What you should know about Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss World who was 'too glamorous' to run for Senate

From humble beginnings in the Bronx to the advising Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House

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The Independent Online

The late Bess Myerson served three presidents, divorced two husbands, won one beauty pageant, and the hearts of most of America.

She lived her last years in relative obscurity, and died on the 14 December last year at her home in California. She was 90.

Her death wasn't publicly announced but has this week been confirmed by a coroner's report in Los Angeles County.

Myerson began life as the musically-talented daughter of a handyman living in the Bronx, giving piano lessons for fifty cents an hour to help support her family. But she quickly ascended from these humble beginnings.

She led a colourful life, to say the least, but these are the moments she will be most remembered for.

In 1945 she was the first Jewish woman ever to win Miss America…

… After she entered in hope of winning the $5,000 prize to buy a Steinway grand piano. When she refused to use a pseudonym that “sounded less Jewish”, three of the pageant’s five sponsors withdrew from having her represent their companies as Miss America. In Myerson’s words: “Here I was, chosen to represent American womanhood, and then America treated me like this.”

She didn’t buy the piano, but did make it to Carnegie Hall…

… Where she played Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto as a guest soloist with the New York Philharmonic. Myerson then married her first husband, and started studying for a master’s degree at Columbia University; but dropped out when she met her second husband and began working in television.

In 1969 she became the city’s first commissioner of consumer affairs …

… After being appointed by Mayor John V. Lindsay. She implemented some of the nation’s toughest consumer-protection laws. She chided restaurants selling hamburgers that weren’t entirely beef by christening them “shamburgers”, and chastised manufacturers for putting too many peanuts in jars labelled “mixed nuts”. She recovered millions of dollars for defrauded customers, and helped prevent Grand Central Station from being demolished.


By 1980 she was running for Senate…

… After thirty-five years working in government. She had served as advisor to a handful of presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson in a White House conference on crime and violence, Gerald R. Ford on a board dealing with problems in the workplace, and Jimmy Carter on issues with mental health and world hunger.

But “Bess Mess” scandal hit the headlines mid-campaign…

… As Myerson began to unravel. She began an affair with a wealthy, married sewage contractor 21 years her junior. The affair became public when her lover’s wife took him to court. She turned out to be friends with the presiding justice in the divorce trial, and her lover emerged to be a tax evader. Myerson was tried for conspiracy, mail fraud and bribery, but was acquitted.

She did not make the bid and suffered a brain aneurysm shortly afterwards…

Bess recovered and was instead chosen to be commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs.

She retired to a private life in her later years…

… And devoted much of her time to charity. She pledged $1.1 million to the building of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan.

She is survived by her daughter.