Bess Myerson, television personality and administrator, 1924-2014
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Bess Myerson did it her way. A Jew born in the New York City borough of the Bronx, she demonstrated her independent streak on the national stage by the time she turned 21. Urged to change her last name to something “less Jewish” to help her chances in the 1945 Miss America pageant, Myerson refused.
She was proud of who she was — a product of the Sholem Aleichem Cooperative Houses, apartments built in the 1920s by Jewish labour activists looking to escape the squalor of the slums. “You have to understand: I cannot change my name,” she remembered telling the contest director. “I live in a building with 250 Jewish families. If I should win, I want everybody to know that I’m the daughter of Louis and Bella Myerson.”
Only days after the second world war ended, Myerson became the first — and still the only — Jewish Miss America, kicking off a career in show business and politics like few others.
She was, by turn, a panellist on a long-running television game show, the head of New York City’s consumer affairs and cultural affairs agencies, the ostensible companion of a mayoral candidate named Ed Koch, an unsuccessful aspirant for the Democratic nomination for one of New York’s US Senate seats and an adviser to three presidents.
Her decades in the public eye ended badly in the 1980s. Myerson was indicted in a conflict-of-interest scandal that became known as the “Bess Mess”, which involved her lover, a married sewerage contractor 21 years her junior.
But when word of her death at the age of 90 emerged this week, she was remembered as a trailblazer. Twice divorced, Myerson (born on July 16 1924) is survived by a daughter.
“Myerson was unusual, not only in the combination of glamour and brains but in the openness with which she claimed her Jewish identity,” says Joyce Antler, a professor of American Jewish history and culture and women’s studies at Brandeis University.
“At a time when many Jews saw their route to American success by playing down their ethnicity, she proclaimed hers, refusing to change her name and alter any physical aspects — her dark-haired beauty seemed particularly ‘Jewish’ — and she eventually became one of the public faces of the fight against anti-Semitism, which she experienced personally,” Ms Antler adds. “American Jews understood this about Myerson and in her early career particularly, she made them proud.”
After Myerson won her crown, some sponsors dropped out of the Miss America event. As she travelled around the country she was denied access to certain hotels and country clubs; appearances were cancelled. Returning to New York ahead of schedule, she went on a lecture tour for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, delivering a speech called “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate”.
Her activism did not preclude a successful show business career. For nine years she appeared on I’ve Got a Secret, a popular television game show. A graduate in music at Hunter College who also studied at Juilliard, she even made it to Carnegie Hall, playing Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto as a guest soloist with the New York Philharmonic.
Myerson’s focus turned to government. In 1969, mayor John Lindsay appointed her as New York’s first consumer commissioner. She is credited with such innovations as sell-by dates and unit pricing so shoppers could more easily compare products.
In the 1977 mayoral race she played a crucial role by making campaign appearances, full of hand-holding, with the unmarried Koch, who was locked in a tight battle with Mario Cuomo. Koch faced questions about his sexuality that were symbolised by the mysterious appearance of posters in the city that said: “Vote for Cuomo, not the Homo”. David Garth, a key Koch adviser, was quoted as saying: “Koch wouldn’t have won without Bess.”
After losing her 1980 Senate bid, Myerson was named by Koch as commissioner of cultural affairs in 1983. Her downfall followed her relationship with a man she met in her 1980 campaign, sewer contractor Andy Capasso.
Myerson came to face accusations that she had tried to influence the outcome of Capasso’s divorce case by offering the judge’s daughter a city job. Koch ordered an investigation, which accused her of “serious misconduct”, and she quit her cultural affairs post in 1987. Although she was found not guilty of federal charges at a 1988 trial, the damage to her public image was done.
She retreated from public life and such was her subsequent obscurity that her death on December 14 at her home in Santa Monica, California, made it into New York newspapers days into 2015.
The name of the Sholem Aleichem Cooperative Houses has been corrected since original publication of this article
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