The fact that Bess Myerson, whose death at age 90 on December 14 was recently announced, remains the only Jewish winner in the 90-plus year history of the Miss America pageant surely says more about that contest than it does about her.
Social historians have compared Myerson’s victory in 1945 with the contemporaneous on-field triumphs of American Jewish baseball star Hank Greenberg as an example of Jews assimilating into the very heart of American myth. Yet many Jewish athletes have excelled at the national pastime since Greenberg’s time. Whereas another Jewish Miss America still seems as unlikely as a Jewish president.
This very improbability may have led to some of the upheavals in the rocky subsequent career of Myerson. Born in the Bronx to Russian Jewish immigrants, her undeniably radiant good looks were hyped by such books as “Miss America, 1945”, which claimed that “in the Jewish community, [Myerson] was the most famous pretty girl since Queen Esther in ancient Persia.” There is no need to go back to Queen Esther to find a precedent. Jewish screen goddesses such as Hedy Lamarr, Sylvia Sidney, Paulette Goddard, Lauren Bacall, and others had already enjoyed renown around the time of Myerson’s victory.
Despite her beauty, Myerson could not change ingrained anti-Semitic attitudes. Miss America officials reportedly advised her to change her name to something more goyish-sounding, but she demurred. On tour after her crowning, she was barred from certain “restricted” country clubs and hotels and unlike other Miss Americas, did not pose for ads hawking Ford automobiles or Catalina swimwear, as those two corporations did not wish to be identified with Jews at the time.
Cutting short her victory tour, she began lecturing instead for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. These appearances, she would later recall, led to accusations from pageant officials of “making communist speeches sponsored by Jewish manufacturers.”
Being simultaneously worshipped and harshly rejected must have caused psychological stress, as did failed personal relationships. Health issues included ovarian cancer in the early 1970s and a stroke in 1980. Before all of this would weigh her down, Myerson seemed pert and glib, well-suited for the era of live TV panel shows. She became a fixture on “The Big Payoff” and “I’ve Got a Secret,” alongside such perpetual small screen presences as Kitty Carlisle (born Catherine Conn, of German Jewish heritage). Myerson was particularly effective on TV commercials as a pitchwoman, with an intensely exultant way of incanting advertising copy for products such as Ajax cleanser.
In 1969 when the equally telegenic mayor John Lindsay named her New York’s Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, she took the job seriously and lobbied for much-needed changes. The New York City Consumer Protection Act, unit pricing, and freshness dating were beneficial results of her activism. If her name also appeared as co-author of a diet book and a consumer’s buying guide,, cashing in only seemed part of the celebrity world she inhabited.
Willing to fight the good fight, she also spoke at the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970, an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving American women the right to vote. This rally at which protesting women brandished signs reading “Don’t iron while the strike is hot” and “I Am Not a Barbie Doll” might have seemed an unusual place for a former Miss America, but then Myerson always seemed to enjoy overturning preconceptions.
In 1977, active in Ed Koch’s mayoral campaign, she was often photographed holding hands with and kissing the candidate. This may have served to add some degree of glamor to the street-smart Koch. A 1987 People Magazine profile referred to Myerson’s “management-by-tantrum and her penchant for hurtful remarks” which may have led to some much-publicized woes.
As Jennifer Preston’s biography “Queen Bess” recounts, Myerson was accused of helping a lover to bribe a judge who was presiding over his divorce. Ultimately acquitted of conspiracy in 1988, Myerson withdrew from public service, if not entirely from public life.
What went wrong? Friend and publisher Esther Margolis told “People” that Myerson was “fabulous, funny and bright, but she can also be mercurial, temperamental.” A detailed online reminiscence by former consumer protection colleague Sylvia Kronstadt was notably less affectionate. Reported arrests for shoplifting in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania and London were even less easily explained. As indeed was the “New York Times” account of “obsessive behaviour” as noted in a 1980 New York City Police report.
Myerson, it was stated, made “many anonymous telephone calls and [sent] dozens of abusive letters to people in a series of tangled personal relationships.”
Myerson suffered in advanced old age from dementia, an ailment which doctors now know to sometimes affect patients much earlier in life. Without a medical explanation, Myerson’s bumpy midlife road with its unexplained twists and turns seemed to baffle her and her friends. Shana Alexander’s “When She Was Bad” alleged that Myerson “blamed her troubles on ‘a conspiracy of vindictive homosexuals; they’re out to get me….They’re jealous because I’m the two things they can never be: a woman and a Miss America.’”
Despite her latter-day difficulties - whatever their cause or origin - Myerson surely made her mark on mid-20th century America, not least by her generous donation to help establish New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.
This story "Bess Myerson, the Bronx Beauty Who Refused To Change Her Name" was written by Benjamin Ivry.