Bess Myerson was the first, and so far, only, Jewish Miss America. She first won the Miss New York pageant and went on to win the American crown in 1945. Bess was the daughter of Jewish-Russian immigrants and was raised to focus on her intelligence rather than physical beauty. The only reason she ended up in the pageant system was because someone else entered her without her knowledge and she was later convinced by her sister to see it through.
Bess was a talented piano player and helped support her family by teaching piano. It is noted that one of the reasons she went through with the Miss America pageant was because of the five thousand dollar scholarship, which she planned to use to buy herself a Steinway grand piano (which costs around eighty thousand dollars today).
At the time anti-semitism was a huge barrier for Bess (and still is today for many people). She was pressured to use a “less Jewish name” and flat out refused. When she became Miss America, three of the five major sponsors for the pageant withdrew. Her win came at an interesting time, since it was the end of WWII and the world realized the full extent of the Holocaust. It was an affirmation of acceptance of Jewish people in America, but also highlighted the anti-semitism still facing them. She became an outspoken advocate for the Anti-Defamation League and spoke against anti-semitism and racism.
It’s not noted whether she actually bought herself that piano, but we do know that she used the scholarship money to attend Juilliard and Columbia University. She played piano recitals with the New York Philharmonic and at Carnegie Hall.
Bess worked on the game show, The Big Payoff for 8 years as a model showing the prizes to contestants. She was a panelist on The Name’s the Same and I’ve Got a Secret. She also regularly filled in on the Today Show as well as served as host for the broadcast of the Miss America pageant from 1954 to 1968.
In 1969 she became the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs. Additionally she served on several presidential commissions on mental health, hunger, violence and workplace issues. In 1980 she ran for Senate but lost out to Elizabeth Holtzman. The later years of her career as Commissioner of the Department of Cultural affairs was ripe with scandal and she ended up retiring as a result. Other issues plagued her later years including arrest for shoplifting, cancer and stroke.
She passed in 2014 at the age of 90. Despite mistakes in her later career, Bess was a beacon of hope and an impressively strong woman to fight back against anti-semitism and racism. Intelligent, talented, beautiful and industrious, Bess Myerson is a woman we could all aspire to be.
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