Myerson in 1957
|Born||July 16, 1924
The Bronx, New York, U.S.
|Died||December 14, 2014 (aged 90)
Santa Monica, California, U.S.
|Alma mater||Hunter College|
|Occupation||Model, city commissioner, TV show celebrity|
|Known for||Only Jewish American and first Miss New York elected Miss America|
|Title||Miss America 1945
Miss New York 1945
Arnold M. Grant
Bess Myerson (July 16, 1924 – December 14, 2014) was an American model and television actress who was crowned Miss America in 1945. She became a city commissioner in 1969, beginning a prominent New York political career. In the late 1980s, her career ended amid personal and professional scandal.
At the time of her death, Myerson was the only Jewish Miss America. She won the Miss America beauty pageant at a time when World War II had just ended. Her winning the title took on heightened significance in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, and was seen as an affirmation of the Jewish place in American life. At the time, she was seen as "a hero to the Jewish community". Myerson biographer Susan Dworkin said that "In the Jewish community, she was the most famous pretty girl since Queen Esther."
Myerson was seen frequently on television during the 1950s and 1960s, and was a regular on the celebrity quiz show I've Got a Secret. She was a commissioner in the New York City government in two administrations and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate from New York in 1980. Her career in the public eye ended in the late 1980s, when she and two other defendants were tried in federal court on bribery and conspiracy charges, in a highly publicized trial that ended with her acquittal.
Myerson was born in The Bronx, New York to Jewish parents Louis Myerson and Bella (née Podell), who were immigrants from Russia. Myerson's father worked as a housepainter, handyman, and carpenter. After Myerson's birth, the family moved from the South Bronx to Shalom Aleichem Houses, a cooperative apartment complex in the northern Bronx. 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 importance of scholarship not physical beauty. In addition to tradesmen, her neighbors included poets, writers, and artists. Myerson reached her adult height when she was 12, towered over other children, and has said she felt "awkward and gawky" during her preadolescence. Myerson recalled 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 was in the second class of New York's High School of Music and Art in 1937, graduating in 1941. She went on to Hunter College, graduating with honors in 1945 with a Bachelor 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.
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 amateur photographer who had employed her as a model while she was in college. When Myerson was told about the pageant by Sylvia, who was acquainted with Pape, she was angry as she felt that the beauty business was "embarrassing." However, Myerson was persuaded to compete by Sylvia, and she competed in the swimsuit competition using a borrowed bathing suit.
Myerson grew to enjoy competing in the 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 by 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 subjected to substantial antisemitism. After she won the title on September 8, 1945, three of the pageant's five sponsors withdrew from having her represent their companies as Miss America.
With the pageant scholarship money, she paid for graduate studies at Juilliard and Columbia University. An aspiring pianist, she briefly gave recitals on the vaudeville circuit, before realizing audiences were more interested in seeing her in a bathing suit. She also played with the New 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 of antisemitism and racism and her speaking tour became the highlight of her Miss America reign.
At her death, the Religion News Service observed that at the time that 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 politics
A few years after hearing her speak at an ADL function, television producer Walt Framer hired Myerson for the 1950s game show, The Big Payoff. She was the "Lady in Mink" modeling the grand prize mink coat, and introducing guests and prizes, throughout the 1951 to 1959 network run of the program. Recognized for her wit and hard work, as well as her beauty, in 1954, Myerson was a panelist on the game show, The Name's the Same, and from 1958 through 1967, a panelist on I've Got a Secret. She regularly substituted for Dave Garroway on the Today Show. She was also a host of the television broadcast of the Miss America pageant from 1954 to 1968.
Myerson stepped down from her other commitments in 1969, when appointed by Mayor John V. Lindsay to become the first Commissioner of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs. Her career as a commercial pitchwoman for a number of products throughout the 1950s and 1960s had led to her becoming a consultant to several consumer products companies. In her consumer affairs position, which she held until 1973, she became 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 late 1970s and the beginning of his mayoral ambitions, Myerson was a frequent public companion of then-Congressman Ed Koch and later chaired his successful 1978 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 Lindsay. Myerson lost to Holtzman by a slim margin. Holtzman was subsequently defeated by Al D'Amato, who had defeated incumbent Senator Jacob Javits in the Republican primary.
The "Bess Mess"
After assuming a prominent role in the Koch administration in 1983 as Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs, her career became 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 had been bribed. In April 1987, after she invoked the Fifth Amendment, Myerson was forced to resign her position with the Koch administration. The scandal 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 on federal charges of conspiracy, mail fraud, obstruction of justice, and using interstate facilities to violate state bribery laws, accused of conspiring to reduce Capasso's child support payments. 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. Capasso was separately convicted of unrelated tax charges.
In October 1946, Myerson married Allan Wayne, a recently discharged U.S. Navy captain. They had one daughter, Barbara, born 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 is now known as Barra Grant.
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.
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- New York Historic Districts Council
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|Awards and achievements|
|Miss New York