Bess Myerson (born July 16, 1924 in the Bronx, New York) became the first Jewish woman to win the Miss America pageant in 1945. She appeared on various television shows in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s, she was involved in New York City politics.
While competing in beauty pageants, Myerson refused, despite entreaties, to use a pseudonym that "sounded less Jewish." She faced prejudice even after winning the Miss America title, with many sponsors and events long associated with the pageant refusing to deal with her. She later campaigned for civil rights, in particular, working with the Anti-Defamation League.
In 1954, Myerson was a panelist on The Name's the Same, a television game show. From 1958 through 1967, she was a panelist on I've Got a Secret. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Myerson enjoyed a successful television career as a TV personality, actress and commercial pitchwoman for a myriad of popular products.
She survived ovarian cancer after being diagnosed with the disease in 1973. She also suffered a stroke many years later.She married Allen Wayne, a doll company executive, in October 1946. They had one daughter, Barbara, before divorcing. Her second marriage was to Arnold Grant, a tax lawyer, in 1962. That marriage ended in divorce in 1967, but Myerson and Grant remarried in 1968, before divorcing again in 1971.
Myerson was New York City's first Commissioner of Consumer Affairs (under Mayor John Lindsay), later serving as Commissioner of Cultural Affairs under Mayor Ed Koch. Throughout the late 1970s and the beginning of his mayoral ambitions, Myerson was a frequent public companion of Ed Koch.
In 1980, Myerson ran for the Democratic nomination for New York's U.S. Senate seat against Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, Queens District Attorney John J. Santucci, and former NYC mayor John Lindsay. Myerson lost to Holtzman by a slim margin.
In the 1980s, Myerson's life was darkened by a legal controversy (colloquially known as "the Bess Mess"). Her lover, sewer contractor Carl Andrew Capasso, who had been convicted of tax fraud, was accused of bribing Judge Hortense Gabel by arranging for a job for Gabel's daughter in Myerson's department. Myerson was also indicted and resigned her positions with the City of New York. She was ultimately acquitted.
On May 27, 1988, Myerson was arrested for shoplifting in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, after she left the Hills Department Store with multiple items for which she had not paid. On July 15, 1988, she pleaded guilty to retail theft and was fined. The arrest occurred while she was believed to be visiting Mr. Capasso at the Allenwood Detention Camp.
Myerson has promoted social causes and engaged in philanthropy. She has recorded public service announcements about ovarian cancer awareness for broadcast in the area of her home in South Florida.
An interesting 1995 article from EMILY D. SOLOFF, Chicago Jewish News:
I imagine that it must be a bit difficult in 2012 to understand the significance of Bess Myerson winning the title of Miss America 1945. Bess Myerson was the first (and ONLY, mind you) Jewish Miss America. Bess was the daughter of immigrants. She spoke only Yiddish until she started public school. Her talent in the pageant was classical piano. It was 1945....the very year that WWII ended. An America just learning of the horrors of the Holocaust.....an America still incredibly Anti-Semitic and Racist at every level of society. The war didn't change the horrible prejudices of a significant percentage of Americans, not by a long shot. Remember that it took Pearl Harbor to even get us to help join the effort to defeat Fascism, we had a lot of citizens who were very Nationalist and very much against intervention in the conflict at all.
Bess Myerson...an intellectual, college graduate, classical pianist, a proud Jew.....not your typical Miss America by any means.
It is NOT hard, however, to imagine the significance of her win to the Jewish community, even in this day and age. She remains one of the only memorable Miss America winners, with the exception of only a few other women. She faced both subtle and incredibly blatant Anti-Semitism during her reign, yet managed to transcend both that AND the ridiculously sexist nature of the pageant. She did not just fade back into domestic life, unlike many other winners of the title. She built a career in the public life in music, television, and later in politics. Highs and lows followed, as is the nature of life.She has always fascinated me, because she didn't follow the "Party Line" of pageant winners. Sponsors didn't want her for the most part, because of her being Jewish, she didn't play into the "cheesecake" angle of the title, either. She was too serious, too intelligent, too aware of her "significance", if you will......she was proud of her heritage, and wasn't planning to let anyone down or change in any way to play the games expected of her upon winning the title. When the sponsors abandoned her, she took her newfound fame and channeled it into the battle against intolerance and racism, joining with the Anti-Defamation League, and using her fame and popularity with youth as an educational tool during a very tense time in our country. Very Impressive, indeed.
Enough already......pictures......pictures.... :)
The official 1945 Program
Bess is on the far right in the below pic
a Fitch endorsement
a few later pics
Dreadful music, but brief footage of Bess being crowned
A link to an audio story on: http://www.spokenword.org/program/1127254