On this day in 1924, Bess Myerson, the first—and only—Jewish Miss America, was born in the Bronx. Twenty-one years later, on September 9, 1945, just a week after Japan surrendered, effectively ending World War II, Myerson was crowned Miss America when the “pageant still really meant something,” wrote Tablet contibutor Rachel Shukert in 2011.
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.
When Myerson became Miss America, it 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?)
Wrote Shukert (in an overall outstanding piece): “A beautiful Jewish girl being named Miss America—“our ideal,” as Bert Parks would remind viewers—went a long way in helping to repairing…ubiquitous Nazi propaganda depicting the Jew as physically and sexually repugnant.”
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.
Myerson died in December 2014 at the age of 90.
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.