Bess Myerson: More Than Just Miss America

Bess Myerson in 1957

Bess Myerson's selection as Miss America in 1945 had special significance. Myerson was Jewish, at a time when Jews still faced discrimination in the United States and the world was haunted by the unspeakable brutality of the Nazi Holocaust in Europe. She became a symbol not just of beauty, elegance and poise, but of resilience and ethnic pride as well.

But that groundbreaking triumph was just the beginning of several decades in the public eye for Myerson, whose death on Dec. 14 in Santa Monica, Calif., at age 90 was reported Jan. 5.

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Here are some milestones in the life of a woman who rose to become a TV star, government officeholder and consumer advocate.

  • Myerson was born to working-class parents in the Bronx in 1924, graduated from New York’s High School of Music and Art in 1937 and, as a music major at Hunter College, gave piano lessons for 50 cents an hour to help pay for her education.
  • She won the talent competition of the Miss America pageant by playing George Gershwin’s “Summertime” on the flute and excerpts from Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor.
  • In the 1950s she became a popular TV personality as the “Lady in Mink” — her era’s version of Vanna White — on a game show called The Big Payoff, and later as a panelist on I’ve Got a Secret and a substitute host on NBC’s Today show, as well as in commercials like this one.
  •  In the late 1960s, Myerson engaged in vigorous advocacy and lobbying as New York Mayor John Lindsay’s commissioner of consumer affairs.
  • In the 1980s, she ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate and served for a time as Mayor Ed Koch’s cultural affairs commissioner before becoming embroiled in a political scandal involving allegations of favoritism to a city contractor with whom she was having an affair. She was indicted on corruption charges brought by then-U.S. attorney and future mayor Rudy Giuliani but ultimately was acquitted by a jury.
  • Later in life, Myerson quietly became a major donor to causes such as New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage and worked for SHARE, an organization that provides support to women with breast and ovarian cancer.

 

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Photo: Myerson in 1957 via Wikipedia

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