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Bess Myerson, the tall, aspiring musician who in 1945 became the only Jewish winner of the Miss America Pageant and went on to a career in New York City government, has died. She was 90.
She died on Dec. 14 at her home in Santa Monica, California, according to the New York Times, citing public records.
As Miss America, Myerson created a model for subsequent contest winners by choosing to highlight a substantive issue – in her case, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry – during her one-year reign.
Later, she brought an element of glamour and celebrity to New York politics. Her work as the city’s consumer affairs commissioner from 1969 to 1973 landed her on the cover of Life magazine, and she loaned her high profile to Edward Koch in his 1977 mayoral campaign. She ran a big-budget campaign for Senate in 1980, losing the Democratic nomination to Elizabeth Holtzman.
Myerson’s time in public service came to an unhappy end. She resigned as New York’s cultural affairs commissioner in 1987 during a federal grand jury probe of her longtime companion, Carl Capasso, a major city contractor. The grand jury indicted her on charges that she had tried to influence Capasso’s divorce case by giving a city job to the daughter of the judge.
Myerson, Capasso and the judge, Hortense Gabel, were acquitted in 1988 after a two-month trial. Capasso by then was serving a prison sentence for tax evasion.
By Myerson’s account, she neither aspired to be a beauty queen, nor considered herself particularly beautiful, before she pursued the Miss America crown in 1945.
A pianist and flutist, she hoped to study conducting at the Juilliard School or Columbia University, according to her authorized biography, “Miss America, 1945: Bess Myerson’s Own Story.”
She was drawn to the pageant because, for the first time in 1945, it was offering scholarship money – $5,000 – to the winner. The pot swelled to $25,000 the following year. Last year, the amount was $50,000.
At the urging of her sister, Sylvia, and John C. Pape, an amateur photographer for whom she modeled, she entered and won a Miss New York City competition. That earned her a place in the Miss America competition in Atlantic City.
Pape came up with the idea of presenting Myerson in pageant literature in an academic cap and gown, casting her as a scholar among entertainers. Myerson agreed.
Myerson said Lenora Slaughter, the pageant’s longtime director, offered a less appealing idea: that Myerson change her name to something along the lines of “Betty Merrick.”
Myerson refused. As she recalled in a 2000 interview with People magazine, she told Slaughter, “I live in a cooperative with 250 other families, all of them Jewish. If I win, they’ll feel very, very good, but if I change my name, they won’t even know it’s me.”
It was, Myerson said, “one of the most important decisions I ever made.”
Myerson’s triumph at Atlantic City’s Warner Theater on Sept. 8, 1945, was a feel-good story for American Jews, who were just absorbing the horrific news coming from Europe about the extent of the Nazi Holocaust.
During her yearlong reign, Myerson broke with the traditional activities of Miss America and became a traveling speaker for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
“I was determined to do something with my year, to make it mean something, to give the crown some real weight,” she wrote.
As Jennifer Preston wrote of Myerson in her 1990 biography, “Queen Bess”:
“Although she began her public life as Miss America, she aspired to be more than just a beauty queen, and she succeeded like no other before or since.”
Bess Myerson was born on July 16, 1924, in the Bronx, New York, where she grew up among other working-class Jewish families in the Sholom Aleichem cooperative apartments. Her father, Louis, a house painter, had come to the United States from Russia, where he had survived one anti-Jewish pogrom by hiding under the kitchen floorboards.
Her mother, Bella, also born in Russia, wanted her three daughters to become not just literate but “brilliant,” Myerson, the middle daughter, wrote.
Myerson began piano lessons at age 9 and won entry into the High School of Music and Art, a public school for artistically gifted students. She took up flute as a second instrument during her four years there.
Beauty pageants were never a consideration. “I was built like a boy – a tall, skinny boy, all gangly legs and dangling long arms,” Myerson recalled. She was 5 feet, 10 inches when she graduated from high school in 1941 and went on to Hunter College, in New York, using money from teaching piano.
In her third year at Hunter, Myerson began modeling for Pape for $5 an hour. She found the work “a glamorous fantasy” – one she kept secret from her parents. Pape and Myerson’s sister entered her in the Miss New York City competition in June 1945.
After winning that crown, Myerson soured quickly on her pageant-sponsored tour. Among other things, the trip gave her a view of the anti-Semitism prevalent in some communities around the U.S., convincing her she couldn’t be “a palatable Miss America in an America that rejected Jews.”
Partway through her year as Miss America, she chose her own course: speaking in schools on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League.
After her reign ended in September 1946, Myerson applied her $5,000 winnings to pursue graduate studies at Columbia. She also married a Jewish war veteran, Allan Wayne. They had a daughter, Barra, before divorcing. Myerson’s second marriage, to tax attorney Arnold Grant, also ended in divorce.
From 1951 to 1959, Myerson hosted the CBS game show “The Big Payoff.” She substituted for Dave Garroway as host of NBC’s “Today,” was a regular panelist on the CBS program “I’ve Got a Secret” and appeared on Miss America Pageant TV broadcasts.
In 1969, New York Mayor John Lindsay, a Republican, named Myerson, a Democrat, commissioner of the city’s new Department of Consumer Affairs.
A 1971 edition of Life magazine featured Myerson on the cover, checking the produce scale of a sidewalk grocer. The headline: “A Consumer’s Best Friend: Bess Myerson on the prowl for stores that cheat us.”
After stepping down, Myerson declined entreaties to run for mayor in 1974, partly because she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and faced “a long, difficult siege of chemotherapy,” she wrote.
Myerson worked as a consultant to Bristol-Myers Squibb and Citibank, wrote a consumer column for the New York Daily News and reported on consumer issues for New York’s CBS affiliate. Her book, “The Complete Consumer Book,” was published in 1979.
In 1977, Myerson was a fixture alongside Koch, a congressman, during his successful bid for New York City mayor. She was co-chairman of his campaign and spoke for him at events. Neither Koch, a bachelor, nor Myerson, twice divorced, answered questions about whether they had a romantic relationship.
Myerson spent an estimated $600,000 of her own money on her 1980 bid for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, finishing second to Holtzman in a four-person field. Holtzman ended up losing to Republican Alfonse D’Amato, who had upset the incumbent senator, Jacob K. Javits, in the GOP primary.
In 1983, Koch named Myerson commissioner of cultural affairs, a post she held until the corruption investigation of 1987.
In later years, Myerson was a national commissioner of the Anti-Defamation League. She was a founding donor and trustee at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan.