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Bess Myerson, Symbol in a Swimsuit

With conventional beauty-queen paths closed to her, she paved her own way

Rachel Shukert
January 06, 2015
Bess Myerson after being crowned Miss America 1945. (Associated Press)
Bess Myerson after being crowned Miss America 1945. (Associated Press)

Well, the fabulous old-New-York-lady obituary count has started early in 2015 with the death, at age 90, of Bess Myerson, who famously borrowed her bathing suit and refused suggestions from contest organizers to change her name to something a little less conspicuously ethnic to become the first and, as yet, only Jewish Miss America. This was in 1945, when the Miss America pageant still really meant something (ostensibly it still does to some people, but apart from the rhinestone manufacturers of Seventh Avenue, I don’t know anyone personally for whom this is true).

For the Jewish community, shell-shocked and horrified by the terrible images flooding out of Europe in the wake of Second World War, Myerson’s coronation could hardly have meant more. It’s important to remember how the Nazi vision of the Jew was one of physical ugliness—a creature so singularly deformed that it was barely human—let alone someone you might, like, want to date. The sight of “Bessie”—as she was known in the old neighborhood—a leggy 5’10” with sparkling eyes, dark curls, and deep dimples, was a defiant shot across the bow of this damaging but oddly potent myth—one that still haunts us to this day. (Remember that the next time you look in a mirror and think about how you hate your hair.)

Over the ensuing years, Myerson proved she was much more than a pretty face and a great pair of legs. Not for her the traditional pageant queen road of family friendly product endorsements before the inevitable meander into marriage and motherhood. Not that such a road was available to her: In 1945, Bess Myerson may have officially been the most beautiful girl in America, but as far as advertisers were concerned, she was just another New York Jewess, and they didn’t want her face, however lovely, shilling for their all-American orange juice (or whatever). With these traditional avenues closed to her, Myerson was forced to make her own way in the world, and she did, brilliantly: becoming the head of two New York City agencies, an adviser to three presidents, and launching a plausible, if ultimately unsuccessful, bid for the Senate.

In this second act of her very public life, she was also famous as the public companion of New York City mayoral candidate Ed Koch, helping to quell gathering rumors about his private life. To put it bluntly, she was his beard, and he almost certainly would not have been elected without her. It’s interesting that a girl who made her name refusing to cover up who she was would spend her later years covering up for a man who could never be open about himself, and if this irony occurred to her, she never let it dim that perfect beauty queen smile. I’m just glad she lived long enough to see the world change.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.