New Yorkers (Part Three: Bess Myerson)

January 17th, 2015 § 2 comments

Bess Myerson was crowned Miss America in 1945, the first (and only) Jewish woman to win this title. These days, the Miss America contest exists on the fringes of the national consciousness — a relic (thankfully) of a more sexist era that is quickly going out of style. But, in 1945 Miss America was a big deal and winning the title meant instant celebrity for Bess Myerson. Unfortunately, anti-semitism was prevalent in the United States at the time and three of the five Miss America sponsors withdrew their sponsorships when Myerson was crowned; in addition, her national “crowning” tour was met with blatant anti-Jewish hostility at stops all across the country. She overcame all of this and, before she died at 90 last month, led a colorful, tempestuous, productive, tragic life. During HG’s New York public relations career, HG encountered Myerson at many public events. She was New York City’s Commissioner of Consumer Affairs. Very tough. Very effective. Before that job, she was omnipresent as a star of television game shows. A gifted pianist, she appeared with a number of symphony orchestras. HG found her imposing. She was well over six feet in heels. Very beautiful. Statuesque. She thought beauty contests stupid (she only entered Miss America for the college tuition prize). Myerson studied at Hunter College in New York (and like BSK) graduated with honors. She didn’t like to be complimented about her looks. Not surprising. She grew up in the Sholem Aleichem Cooperative Housing Complex in The Bronx (not far from HG’s Kingsbridge neighborhood home). This was housing built by Workmen’s Circle (“Arbeiter Ring”), an organization devoted to socialism and the mission of keeping Yiddish culture alive. The cooperative was named after the famous Yiddish writer, Scholem Aleichem whose stories were the basis for Fiddler On The Roof. The occupants of Sholem Aleichem Housing Complex were Yiddish-speaking poets, artists, musicians and intellectuals forced to make a living as garment workers and artisans. Books, brains and art were what counted, not physical beauty. Bess Myerson (who was fluent in Yiddish) was esteemed in the community because of her piano musicianship, not her looks. (Marc Chagall, the Jewish/Russian/French painter lived at Sholom Aleichem for some months after fleeing the Nazis). Myerson was an icy lady but she softened considerably when HG greeted her with some Yiddish phrases. Beneath that cool exterior was a woman of volcanic passion and that led to The Bess Mess and great public humiliation: When she was Consumer Affairs Commissioner, she fell in love with Andy Capasso, a sewer contractor who did business with the city. He was married and much younger than Myerson. The doomed love affair lead to indictments and criminal prosecution (Myerson and her co-defendants were acquitted). Myerson retired from public life. Battled cancer and dementia before she died. Whether Miss America or ordinary citizen, the third act is always tough.

Life-Magazine-1971-07-16

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§ 2 Responses to New Yorkers (Part Three: Bess Myerson)"

  • Charles Curran says:

    I recently finished a book by Joseph Freeman. An American Testament. Are you familiar with this book, an/ or this man? My understanding is that Stalin put this book out of favor because of a reference to Trotsky. Ant truth?

  • Gerry says:

    Not familiar with the book or with Joseph Freeman (no relation) so can’t comment.

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