Bess Myerson Was An Author, TV Personality, Civil Servant

Jan 6, 2015
Originally published on January 8, 2015 5:39 pm

Bess Myerson was crowned Miss America in 1945 and was the only Jewish-American woman to ever hold the title. She went on to have a long career in public affairs, though it was sometimes marked by scandal. She died Dec. 14 at the age of 90.

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One of New York City's most colorful characters died privately last month. Bess Myerson was an author, a TV personality and a public official who advised three presidents. But she became famous for walking down an Atlantic City runway in a white bathing suit.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They're about to pick Miss America of 1945.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, they've made their choice. And the crown goes to Miss New York City, a 21-year-old, 5-foot-10 brunette. Bess Myerson, Hunter College graduate.

SIEGEL: Bess Myerson was the first and still the only Jewish Miss America ever crowned. NPR's Neda Ulaby has our remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Bess Myerson did not initially aspired to be a groundbreaking beauty queen. She was a serious music student who wanted to buy a Steinway piano with the prize money. In the 2002 PBS program "American Experience," Myerson remembered the pageant organizer said she could win if she changed her name to Beth Merrick.


BESS MYERSON: I said I can't change my name. I live in a building with 250 Jewish families, the Shalem Alechim apartment houses. If I should win, I want everybody to know that I'm the daughter of Louie and Bella Myerson.

ULABY: The daughter of Russian immigrants was snubbed and discriminate against during her Miss America promotional appearances. So she toured instead for the Anti-Defamation League. Myerson parlayed her fame into a career on television. Her exquisiteness and focus earned her a nine-year stint as a panelist on the show "I've Got A Secret."


MYERSON: Were you submerged in water?


MYERSON: Oh, I see. Well, I thought perhaps it might have been some kind of a submarine.

ULABY: Bess Myerson's popularity in New York led to her appointment as the city's first commissioner of Consumer Affairs. She excelled at it, says her biographer Jennifer Preston. She says Myerson pushed tough laws that set national precedence.

JENNIFER PRESTON: For example, when you pick up a loaf of bread and it has a date on it - that's Bess Myerson. If you go into a grocery store and you purchase poultry and it has clear cellophane wrap - that's Bess Myerson.

ULABY: In 1977, Myerson threw her considerable clout behind a then obscure mayoral candidate. Her friendship with Ed Koch pops up in the 1985 musical "Mayor" in a number when she convinces him to run.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (Singing) What's your answer? Yes or no?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: What you see is what you get.

ULABY: What voters saw were news photos of Bess Myerson holding hands with Ed Koch, his campaign signs bearing her picture. People assumed they were engaged. This was incredibly important says Jennifer Preston, at a time when a hint of homosexuality could ruin a political career.

PRESTON: Ed Koch was a bachelor and there were signs popping up in Queens that read - Vote For Cuomo, Not The Homo.

ULABY: Koch was grateful after he was elected and made Bess Myerson the city's cultural commissioner. And that's when her troubles began.

PRESTON: The Bess mess.

ULABY: Myerson feel for a contractor 20 years younger and married. When his wife found out about their affair, it got very public and very ugly.

PRESTON: Bess Myerson was accused of giving a city job to the daughter of the judge who was presiding over her boyfriends divorce case.

ULABY: Jennifer Preston, then covering the trial in 1988, says Bess Myerson was eventually acquitted of charges of conspiracy, bribery and mail fraud, the same year she was arrested for shoplifting. Bess Myerson retreated to a life of privacy and philanthropy. She died December 14 at her home in Santa Monica. She was 90 years old. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.