By Ben Tinsley
TJP Staff Reporter
DALLAS — The first and only Jewish Miss America. Civil rights advocate. A 1950s-1960s television personality. Politician. Consumer advocate.
The late Bess Myerson, who received the Miss America crown in 1945, forever changed the cultural landscape.
She was the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants who was raised in the Sholem Aleichem Houses in the Bronx. Myerson would grow up by virtue of the Miss America crown to inspire generations of Jewish people and women of all backgrounds, said Marvin Blum, member of the board of directors of the Miss America Organization.
Bess Myerson was the first and only Jewish Miss America. | Photo: KVIE.org (Public Television)
“She was a modern-day Queen Esther,” Blum said. “They referred to her as ‘Beauty With Brains.’ She clearly was one of the most beautiful of all Miss Americas in history. She just happened to be Jewish, too. I have done a lot of research on her over the years and am so fascinated by her.”
Blum said Myerson worked hard to make her accomplishments.
“She lived a roller-coaster life,” he said. “It wasn’t always smooth for her and how could it be? To not have problems? Someone who came from where she came from? There clearly was turmoil because there were people who went after her. But she was a superstar. A rock star in my book.”
Sarah Seltzer, New York journalist, said she grew up constantly hearing Bess Myerson’s name from her progressive Jewish family.
“She was a source of pride not just as the only Jewish Miss America, but as an advocate against discrimination who refused to change her name, and had both brains and beauty,” Seltzer said. “Her story was complex and it’s been fascinating to learn more about her very American, very Jewish life in the wake of her death.”
Laura Miller, a former Dallas mayor, journalist and Bess Myerson fan, said Myerson changed the world forever.
“Bess Myerson is someone whose unprecedented accomplishments really inspired other women to want to become leaders,” Miller said. “Anytime we have a first anything, for instance a first black president, many hundreds of thousands of words are written about the impact, encouraging future generations of Jewish people to run for office.”
Blum said Myerson’s memory means quite a bit to the Miss America program and the Jewish people.
“Roll your mind back 70 years,” Blum said. “World War II was just ending; we were seeing evidence of concentration camps, and skeletons and corpses and juxtaposed against that … here comes this raving beauty. She was 5-foot-10. Gorgeous. Raised in the Sholem Aleichem houses. She came from nothing. Her father was a house painter. And her sister secretly entered her in the Miss New York City competition. She wins and goes to Atlantic City to compete further and (her star power) is clear to everybody.”
Both Blum and Miller consider a chief Myerson defining moment to be, as Seltzer said, when she refused the request of beauty queen officials to change her name to something “non-Jewish.”
Instead, Myerson resisted the pressure, lifted her chin and stood tall, they said.
“Here is this 21-year-old woman who essentially came from poverty but she has the strength of character to resist the pressure and say ‘I’m keeping my name because if I win, the people at Sholem Aleichem must know it’s me,’” Blum said. “She understood that winning was not for her but for the Jewish people struggling for a symbol of hope — saying ‘We survived.’”
Myerson was as intelligent and savvy as she was beautiful, people said. There’s an anecdote about Myerson having trouble fitting into the bathing suits pageant officials provided her with. One was too large and the other too small.
“So her sister, who was bigger than her, slept in the smaller suit to stretch it and it ended up fitting her perfectly,” Blum said. “She won the swimsuit category with that competition.”
Blum said as Miss America, Myerson was very outspoken. Her stance as a proud Jew essentially changed the stature of the office she held. She made use of this change when she embarked on a national speaking tour — during which she spoke on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League as a champion for equality.
Miller said Myerson’s message of hope for the Jewish community at the time was wonderful and inspiring.
“I think it was a very important message to send after the war and the Holocaust,” Miller said. “I think it helped to ease the anti-Semitism in the country to see a beautiful Jewish woman who was multitalented and cerebral win a national award like that. Between her pictures and what was revealed about the death camps, those two things had more to do with our country becoming more tolerant of different people.”
Miller said even after Myerson won the Miss America title, she still had to suffer the effects of prejudice: She was banned from certain hotels because of existing anti-Semitism while on her tour.
LEFT: Bess Myerson as Miss America | Photo: LATimes.com
CENTER: As a consumer advocate | Photo: Life Magazine, 1971
RIGHT: In her later years | Photo: USAToday.com
But she kept moving forward.
“She was very involved in the Anti-Defamation League, she was proud of being Jewish and she was not tolerant of those who were not tolerant of her and her community,” Miller said. “She had that kind of character that really resonated with a Jewish woman like myself who so many years later competed in the political arena.”
In essence, Marvin Blum said, Bess Myerson was the “first activist Miss America.”
“Really, she transformed the image,” Blum said. “She continued to pursue a career in public life after her year as Miss America.”
However, before she did that, the Hunter College graduate used her Miss America scholarship to continue her education and complete her graduate studies in music at The Juilliard School and Columbia University, Blum said.
“She used her Miss America scholarship to pay because she had no money to finish her education and then embarked on her remarkable career,” he said.
As Miss America she toured the country, standing against anti-Semitism and racial bigotry. The year after her term as Miss America expired, she continued to speak out for the Anti-Defamation League in conjunction with the NAACP and the Urban League.
Because of her beauty and intelligence she became a popular television personality. In 1951, she was mistress of ceremonies for “The Big Payola,” was a panelist on “I’ve Got A Secret” and appeared in multiple episodes of Allen Funt’s “Candid Camera.”
She was commissioner of Consumer Affairs for New York City from 1969 to 1973, and was named as the architect for the consumer protection legislation. On the July 16, 1971 cover of Life Magazine, she was titled “A Consumer’s Best Friend.”
But that wasn’t quite the end of it. Myerson’s commitment to public service continued when former New York Mayor Ed Koch appointed her commissioner of Cultural Affairs.
Then came “the Bess Mess.” In the late 1980s she was part of a bitter divorce when she was swept into a federal conflict-of-interest investigation with two others and indicted on charges including bribery, conspiracy and obstruction.
While waiting for her trial, Myerson was arrested for shoplifting in a Pennsylvania department store. She pleaded guilty and was fined.
She and the other two were later acquitted, but the entire investigation damaged her reputation, effectively ending her time in the public eye. She spent the rest of her life in seclusion.
Her accomplishments also include being founder of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and establishing the Bess Myerson Film and Video Collection. She supported the Guild for the Blind, the Hebrew University for Cancer Research and SHARE, as well as the Ovarian Cancer Program. In honor of her good deeds, she received many distinguished presidential appointments from former United States Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
It should be noted that Bess Myerson survived ovarian cancer in the 1970s. She also made a full recovery from a mild stroke she suffered in 1981.
She died Dec. 14 at her home in Santa Monica at age 90. Myerson’s death was not publicly announced until January.
Myerson was married three times, two of which ended in divorce, and is survived by daughter Barra Carol Grant Reilly.
Blum said he has always held Myerson on a pedestal because of her incredible accomplishments.
“You know, she not only elevated the Miss America organization, she elevated women — all women and all Jews,” he said. “She shattered stereotypes. We at ‘Miss America’ are so very proud of her.”
Blum said Myerson became an overnight celebrity because she was Miss America and this gave her the springboard to become a woman who could make an incredible difference in the world.
“The Miss America organization was forever changed,” Blum said. “Miss America is now a champion for issues of importance like AIDS, bullying and sexual abuse. Miss America now stands for important issues. She is the National Goodwill Ambassador for the Children’s Miracle Network. All this traces back to Bess Myerson and the impact she had when she was crowned.”
Veteran journalist Ben Tinsley is the staff reporter for the Texas Jewish Post. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by cellphone at (702) 524-3773. Tinsley can also be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/BenTinsley, Google at http://plus.google.com/+BenTinsley or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ben.tinsley.12.