Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America, died last month at age 90—her death was confirmed publicly today. This piece was originally published January 14, 2011.
There’s a famous story in my family: My grandmother had gathered her family in the den for the ritual communal-watching of the Miss America Pageant. “My God,” she said in awe, as the preening, perfectly groomed contestants took the stage in eveningwear. “They’re all so tall and thin and gorgeous! Wouldn’t you just kill to look like that? To be that tall and perfect and thin?” And then, without missing a beat or betraying the barest flicker of irony: “Who wants an ice cream sundae?”
My high-achieving, second-wave feminist mother, who made a point of tuning into the pageant every year “to remind myself how much I hate it,” had a somewhat different take. I remember asking her when I was 6 or 7 why so many of the finalists seemed to come from the South. I’m not sure I realized this at the time, but, looking back, I think it was my way of wondering why there was never a girl who seemed “like us.”
My mother replied, with a rough edge of bitterness in her voice: “Because that’s where all the blonde Barbie dolls with too many teeth live.”
It was not always thus.
In 1945, the Miss America Pageant constituted a symbolic return to normalcy for the country; a promise that a still-smoldering Europe and a Japan about to face its first devastating nuclear winter could not keep patriotic Americans from leering at a bunch of lissome young beauties parading across a stage in flattering but modest swimwear.
Its winner, however, a leggy 21-year-old brunette named Bess Myerson, was decidedly unorthodox. Myerson represented New York City, a place that many still see as somehow un-American. (There have only been two other New Yorkers named Miss America, including Vanessa Williams, famously the first black woman to win the pageant.) Myerson was a college graduate—unusual for contestants at the time—who had entered the pageant on a lark when she heard of its offer of scholarship money, hoping to win enough to buy a new piano. She was also the first and as yet only Jewish girl to win the crown.
But that could change on Saturday, when Loren Galler Rabinowitz, the reigning Miss Massachusetts, becomes the first Jew to compete for the Miss America title since Myerson. Like Myerson, Galler Rabinowitz entered the pageant for practical reasons. The Harvard graduate and two-time national ice dance champion is about to start medical school, and she hopes to take advantage of the scholarships the program offers for women going into medicine. “A lot of my friends were taking a gap year in order to make money for school—taking jobs at banks and things,” Galler Rabinowitz says. “I wanted to spend a year doing public service, which I’ve always been extremely passionate about. And this year seemed like my last opportunity before jumping on the hamster wheel of med school.”
The pageant circuit remains a pretty Christianized affair, with so many contestant espousing their faith in Jesus (not to mention “opposite marriage”) that you’d think they’re planning a run for, well, the governorship of Alaska. Feminism, an atavistic sense of ritual modesty, the sense that there were more productive ways to spend one’s time (you might think Galler Rabinowitz would belong to the latter category): All may have conspired over the years to keep Jewish girls who were more than pretty from gathering in Atlantic City. Galler Rabinowitz believes part of the problem is simply geographical: “Pageants are biggest in the South, and Jews tend to be concentrated in the Northeast,” she says. “It’s just not part of the cultural purview.”
Bess Myerson, however, isn’t sweating the reasons, and she warns against attaching an unhealthy importance to this latest milestone. “I’m very excited to have another Jewish girl in the running, but there should be another Jewish girl in the running,” the 86-year-old Myerson told me via a representative of the Anti-Defamation League, with which she has been associated since her pageant days. “I’m very proud, but it shouldn’t be a big deal.”
Fair enough. But in 1945, her selection was a big deal, for Jew and Gentile alike. Weeks before the pageant, judges received phone calls from irate pageant watchers warning them not to choose “the Jew.” Hoping to stave off trouble, pageant officials pleaded with Myerson to change her name to the deracinated “Beth Merrick.” After her win, not a single official sponsor, from the notoriously anti-Semitic Ford Motor Company to Catalina Swimwear, requested that she endorse their products; she was barred at the last minute from a scheduled appearance at a restricted country club in the South. The Daughters of the American Revolution, it seemed, did not care to share crab salad with a Daughter of Israel. (Who says she would have eaten it anyway?)
Despite this ugliness, the Jewish community was understandably jubilant over Myerson’s win. One of the less discussed aspects of the Nazi regime, in both incipience and aftermath, is its lasting imprint on many Jews’ sense of physical self-image. (Someone calling you ugly seems rather trivial when that same person is also trying to kill you.) But even relatively trivial wounds can leave lasting scars: Primo Levi hypothesized that much of his crippling shyness toward the opposite sex was caused by the Aryanization laws and ubiquitous Nazi propaganda depicting the Jew as physically and sexually repugnant. His admission is instructive; it would take a self-confidence bordering on the pathological to avoid internalizing at least some of that crap.
A beautiful Jewish girl being named Miss America—“our ideal,” as Bert Parks would remind viewers—went a long way in helping to repair some of this damage. It’s an overstatement to compare the results of a beauty pageant with the U.N. resolution recommending the creation of Jewish state in Palestine, but Myerson’s historic win was nevertheless an important step toward the reinstatement of the status of “fully human” to the devastated Jewish people. Even if much of the world was not quite ready to see it that way.
Bess Myerson could have (and perhaps should have) ushered in a worshipful golden age of Jewish femininity. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. As Jewish men began to shape American pop culture of the postwar years, they often asserted their independence from the painful (or embarrassing) history through less-than-flattering portrayals of their mothers and sisters and cousins, robbing Jewish women of their femininity and sexual power in the public imagination for generations. In the work of Woody Allen, early Philip Roth (although I believe that Portnoy’s Complaint is intended as a satire of these attitudes, not an endorsement), Paul Mazursky, Herman Wouk, and the like, male “Jewish” traits—intellectual sophistication, sensitivity, even neurosis—were portrayed as endearing and even sexually combustible to the right (Gentile) woman; Jewish women (as I scarcely have to tell you) were portrayed as loud, pushy, materialistic, emasculating, crass, and seemingly devoid of any complicated inner life. If they were at all attractive, it was in spite of their Jewishness, not because of it, or the attractiveness had come at great (often surgical) expense.
It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to uncover the seething self-hatred that is the flip side of the JAP stereotype; the furious suspicion that no matter how beautifully you dress, how vigilantly you starve yourself, how meticulously you carve up your body and your face, that you’re never going to be quite good or pretty or lovable enough. That on some level, that schlemiel you married is always going to be holding out for Mia Farrow (or, today, Leslie Mann). Even Ari Ben Canaan, the anti-Portnoy, winds up with the shiksa at the end.
I never wanted to be Miss America, even when I was 7. But I wanted to be pretty. I wanted to be loved.
It’s a feeling Galler Rabinowitz knows well. “I wish I could say it was something I’d never thought about,” she says, sighing. “I come from the world of competitive skating, which is even more aesthetically focused than pageants, and I didn’t fit the aesthetic there either. It took me some time to realize that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s about feeling comfortable and proud of who you are.”
It takes some time for all of us. Maybe it’s silly, but for the first time in years, I think I’ll be tuning into the Miss America Pageant this weekend, cheering on Miss Massachusetts in a frankly chauvinistic (and let’s face it, somewhat embarrassing) gesture of ethnic solidarity. I don’t care if she wins. I just care that she’s there. Bess Myerson is right; it isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a big deal. It won’t be for my generation’s daughters. But it still is for me.