Bess Myerson, whose death at age 90 was revealed this week, was a Miss America who lived through nearly a century of change in the perception of "the ideal American woman." She paid for being a celebrity in the way many celebrities before and after her paid with fame and (mis)fortune. She was crowned in 1945, when the Miss America Pageant was taken more seriously than it is today, and she was anything but the typical "queen of femininity."
But she was something special in certain ethnic neighborhoods, crowned just days after the bomb wrote finis to World War II and the first disclosures of the Holocaust made it into the public consciousness. She was an early and troubled triumph of assimilation. The reigning American beauty was Jewish.
In the history of feminism, September 1968 marked a turning point for the Miss America Pageant, when baton-twirling, trampoline-jumping beauty contestants were satirized as "mindless boob-girlie symbols." Feminists mocked women who tried to succeed by exploiting their bodies and beauty. This was a time when newspapers routinely included a woman's measurements (36-24-36 was the beauty pageant ideal) as part of a contestant's biography. But an emphasis on "smarts" had entered the contest 23 years earlier with Bess Myerson.
As the first (and so far only) Jewish winner who wanted to be recognized for brains and talent and not merely for beauty of face and comeliness of body, Miss Myerson was not your usual beauty contestant. She had signed up for the Miss New York City contest, egged on by her sister, when she learned that the winner would get a $5,000 scholarship. The pageant had always been "a boobs-and-gams show," but winning would offer her an opportunity to purchase her dream, a Steinway baby grand piano, and enable her to better pursue a music career.
She reached a height of 5 foot 10 by the age of 12, and Bess had not been happy growing up gangly. She borrowed a bathing suit for the preliminary contest, and her sister helped her stretch it to a competitive fit. All the contestants wore modest one-piece suits for the most popular part of the finals in Atlantic City. She was the only contestant to appear in her Hunter College commencement cap and gown for the pageant booklet; all the others submitted "cheesecake" poses in bathing suits.
Her talent presentations were compositions by Grieg for the piano and by Gershwin for the flute, reflecting her cultural background. She would eventually play a piano concert with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. She was the daughter of Russian immigrants -- her father was a house painter -- who saw America as a place to live the American dream, drawing on religious, educational and cultural traditions. She was raised in the Yiddish culture of the Sholem Aleichem housing project in the Bronx, and the middle-class WASP world she first met as Miss America was not altogether welcoming.
She told biographer Susan Dworkin, author of "Miss America, 1945: Bess Myerson's Own Story," that her Jewish neighbors regarded her as the most beautiful heroine since Queen Esther of Persia, but the Miss America pageant director urged her to Anglicize her name to "something less Jewish," such as "Betty Merrick" or "Betty Meredith." She refused and later called her principled decision to preserve her Jewish identity "one of the most important decisions I ever made."
But it made life harder on tour as Miss America. Country clubs with a ban on Jewish members wouldn't allow her even as a guest, and she was confronted by hotels with signs declaring, "No Jews." Cosmetic and fashion companies, which usually offered Miss America sponsorships, withheld them in 1945.
Two years later, Gregory Peck would be nominated for an Academy Award for portraying anti-Semitic prejudice among "the best people" in "Gentleman's Agreement," the same kind of prejudice that led Miss Myerson to give lectures for the Anti-Defamation League. She titled her speech, "You can't be beautiful and hate."
The obituaries of Bess Myerson focused on celebrity and public service, her television game-show career, her service as head of two agencies for consumer and cultural affairs in New York City, her advice to three presidents, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. But like many women before her who felt cursed by great beauty, her private life led to tumultuous marriages and divorces, scandals, a notorious trial for bribery (she was acquitted) and an inexplicable arrest for shoplifting after a visit to her lover in prison. The headline on one obituary said it all: "From Miss America to Tabloid Fodder."
She rose high and fell hard. In the Jewish community she's remembered as a "sheina meidel," Yiddish for "beautiful girl" (as my grandfather called her). She was the beautiful face narrating Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Rose Bowl Parade. How could a life be more assimilated and more American than that?