Bess Myerson, Miss America of 1945 as well as a noted television personality with a long-time career in public service, died on December 14 at the age of 90. The news?of her death has just been made public. Ms. Myerson’s life was full of accomplishments as well as controversy, some of it her own doing, some of it due to biases against her. Her career included stints on television, public service in New York City and for United States presidents, promotion of social causes, musical performance, and more. She also ran for public office but lost, was embroiled in a scandal that was widely mocked in New York City, and lived through troubled marriages and love affairs.
Born in the Bronx, Bess attended the prestigious High School of Music and Art. Considered statuesque (her height was 5’10”) and a very good student, she won the Miss New York City contest in 1945 and then was crowned Miss America. She was the first, and so far only, Jewish-American young woman to win this honor, and she faced anti-Semitism, even with her title. She received few endorsements, and was barred from several hotels and country clubs because of her ethnicity. In the wake of this, she gave a lecture tour for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith, speaking out on prejudice.
However, she found success in the arts and media. She played the piano at Carnegie Hall; she appeared on the game show The Big Payoff for eight years and then a nine-year stint on I’ve Got a Secret. She wrote a book and had a magazine column as well.
Her public service to New York City was well-known. Mayor John Lindsay appointed her as the city’s first Consumer Affairs chief, in 1969, and for five years she fought energetically for consumer issues. She also served on commissions, boards and conferences for Presidents Johnson, Ford and Carter. Mayor Ed Koch appointed her Commissioner for the Department of Cultural Affairs.
But she also faced various disappointments and struggles. She ran an expensive campaign for a Senate seat but lost; she battled cancer and later a brain aneurysm. She was married twice and both were stormy relationships. In the early 1980s she had an affair with a married man, Carl Capasso, and when it came out that she had been friendly with the judge presiding over Capasso’s divorce trial, the case became known as the “Bess Mess.” She even contended with shop-lifting charges.
I was aware of Ms. Myerson throughout my childhood because she was often in the public eye in New York City. I saw her on TV often when she was involved in politics, and then in the 1980s when she was mired in scandal. At that time legendary shock jock Howard Stern skewered her many times on his K-Rock 92.3FM radio show, as well as the judge who presided over the divorce case. (He had some wickedly funny monologues about Judge Gabel and her daughter.)
In recent years she led a low-key life. How will future generations evaluate her: as a trailblazing and accomplished woman with some glaring faults, or as a pathetic punchline with some interesting achievements? I do hope the former.
Ellen Levitt?is the author of?The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn?(2009),?The Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens?(2011) and?The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan?(2013). (And hopefully a book about NJ one day, if her publisher gives the green light.)