At the time of her death Myerson was the only Jewish Miss America. Myerson won the Miss America beauty pageant at a time when World War II had just ended. Myerson's winning the title of Miss America took on a heightened significance in light of newly emerging information about the Holocaust. In her obituary from The New York Times, it was noted that she was seen as a "hero to the Jewish community". Myerson's biographer Susan Dworkin said: "In the Jewish community, she was the most famous pretty girl since Queen Esther".
Seen frequently on television during the 1950s and 1960, Myerson was a regular panelists on I've Got a Secret. Upon starting a political career, she held the position of commissioner in the New York City government through two administrations and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate from New York in 1980. Tried in federal court during the 1980s on bribery and other charges, Myerson, along with two other defendants, was acquitted.
Myerson was born in The Bronx, New York to Jewish parents Louis Myerson and Bella (nee Podell) who were both Russian immigrants. Myerson's father worked as a housepainter, handyman and carpenter. After Myerson's birth, the family moved from the South Bronx to Yiddish Cooperative Heimgesellschaft (today known as the Shalom Aleichem Houses) a housing cooperative completed in 1927. She had three siblings: a younger sister, Helen, an older sister, Sylvia, and a brother, Joseph, who died at the age of three before Myerson was born.
Her upbringing emphasized the most importance of scholarship not physical beauty. In addition to tradesmen, her neighbors included poets, writers, and artist. Myerson reached her adult height when she was 12, towered over her children, and said she had felt "akward and gawky" during her preadolescence. Myerson recalls one of her worst childhood memories was playing the Popeye character, Olive Oyl, in an elementary school play.
Myerson began studying piano when she was nine years old and she was in the second class of New York's High School of Music and Arts in 1937, graduating in 1941. She wen to Hunter College, graduating with honors in 1945 with a Bachelors of Arts degree in music. To support herself and her family while in college she gave piano lessons for fifty cents an hour, and worked as a music counselor at a girl's summer camp in Vermont.
Miss America and ActivismEdit
By the time she was 21, Myerson was 5 feet 10 inches (178 cm) tall with luxuriant brown hair. Myerson was entered into the Miss New York City competition, without her knowledge by John C. Pape, a retired steel magnate and amature photographer who had employed her as a model while she was in college. When she was told about the pageant by Sylvia. who was acquainted by Pape, she was angry as she felt that the beauty business was "embarrassing" however, Myerson was persuaded to compete with Sylvia, and she competed in the swimsuit competition using a borrowed bathing suit.
Myerson grew to enjoy competing in a pageant, in which she stood out from the other contestants by her height. she won on August 15, 1945 and moved on to the Miss America competition, partly motivated by the $5,000 scholarship awarded to the winner. She later told interviewers she wanted to buy a black Steinway Grand Piano with the scholarship money.
As Miss New York in the 1945 Miss America Pageant, Myerson competed in the talent portion of the contest performing the music of Edvard Grieg and George Gershwin. Prior to the competition she was pressured to use a pseudonym that "sounded less Jewish". Myerson refused and was ultimately subjected to substantial anti-Semitism. She won the title on September 8, 1945, three of the pageants five sponsors withdrew from having her represent their companies as Miss America.
With the pageant scholarship money, she paid for graduated studies at Julliard and Columbia University. An aspiring pianist, she briefly gave recitals at vaudeville circuit, before realizing audiences were more interested in seeing her in a bathing suit. She also played with the Mew York Philharmonic and appeared at Carnegie Hall.
While on her year-long tour as Miss America, Myerson encountered "No Jews" signs posted in places such as hotels and country clubs. Such experiences led her to conduct lectures on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) entitled "You Can't Be Beautiful and Hate" Myerson became a vocal opponent on anti-Semitism and racism and her speaking tour became the highlight of her Miss America reign. As a result of hearing her speak at an ADL function, television producer Walt Framer eventually offered Myerson a job on the 1950s game show The Big Payoff. She was host of the television broadcast of the Miss America pageant from 1954 to 1967, and then was replaced by a younger woman.
At her death, the Religion News Service observed that at the time she won the pageant, emaciated concentration camp survivors had only just shed their prison clothes. "Bess Myerson represented the resurrection of the Jewish body, the journey from degradation to beauty.
Television and PoliticsEdit
Myerson began her television career as the "Lady in Mink" modeling the grand prize mink coat and introducing guests and prizes throughout the 1951 to 1959 network run of The Big Payoff. Recognized for her wit and hard work, as well as he beauty, in 1954, Myerson was a panelists on the game show The Name's the Same and from 1958 through 1967, a panelists on I've Got a Secret. She regularly substituted for Dave Garroway on the Today Show.
Myerson's television career as a TV personality, actress and commercial pitchwoman for a number of products throughout the 1950s and 1960s led to her becoming a consultant to several consumer products companies. From 1969 to 1973, she was appointed by Major John V. Lindsay to become first commissioner of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, becoming a pioneer in consumer protection law. She also served on several presidential commissions on violence, mental health, workplace issues and hunger in the 1960s and 1970s. Throughout the 1970s and the beginning of his mayoral ambitions, Myerson was a frequent public companion of then-congressman Ed Koch and later chaired his successful campaign for New York City mayor.
In 1980, Myerson vied for Democratic nomination in New York's U.S. Senate race against Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, Queens District Attorney John J. Santucci and Lindsey. Myerson lost to Holtzman by a slim margin. Holtzman was subsequently defeated by Alphonse D'Amato, who had defeated incumbent Senator Jacob Javits in the Republican primary.
The 'Bess' MessEdit
After assuming a prominent role in Koch's administration in 1983 as Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs, her career became of overshadowed by Scandal. She became romantically involved with a married sewer contractor, Carl Andrew Capasso. It soon emerged that Hortense Gabel (the judge involved in Capasso's divorce case) had started socializing with Myerson. Judge Gabel's daughter (Sukreet) was also hired by Myerson. After Gabel cut Capasso's child support payments, investigations began as to whether or not she has been bribed. In April 1987, after she invoked The Fifth Amendment, Myerson was forced to resign her position with the Koch administration. The scandal was became known as the "Bess Mess".
Indicted a year later by the office of then-U.S. attorney Rudolph Giuliani, Myerson, Capasso and Gabel were tried of federal charges of conspiracy, mail fraud, obstruction of justice and using interstate facilities to violate state bribery laws. With Sukreet as the prosecution's chief witness, the main issue at the U.S. District Court trial was whether Myerson's decision to hire Sukreet constituted bribery. After four months of trial proceedings, all three defendants were acquitted.
In October 1946, Myerson married Allan Wayne, a recently discharged U.S. Navy Captain. They had one daughter, Barbara in 1948. with their marriage marred by domestic violence, the couple divorced after eleven years. Myerson's second marriage was to Attorney Arnold Grant, and in 1962, he legally adopted her daughter. The couple divorced in the early 1970s. Daughter Barbara later became an actress, director, and screenwriter who was now known as Barra Grant.
In May 1988, before her federal trial began, Myerson was arrested for shoplifting in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. She plead guilty to retail theft and was ordered to pay a fine.
Myerson survived ovarian cancer in the 1970s and experienced a mild stroke in 1981, from which she made a full recovery. In 2013, she was reported to be suffering from dementia. Myerson died on December 14, 2014 in Santa Monica, California at the age of 90. Her obituary states her final years were spent in "relative obscurity". Myerson's death was not announced immediately and was not publicly known until early January 2015.