Meet the late Bess Myerson: the first and (as of today) only Jewish Miss America, pianist, adviser to three presidents, Senate primary candidate and consumer rights advocate. I’m not sure about you, but I had never heard of Bess Myerson before Monday when headlines announced that she had died at the age of 90 at her home in Santa Monica California. (Though she died last month, her death wasn’t confirmed until January 5.) Nor had I heard about Miss America’s rule number seven, which required that contestants be “of good health and of the white race.”
Born on July 16, 1924, Myerson grew up in the Sholem Aleichem Cooperative Houses in the Bronx. She started piano when she was nine years old, and after she graduated from Hunter College, hoped to get a graduate degree in music. Despite teaching piano at 50 cents an hour, Myerson was unable to afford the piano or education she wanted. According to Myerson, her sister Sylvia sent Bess’s photo to the Miss New York City contest, without telling her, during the summer of 1945. Myerson borrowed a bathing suit and performed the piano and flute. After becoming Miss New York, Myerson went to Atlantic City and participated in the Miss America pageant.
Before heading to Atlantic City, however, Myerson had a private meeting with the Miss America pageant director and Southern Baptist, Lenora Slaughter, who urged her to change her name to something more “attractive” — i.e. less Jewish-sounding — like Betty Merrick or Betty Meredith. Slaughter, who directed the pageant from 1935 to 1967, had, at some point in the 1930s, made it a rule that the Miss America “contestant must be in good health and of the white race.” This rule was abolished in 1950 but the first Black candidate was not until 1970 and the first Black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, was not crowned until 1984.
Myerson recalled the conversation with Slaughter and why she refused to change her name:
I said… the problem is that I’m Jewish, yes? And with that kind of name it’ll be quite obvious to everyone else that I’m Jewish. And you don’t want to have to deal with a Jewish Miss America. And that really was the bottom line. I said I can’t change my name. You have to understand. I cannot change my name. I live in a building with two hundred and fifty Jewish families. The Sholom Aleichem apartment houses. If I should win, I want everybody to know that I’m the daughter of Louie and Bella Myerson.
She would later tell her biographer, “Already I was losing my sense of who I was; already I was in a masquerade, marching across stages in bathing suits. Whatever was left of myself in this game, I had to keep, I sensed that. I knew I had to keep my name. It turned out to be one of the most important decisions I ever made.”
Another way Myerson maintained her identity was by being the only woman in the Miss America pageant who appeared in her cap and gown and not a bathing suit. And when she won the contest, the announcer said, “Beauty with brains, that’s Miss America of 1945!”
Not everyone was so happy about her victory, however, and three of the five sponsors pulled out of their partnerships with Miss America because they didn’t want their products to be represented by someone Jewish. During her Miss America tour around the nation, country clubs and hotels barred her and appearances were canceled. Myerson recalled, “I felt so rejected… Here I was, chosen to represent American womanhood, and then America treated me like this.” She also witnessed segregation in the South.
So Myerson cut the tour short, went back to New York and went on tour again, this time lecturing for the Anti-Defamation League, in cooperation with the NAACP and the Urban League, reading from her speech against anti-semitism and racism titled, “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate.”
Nor did her accomplishments stop there. Meyerson performed piano with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. She became New York City’s first commissioner of consumer affairs in 1969, passing some of the toughest laws in the country, including “sell-by” dates and unit pricing. In 1977, she chaired Edward Koch’s successful campaign for New York City mayor and served as director of cultural affairs under him. In 1980, she entered the Democratic Senate primary, but was defeated by Representative Elizabeth Holtzman. Myerson was an advisor on the White House conference on crime and violence under Lyndon B Johnson, on a board dealing with workplace issues under Gerald R. Ford, and on commissions on mental health and world hunger under Jimmy Carter.
Photo credit: Wikipedia
Originally posted on Feministing