Bess Myerson was the first and only (so far) Jewish Miss America. Not just a beauty queen, she later went on to varied careers, including, among other things, a tenure as New York City's commissioner of consumer affairs. She is a hero to many Jewish Americans of a certain age, especially women, although after fading from the spotlight, her more recent past has been somewhat less glamorous.
Myerson was born in 1924 in the Bronx to immigrant parents who barely spoke English. She was raised in Manhattan and displayed an aptitude for music, eventually deciding to enter a beauty contest because the prize money would help her buy a piano. At 5'10'' she was the tallest Miss America contestant in the pageant of 1945. A pageant organizer attempted to have her change her name to something less conspicuously ethnic, but she refused. Myerson went on to win the crown, but, as a sign of some residual anti-jewish discrimination in American society at that time, she was not selected as a spokesperson for any of the pageants sponsors, including the Catalina Swimsuit company that always chose the winners. Later in the year, she was scheduled to make a publicity appearance at a southern society, which cancelled when they learned of her ethnic background.
Myerson was the first Miss America to be given a scholarship, and graduated from Hunter College. She later went on to obtain a doctorate in music. She went on to be the hostess of a few television game shows in the 50s, but, atypical of most Miss America winners, made the leap into serious public service in the 60s, serving on Lyndon Johnson's 'White House Conference on Violence and Crime,' and becoming the Commissioner of Consumer affairs for New York City in 1969 and holding that position through 1973. During her tenure, Myerson was the architect of the most far-reaching consumer protection legislation in the country at that time, and was featured on the cover of Life Magazine as "A Consumer's Best Friend." Her later presidential appointments included Gerald Ford's 'Commission on the National Center for Productivity and Quality of Working Life,' and Jimmy Carter's Commissions on Mental Health and on World Hunger.
Myerson went on to serve under Ed Koch as Commissioner of Cultural affairs for New York City, and became active philanthropically, founding the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and making six figure contributions to many institutions. She survived a bout with ovarian cancer.
In 1988, she was charged with bribery and conspiracy relating to dealings during her tenure as Cultural Affairs Commissioner. She was accused of hiring a judge's daughter so her lover would get favorable treatment from the judge handling his divorce case. Just before the trial began, Myerson was arrested and fined for shoplifting. During what must have been a difficult period, she embraced religion and even seems to have fallen in with a hasidic rabbi.
Editor's update: Bess Myerson died on December 14, 2014 at the age of 90.
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