Remembering Bronx Native Bess Myerson, 1st & Only Jewish Miss America

Beth Myerson, 1945, upon being crowned Miss America - the first and only Jewish woman to have won the title. / Image credit: AP
Bess Myerson, 1945, upon being crowned Miss America – the first and only Jewish woman to have won the title. / Image credit: AP

Without much as a whisper of her passing, Bronx born and raised Bess Myerson, America’s first and only Jewish Miss America, passed away last month on December 14th, 2014 at the age of 90.  She was known as the woman who refused to change her name so it wouldn’t sound too Jewish.

Myerson, who was crowned Miss America in 1945 just days after the end of World War II, lived in Van Cortlandt Village area of The Bronx with her family at Shalom Aleichem Cooperative, one of the country’s first residential cooperatives.

Later in her life, she was constantly by the side of her friend, another former Bronxite, the late Mayor Ed Koch.  Many accused Myerson of being the late Mayor’s cover up “companion” as accusations and rumors constantly swirled about that he was gay.

The New York Times reported on her death:

Ms. Myerson was one of a select group of American figures to parlay pop culture celebrity into positions of influence in the public square. She led two New York City agencies, Consumer and Cultural Affairs; advised three presidents; championed social causes; and supported powerful political careers. She also sought one for herself, entering a much-watched primary race for the United States Senate. For a long time she seemed rarely out of the news.

The headlines began the night she walked down the runway at the Warner Theater in Atlantic City, a musically talented daughter of a house painter from the Bronx wearing the most coveted crown in the land — an honor she would come to rue as narrowly defining her.

Her coronation, on Sept. 8, 1945, just days after Japan’s surrender had ended World War II, came at a time when a beauty queen could still capture the nation’s attention and even emerge a heroine — in Ms. Myerson’s case as the first (and, so far, only) Jewish Miss America. Bess Myerson, New Yorker of Beauty, Wit, Service and Scandal, Dies at 90 –

The Washington Post wrote:

Bess Myerson, a New York house painter’s daughter who was crowned Miss America in 1945 and whose vibrant career as a television personality and consumer affairs activist was sullied by a tawdry municipal scandal involving her lover, has died at 90.

According to public records, she died Dec. 14 in Santa Monica, Calif., her town of residence. Her death was not announced publicly, marking an uncharacteristically obscure end to a life of dazzle and tumult.

A raven-haired, hazel-eyed beauty who stood 5-foot-10, Ms. Myerson was a captivating figure from the moment she was named the first — and still only — Jewish Miss America. Born to immigrant Jews from Russia, she was raised in a Bronx housing project and embodied an up-from-poverty success story that made her an overnight sensation and possibly the best-known Miss America in the contest’s history.

For decades, she enjoyed something close to reverence among a generation of Jews who had lived through the Holocaust and found in her win a symbol of Jewish assimilation and acceptance in an otherwise hostile world.

“In the Jewish community she was the most famous pretty girl since Queen Esther in ancient Persia,” author Susan Dworkin wrote in “Miss America, 1945: Bess Myerson’s Own Story,” a book published in 1987.

Behind the scenes, Ms. Myerson faced a thornier reality. In a time of rampant anti-Semitism, the Miss America pageant director urged her to change her name to make it sound less Jewish; she refused. As a Miss America representative, she found country clubs canceling her visits and corporate sponsorships dropping away. Bess Myerson, a Miss America tarnished by scandal, dies at 90 – Washington Post

NPR writes:

When Bess Myerson borrowed a bathing suit in 1945 to compete in the Miss New York City competition, she could not have known the wild wave she would ride during her life in the public eye.

Before Myerson competed in Atlantic City, N.J., for the title of Miss America, the director of the pageant tried to get her to change her name so it would sound less Jewish. Myerson rejected the advice and kept her name.

“It turned out to be one of the most important decisions I ever made,” she said in Susan Dworkin’s 1987 book, Miss America, 1945: Bess Myerson’s Own Story.

In the book, Myerson says, “Already I was losing my sense of who I was; already I was in a masquerade, marching across stages in bathing suits. Whatever was left of myself in this game, I had to keep, I sensed that. I knew I had to keep my name.”

While touring the country after winning the crown, she encountered “No Jews” signs, and many of the opportunities usually associated with winning the crown dried up. Disappointed at how she had been treated after her pageant win, she accepted an offer from the Anti-Defamation League to speak on the lecture circuit. The title of her speech was: “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate.” From Miss America To Tabloid Fodder: Bess Myerson Dies At 90 – NPR

May her memory for a blessing.

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Ed García Conde

Ed García Conde is a life-long Bronxite who spends his time documenting the people, places, and things that make the borough a special place in the hopes of dispelling the negative stereotypes associated with The Bronx. His writings are often cited by mainstream media and is often consulted for his expertise on the borough's rich history.