Miss America 1945 Bess Myerson has died, the Miss America Organization announced Monday.
Myerson, 90, died Dec. 14 at her home in California.
Myerson, a dark-haired beauty from the Bronx, N.Y., was the first and only Jewish woman crowned Miss America and the first Miss America to win a college scholarship. She went on to a career in television and then in politics and public service.
“She was the most charismatic person I ever knew in my life,” said Atlantic City historian Vicki Gold Levi, a longtime friend of Myerson's. “When she walked in a room it was like when Kennedy walked in a room, or Clinton walked in a room. She could be tough, but she could also be so compassionate and so caring.”
Myerson’s career in the public eye began on Sept. 8, 1945, when she was crowned Miss America at the Warner Theater in Atlantic City.
It continued through stints on the TV shows “The Big Payoff” and “I’ve Got a Secret” and a career in New York City politics.
She campaigned for city Mayor Edward Koch, ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate and served as both New York’s commissioner of consumer and cultural affairs. Her public service career ended with what became known as “The Bess Mess,” when Myerson became involved with sewer contractor Carl “Andy” Capasso and was acquitted in 1988 of trying to fix the outcome of his divorce in court. She spent the last decades of her life living outside the public eye.
But for Miss America fans, it was Myerson’s dramatic crowning, just as the country was learning about the horrors of the Holocaust at the end of World War II, that cemented her place in American popular culture.
Musically talented and beautiful, Myerson attracted attention as a frontrunner for the Miss America crown. In later years, Myerson would tell how pageant organizers tried to get her to change her name to the less-ethnic sounding Beth Merrick — suggestions she refused to consider.
“She said ‘I'm Bessie from the Bronx. My people won't know me if I change my name,’” Levi recalled.
Decades later, Myerson recalled how she received support to continue in the pageant from Levi’s father, Atlantic City photographer Al Gold.
“He encouraged me, telling me `Don't worry about all these people. Just do what you do well and you are going to be all right,’” Myerson recalled in a 2002 interview.
When the Hunter College graduate returned to Atlantic City in 1946 to pass on the crown, she chose Gold’s daughter, Vicki, to serve as her page — sparking a lifelong friendship.
“I just loved her with all my heart,” Vicki Gold Levi said. “I used to tease her that on my tombstone it would say ‘Vicki Gold Levi: Beloved wife and mother, and page to Bess Myerson.’ ”
After winning the pageant title, Myerson spent two years on an Anti-Defamation League speaking tour of American high schools and colleges titled “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate.”
“Shunned by corporate America — which unlike the Miss America franchise was not yet willing to accept the fact of a Jewish beauty queen — she traveled around the country on an ADL-sponsored tour as a symbol of what America could achieve, and might become,” Abraham H. Foxman, the league’s national director, said in a statement Monday.
In 1998 she created the ADL Bess Myerson Campus Journalism Awards.
Myerson was married twice and had one daughter.
An ovarian cancer survivor, Myerson also supported the Hebrew University for Cancer Research as well as the ovarian cancer programs, according to the Miss America Organization.
Her support for cancer issues included giving personal encouragement to women who were battling the disease, Levi said.
“Woman would have ovarian cancer, they would wake up in the hospital and find Bess sitting on their bed,” she said.
It was this caring and commitment pageant officials highlighted when discussing Myerson’s life.
“Bess Myerson will always be remembered for her remarkable life-long achievements and for her unwavering commitment to serving others by demanding equality for all,” pageant officials said in a statement Monday. “Through a life well lived, Miss America, Bess Myerson, left this world a better place.”
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