Bess Myerson, the only Jewish winner of the Miss America pageant turned New York City public official, died on December 14th in Santa Monica, California at the age of 90. However, her death was not announced until today.
Myerson’s triumph at the 1945 Miss America pageant was a source of pride for American Jews in the wake of the horrors of The Holocaust. Unfortunately for Myerson, there was plenty of anti-Semitism at home as several of the pageant’s sponsors withdrew upon her victory.
But Myerson made the best of things appearing in TV commercials and eventually found a niche appearing on game show panels most notably I’ve Got a Secret. Check out the video above which shows an exchange between Myerson and future President Ronald Reagan when he appeared on the show in 1961.
Myerson would become a prominent figure in New York City politics after Mayor John Lindsay appointed her Commissioner of Consumer Affairs in 1969. Eight years later, Myerson played a crucial role in Ed Koch’s ascension to Gracie Mansion. Supporters of Mario Cuomo came out with the slogan, “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” Koch’s appearances with Myerson neutralized those attacks.
In 1980, Myerson unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate when she narrowly lost to Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman who in turn was defeated by Republican Alfonse D’Amato. Koch would appoint Myerson as Commissioner of Cultural Affairs in 1983.
But Myerson’s political career unravelled when she was charged with several counts of bribery. These charges arose when Myerson began socializing with the judge presiding over her boyfriend’s divorce proceedings. The judge subsequently lowered the alimony payments of her boyfriend’s ex-wife and her daughter was soon working for Myerson. This became known as the Bess Mess.
Although Myerson was acquitted on all counts, her reputation never recovered and she would spend the quarter century of her life in obscurity.