Bess Myerson, the 1945 Miss America winner who became a celebrated media personality and public servant and then was brought down by scandal, has died. She was 90.
According to a statement from the Miss America Organization, she died in Santa Monica, California, on Dec. 14. No cause of death was given.
Myerson’s rise to fame was a classic rags-to-riches American success story: a bright Bronx girl from a housing project, the daughter of a house painter, who won the nation’s most famous beauty contest and parlayed her renown into a media career. She became a model and spokesperson and spent many years on the game show “I’ve Got a Secret.”
The path to celebrity was one followed by such pageant winners as Lee Meriwether, Mary Ann Mobley, Phyllis George and Vanessa Williams.
Later Myerson became part of New York’s city government, serving as both commissioner of consumer affairs and commissioner of cultural affairs.
Myerson was also a role model in the Jewish community. If Jewish baseball players Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax were celebrated for their athletic abilities — a response to jokes about Jews’ lack of athletic skills — Myerson was celebrated for her role as the first (and, to this day, only) Jewish Miss America. She won her pageant title in early September 1945 just after the end of World War II, a time when the horrors of the Holocaust were just being revealed.
“Her victory was seen by many as a symbolic statement of America’s post-war rejection of the crimes and prejudices that ravaged Europe as well as a representation of the vitality of the American Jewish community,” noted a biography on the Jewish Women’s Archive site.
Myerson had even been asked to change her name for the pageant — an idea she refused.
“It was the most important decision I ever made,” she recalled. “It told me who I was, that I was first and foremost a Jew.”
It was a decision with consequences, as some Miss America sponsors refused to have her represent them.
Nonetheless, the talented and intelligent Myerson — who played the flute and piano at the pageant and used her Miss America scholarship money to pay for graduate studies at Juilliard and Columbia — landed on her feet, becoming a popular TV personality in the ’50s and ’60s.
Members of the Jewish community looked up to her.
“Bess Myerson was the most important female image in your life,” said a 1940s teenager quoted in Edward S. Shapiro’s “We Are Many: Reflections On American Jewish History And Identity.” “We didn’t just know about her. We felt her.”
For decades, Myerson was a well-known and beloved figure around New York. During Ed Koch’s 1977 campaign for New York mayor, she was often at his side, giving rise to rumors of a romance with the bachelor politician.
“Koch wouldn’t have won without Bess,” Koch’s campaign strategist, David Garth, told New York magazine.
But she fell short of higher office herself, losing a U.S. Senate primary in 1980. After Koch named her to the city’s Cultural Affairs department in 1983, she saw her name tarred by the “Bess Mess,” a mid-’80s scandal involving a romantic affair with a married contractor and an alleged quid pro quo with the judge in his divorce trial.
Myerson was eventually acquitted, but she was forced to resign her job. Moreover, other revelations about her life came to light, including another affair and a shoplifting charge.
She lived out the remainder of her life quietly, devoting her energy to charitable causes.
Myerson was married three times. Her first marriage, to Navy veteran Allan Wayne, ended in divorce in 1956. She was married twice to lawyer Arnold Grant before finally divorcing him in 1971. She is survived by a daughter.