Bess Myerson was the first Jewish Miss America – and still the only one – as well as a political force in New York until a series of scandals forced her into obscurity. She was hailed as a groundbreaker for her religion and her sex after parlaying her unprecedented 1945 Miss America victory into national celebrity. She landed a series of TV jobs, from game show hostess to reporter, before her appointment as New York's chief consumer watchdog in 1969.
She was the second daughter of Russian immigrants, raised in a one-bedroom Bronx apartment. Her older sister shepherded her into the Miss New York City pageant in 1945 and she won, advancing to Atlantic City for the Miss America pageant. Organisers urged her to change her name to something less Jewish – they suggested "Betty Merrick" – but she refused. Walking down the stage to cries of "Mazel tov!" from Jews in the audience, she later recalled thinking, "This victory is theirs." Not content with the stereotypical role of Miss America, she went on a speaking tour for the Anti-Defamation League.
In 1965 she began a seven-year stint as chairwoman of the Bonds for Israel fund. After surviving ovarian cancer in the early 1970s she took the lead in fighting the disease and was appointed to committees by Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
She helped Ed Koch win New York's 1977 mayoral race, deflecting rumours of his homosexuality with her constant presence at his side. "The immaculate deception" cynics called it after the couple shared an election-night victory kiss. In 1980 she made an unsuccessful Democratic primary run for the US Senate. Three years later, Koch appointed her Cultural Affairs commissioner.
But her image crumbled in the mid-1980s under a barrage of embarrassments that became known as the "Bess Mess". A city background check exposed her as a jealous woman who harassed an ex-boyfriend and his new lover. She invoked her right against self-incrimination in a 1986 corruption probe of a subsequent boyfriend, Carl "Andy" Capasso.
A contractor with purported mob ties, he pleaded guilty to tax evasion. Myerson, Capasso and a judge were indicted in 1987 on a charge of conspiring to fix Capasso's divorce case to lower his alimony and child support payments. Before the trial began the following year, Myerson was convicted of stealing nail polish and earrings from a shop. A 1970 shoplifting conviction was also made public.
Although she and her co-defendants were acquitted in the divorce-fixing case, she had already resigned her Koch administration post, and her public career was virtually over. Her decline was precipitous – occasional appearances at cancer fund-raisers or visits to friends' birthday parties.
Bess Myerson, beauty queen, broadcaster and city official: born New York 16 July 1924; twice married (one daughter); died Santa Monica, California 14 December 2014.Reuse content