one of her last public appearances as Miss Liberty just a few weeks ago. Parade organizer Carl Weingroff said of Fortunato – “She's not Miss Liberty, She’s Miss Everything."
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, Fortunato organized a drive-by parade for her fellow Toms River High School classmate Karl Putman while he battled the virus.
“She loved the police departments; she was a big fan of theirs and she would do anything to support the police. And yeah, to help people,” added Larsen.
“I think that we can all take a little life lesson from her even when faced with adversity, even after losing her home because she couldn’t afford to pay because of her illness, she never stopped smiling and I think we can all take something away from that,” said the Weird NJ publishers.
"Miss Liberty was always one of the first to register to participate in the Belmar Lake Como Parade. She was always concerned whether her registration was received. She would call the parade office several times before the event,” Ed Donovan, Belmar Parade chairman. “We looked forward to her calls as Sondra was always pleasant and friendly. Miss Liberty would mail small gifts to volunteer staff members along with photocopies of her posters. She seemed to enjoy the attention and being the last participant in the lineup. You always knew the parade was over when Miss Liberty came down the street.”