Bess Myerson, The First Jewish Miss America
by EJ Dickson
Once, when I was 7 years old, I asked my father why there weren’t any Jewish women who were pretty.
“Why would you say that?” he asked. “There’s you and your mom and your aunts and your cousins.”
“No, I mean really,” I said. “Like famous women. Like models and actresses and singers and stuff. ’Cause everyone who’s pretty is Christian, and everyone who’s ugly is Jewish, like Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus.”
I was only 7, with big, knotted hair and dark brows and the prominent nose and lips that would later prompt a boyfriend to semi-affectionately refer to me as “a big Jewface.” But I’d already deduced what generations of Jewish women before me acknowledged as fact: that for some reason, Hollywood, and therefore the rest of the world, did not find us fuckable.
Eager to prove me wrong, my father returned home from work the next day with a printout from a Yahoo forum called “Jew Or Not Jew?” which contained an alphabetized list of Jewish actresses. Although the list featured the usual offenders — Streisand, Midler, the woman who played Wendy the Snapple Lady — one name in particular stood out: Bess Myerson, the winner of the 1945 Miss America pageant who passed away December 14, 2014 at the age of 90.
Myerson largely faded into obscurity during the last few decades of her life, to the point that her death wasn’t even formally announced. Although a New York Times obituary chronicled her formidable achievements — her career as a consumer advocate and public official, her skill as a concert pianist who performed at Carnegie Hall — most of the writeups have focused on her Miss America win, which is totally OK with me. Because to me, Bess Myerson has always been the woman who taught me that Jewish women — and by extension, I suppose, my knotty-haired, big-nosed, obviously Semitic-looking self — could be fuckable.
To understand why Myerson played such a large role in my life, it’s important to consider that when I was seven, being Jewish and female in Hollywood did not mean the same thing as it does now, even while I was growing up in the ’90s. For decades to be a Jewish woman in Hollywood was to be assigned one of three roles: overbearing Yiddishe momme (Rose Portnoy), frigid Jewish-American Princess (Brenda Patimkin in Goodbye, Columbus), or castrating Medusa bitch (Susie Essman in Curb Your Enthusiasm, the wives or mothers in every Woody Allen movie ever).
Even those who managed to force themselves onto mainstream Hollywood, like Barbra Streisand and Midler, were not so much sex symbols as plucky comic strip characters. You’d never see Streisand or Midler on a poster in a bathing suit, like their snub-nosed, flaxen-haired contemporaries Farrah Fawcett and Bo Derek; the underlying fear seemed to be that if you put a Jewish lady in a bathing suit, all you’d see were sharp angles and leg stubble and tightly coiled pubic hair.
Today, when I reflect on that conversation with my father, the feminist in me cringes, because it shows how deeply I’d internalized cultural standards of beauty, and how quickly I’d concluded that to be Jewish was to fall woefully short of them. While I’d already recognized that women in our culture existed purely to be objectified and appraised part-by-part like a prize racehorse or an antique car, I also saw that Jewish women were exempt from being objectified, or at least were objectified in a totally different way.
Because Myerson was a former beauty queen, it could be argued that she was objectified just by virtue of her title. But she was also far more than just a pageant winner: She was a consumer rights advocate, a panelist on the 1960s game show I’ve Got A Secret, a domestic violence survivor, and, later in life, a major power player in New York City politics, becoming a commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs for Mayor Ed Koch in 1983.
Her career in public policy, however, effectively ended with a bizarre 1987 corruption scandal known colloquially as the “Bess Mess,” in which she was accused of, among other things, bribing Judge Hortense Gabel, who was presiding over her married lover’s divorce, giving Gabel’s daughter a job in the mayor’s office in exchange for her favorable terms in the divorce. Countless tabloids ran splashy headlines about Myerson’s history of erratic behavior as revealed during the trial — obsessive phone calls to former lovers, a 1970 shoplifting charge in London, and more.
By the time Myerson was acquitted, the world no longer saw her as an accomplished former beauty queen; like so many aging, beautiful women before her, she was now simply thought of as a middle-aged nutcase. By the early ’90s, she had faded from the public eye almost entirely, and no one thought of her much at all.
Up to that point, however, Myerson was perhaps best known for being the first (and, to date, the only) Jewish winner of the Miss America pageant — a huge deal at the time, considering how prevalent anti-Semitism was in the United States in the 1940s, and how widely Miss America is regarded as a standard-bearer for American femininity.
Because Myerson was a Miss America winner, it’s difficult to view her as a feminist hero. After all, Miss America is a beauty pageant, and no matter what bromides pageant administrators spout about how pageants build character and support young women’s dreams, we all know the only actual support the contestants get is in the form of the cleavage-enhancing cutlets they slip in front of their swimsuits.
Yet when Myerson won in September 1945, the stakes of the competition were a bit different. For one thing, it was the first year Miss America started offering winners scholarships instead of prize money, which attracted a more educated, self-sufficient breed of contestant. The competition was held a few months after the end of the Second World War, so the pageant committee was under pressure to select a winner that reflected the best of American values, a “well-educated, professional Miss America” who would enhance the reputation of the competition and serve as an inspiration to young girls everywhere.
Given her modest socioeconomic background and prodigious scholastic achievements, Myerson was an ideal contestant. Born in 1924 to lower middle-class Russian-Jewish immigrants, she grew up in the heavily Jewish Sholem Aleichem housing projects in the Bronx, speaking only Yiddish until she entered public school. A trained concert pianist, she earned her bachelor’s in music at Hunter College in New York. According to Myerson herself, she didn’t even want to enter the Miss America competition to begin with: Her sister Sylvia sent her photo to the Miss New York City pageant committee without her knowledge.
Of course, had Myerson not been bright and well-educated, her chances of winning would probably have been just as good. In Life photos from the ceremony, she is unequivocally dazzling. In a white maillot and a fur-trimmed cape, her 5’10’’ frame stretches beyond the mortal confines of the picture, her wavy dark hair and red mouth conjuring images of a swarthier Rita Hayworth. As she poses for the photographers, hot dog salesmen and policemen looking on appreciatively, she looks plastic, poised, and maybe a little bit bored.
The ceremony in Atlantic City took place soon after the Nazi atrocities against the European Jews came to light; images of emaciated survivors at Dachau and Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz were still fresh in the public’s mind. Yet Myerson’s Jewishness was considered secondary to her other achievements during the judging process.
Some, however, apparently viewed it as a handicap: Later in life, Myerson recalled the judges telling her they had received threatening phone calls warning them not to pick “the Jew,” and she was urged to change her name to Beth Merrick to appear more Aryan. Her decision not to was “the most important decision I ever made,” she proudly recounted in an interview years later. “It told me who I was, that I was first and foremost a Jew.”
Myerson cut her victory tour short a few months after the pageant, citing the prevalence of anti-Semitism as a factor (country clubs in the South denied her entry, and three of five Miss America sponsors, including Ford and Catalina Swimwear, withdrew their sponsorship when she won). Yet her victory was a huge boon for the Jewish-American community, who saw it as symbolic of America’s post-war rejection of European prejudices. Jewish newspaper columnists glowingly compared her to Queen Esther, another famous Jewish beauty who, having infiltrated the gentile community, brought redemption to her people at the brink of their destruction.
While these comparisons might have been overblown, Myerson’s win symbolized the Jewish-American community’s integration into American culture, a goal that first- and second-generation immigrants like her had pined for since setting foot on U.S. soil. Although she was openly proud of her Jewish heritage, campaigning for the Anti-Defamation League against the Miss America committee’s wishes and semi-ironically referring to herself as “Queen of the Jews,” in the eyes of the rest of the country, Myerson was not “first and foremost a Jew.” She was, first and foremost, Miss America: beautiful first, and talented second. Her Judaism, if considered at all, was tertiary to her other qualifications.
Throughout history, Jews have desperately sought to blend into their surrounding communities and be accepted by their neighbors, to little avail as their Jewishness proved an insurmountable burden to assimilation. During the first half of the twentieth century, Myerson’s American Jews once again set out on this process, attempting to prove to their fellow Americans that they were not the babushka-wearing greenhorns who’d arrived, squawking and fish-smelling, on Ellis Island years ago. They could learn American customs; they could speak the American vernacular; they could, in fact, be “real” Americans.
If nothing else, Myerson’s victory proved once and for all that a Yiddish-speaking daughter of the Bronx housing projects could embody the same standards of beauty that governed “real” Americans. Like the other Miss America contestants, she, too, could stand on the corner of a boardwalk in a swimsuit and be gawked at by hot dog sellers and policemen; like the shiksa goddesses on subway ads and the silver screen, she, too, could be evaluated part-for-part, like a car or a racehorse. Like “real,” beautiful American women, Myerson, too, could be objectified, for better or for worse.
After she died, Myerson’s professional achievements were obviously not as important to her obituary writers as the scandal she played a role in at the twilight of her career, or as her first big accomplishment — which was, of course, almost totally based on her sex appeal. Some might say this is reflective of a society that treats beautiful women as disposable, to be gawked at while their skin is still dewy and their waists trim, and to be shamed and pitied when they hit middle age and are no longer considered to have value.
But in some twisted way, to me, Bess Myerson’s professional achievements are less important to me than the reason why she became famous to begin with — which was, of course, that a pageant committee considered her conventionally fuckable. Being fuckable, conventionally or otherwise, is, in itself, obviously not much of an accomplishment. But what Myerson’s conventional fuckability represented to me — and, I am sure, to thousands of other Jewish women during that era — was that Jewish women did not have to be “first and foremost” Jews; we didn’t have to think of ourselves as cuddly bubbes or big-haired, red-taloned, gum-snapping JAPs averse to oral sex and housework. We could be ourselves — big-nosed, curly-haired, preternaturally sarcastic — but we could also be like everyone else — silent, unblinking, bikinied, ogled by hot dog salesmen and policemen. We, too, could be objectified. And this, in a weird way, was liberating.
Over the past few years, as Jewish culture has become increasingly integrated into the mainstream, more and more Jewish women have been cast as leading ladies or sexpots. We no longer just have Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus. These days, a Jewish girl can buy any magazine and see a spray-tanned, cheesecake-ified version of her own features staring back at her.
I can’t say all of this is great for the feminist cause, but it’s great for young Jewish women and their fathers, who are now spared the endeavor of producing evidence in the form of “Jew or Not Jew?” printouts that the world will ever find their daughters fuckable. And we have Bess to thank for that.
EJ Dickson is the lifestyle editor for the Daily Dot. Her work has been published in Salon, Vice, The Awl, Medium, Nerve, the Daily Dot, the Huffington Post, andWomen’s Health Magazine, among others. The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead once referred to her as “ineffably cool,” although EJ suspects it was only because she was wearing skinny jeans at the time. She lives in New York City and does a fantastic impersonation of ’90s R&B; star Macy Gray.