Yes, Bess Myerson was Jewish -- but don’t ask mainstream media how

I don't know if time heals all wounds, but it often smooths edges. When Bess Myerson was chosen Miss America in 1945, she reportedly still found hotels and other sites still closed to her as a Jew. But to me as a boy, she was just that pretty brunette panelist on the TV game show I've Got a Secret.

If anything, attitudes changed toward American Jews have changed even more thoroughly. Or maybe, mainstream just don't like to mention religion at all. So many media obits of Myerson, who died Dec. 14, play down her faith and heritage beyond the phrase "the first (and, to this day, only) Jewish Miss America."

CNN does one of the better jobs with Myerson's Jewish connections. It says many American Jews looked up to her as a role model, as they admired Jewish ballplayers Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.

One of CNN's best remarks, though, is borrowed:

"Her victory was seen by many as a symbolic statement of America's post-war rejection of the crimes and prejudices that ravaged Europe as well as a representation of the vitality of the American Jewish community," noted a biography on the Jewish Women's Archive site.

Most of the report is the "classic rags-to-riches" story -- yes, CNN actually uses that phrase -- of a Bronx girl who became a media figure, then entered public service in New York and took a fling at the U.S. Senate. It also briefly reviews, as do other media, the "Bess Mess," a "mid-'80s scandal involving a romantic affair with a married contractor and an alleged quid pro quo with the judge in his divorce trial."

Even the hometown New York Daily News finds it hard to say much about Myerson's Judaism. It gives the usual bio details, then ends with her settling in Santa Monica.

NPR, of all media, gets surprisingly sensationalist with its obit, "From Miss America To Tabloid Fodder."

It tells of her appointment in the 1960s by New York Mayor John V. Lindsay as commissioner of consumer affairs. It mentions her appointment to Mayor Ed Koch's administration and the "Bess Mess" -- reporting that she was acquitted after a three-month trial.

And the New York Times has even more tabloid-type stuff: It retells all the scandals, with the expanded detail of a newspaper that really gets interested in something. The main exception is a quote by her daughter, Barra Grant ...

Ms. Grant said: “When my mother walked down the runway, the Jews in the audience broke into a cheer. My mother looked out at them and saw them hug each other, and said to herself, ‘This victory is theirs.’ ”
But their pride was soon tempered by her encounters with anti-Semitism. Few sponsors, it turned out, wanted a Jewish Miss America to endorse their products. Certain country clubs and hotels barred her as she toured the country after the pageant. Appearances were canceled.
 “I felt so rejected,” Ms. Myerson once said. “Here I was, chosen to represent American womanhood, and then America treated me like this.”

... a quote borrowed from a New York magazine clip.

Oddly, the Jewish press has some of the most secular items on Myerson. The Jerusalem Post, for instance, has a hastily patchworked story from its own reporting and from the Jewish Telegraph Agency. Aside from the obligatory "first Jewish Miss America," this is all the Jewish content in the story:

Myerson was born in the Bronx in 1924 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. She lived in the Shalom Aleichem Co-operative with a few hundred other Jewish families and attended the High School of Music & Art.

Why do I call the story hastily patchworked? Because it has the above paragraph twice.

The Jewish Daily Forward has a better piece, but it seems to concentrate less on Myerson's Jewishness and more on anti-Semitism:

Despite her beauty, Myerson could not change ingrained anti-Semitic attitudes. Miss America officials reportedly advised her to change her name to something more goyish-sounding, but she demurred. On tour after her crowning, she was barred from certain “restricted” country clubs and hotels and unlike other Miss Americas, did not pose for ads hawking Ford automobiles or Catalina swimwear, as those two corporations did not wish to be identified with Jews at the time.
Cutting short her victory tour, she began lecturing instead for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. These appearances, she would later recall, led to accusations from pageant officials of “making communist speeches sponsored by Jewish manufacturers.”

The Forward partly makes up for that in a first-person blog entry. Writer Masha Leon catalogs several anecdotes when Myerson avowed her Jewishness.

In one anecdote, Myerson donates $1.1 million to the Museum of Jewish Heritage. In another, she asks the Anti-Defamation League just after winning the Miss America crown, “What can I do for the Jewish people?" In answer, the ADL puts her on a speaker circuit of high school and colleges, with the message: "You can’t be beautiful and hate."

Still another anecdote has Myerson giving an acceptance speech for an honor from the Workmen’s Circle. According to the story, she looks heavenward and says in Yiddish: “Tatele, mamele, gib nor a kuk?” (Daddy, Mommy, look– would you believe this?) I’ve been brought back to my Yiddishkeit, to my own misphokhe (family)."

There's more in the Bloomberg News account. It points out that Myerson's house painter father came to America from Russia, "where he had survived one anti-Jewish pogrom by hiding under the kitchen floorboards."

And she was always more than a pretty brunette, the story says:

Myerson’s triumph at Atlantic City’s Warner Theater on Sept. 8, 1945, was a feel-good story for American Jews, who were just absorbing the horrific news coming from Europe about the extent of the Nazi Holocaust.
During her yearlong reign, Myerson broke with the traditional activities of Miss America and became a traveling speaker for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
“I was determined to do something with my year, to make it mean something, to give the crown some real weight,” she wrote.

For some of the best stuff on Myerson and Jewry, though, read the Religion News Service's two-pronged look at Myerson's life and significance.  Editor-in-chief Kevin Eckstrom produced an enterprising clip file on her "Jewish faith and identity."

Here is a perceptive view by Eckstrom:

Myerson has been described as a modern-day Queen Esther, the beautiful Jewish woman who used her talents and beauty to advocate for her people. When her work as Miss America dried up because she was a Jew, she joined up with the Anti-Defamation League for a “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate” nationwide speaking tour.

The quotes are distilled from seven sources, from a book to newspapers to the Anti-Defamation League to the Jewish Women's Archive. Some of the quotes  reveal Myerson's ambivalence about being a Jewish symbol:

“At the moment I won, I looked out at the crowd in the Warner Theater and saw all the Jewish people hugging each other, congratulating each other, as though they had won. I wanted to call out to them, ‘Hey folks! Look at me! Look at ME! Am I not the victor here?”

I also liked this bit of self-perception in the RNS piece:

“There’s a Jewish word for what I got from my ADL work: koved, pronounced like ‘covet.’ It means stature in the community. Becoming famous doesn’t bring koved. Investing your strength and substance and love in a good cause does.”

RNS' other prong for Bess Myerson coverage is their contributor Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin. In a smooth, sensitive commentary piece, Salkin blends history, emotion, Americana, and a compelling case for the headline: "Why Bess Myerson still matters."

Salkin, a congregational rabbi from Bayonne, N.J., picks out small details in the life of "Bess of the Bronx," then weaves them into the macro-story of western Jewry. He says she entered a beauty pageant to earn money to buy a piano -- a big deal for Jews, who often had to settle for small, light possessions that they could pick up and flee with. In America, the rabbi says, Jews often moved, but they no longer had to flee.

In commenting on the postwar era in which Myerson was crowned, Salkin focuses on the emaciated Jewish Holocaust survivors in their striped concentration camp uniforms.

"And yet, in Atlantic City, Bess Myerson was parading in a swimsuit," the rabbi says. "In Europe, there was Jewish death. In America — Jewish life. Bess Myerson represented the resurrection of the Jewish body — the journey from degradation to beauty."

He concludes: "America was different, and is different. Bess Myerson helped make that possible. And that is why she still matters."

The mainstream media may have largely forgotten Myerson's Jewish links, but she never did. As a newspaper religion writer, I covered her fundraising speech for a Jewish cause at a condo in the Fort Lauderdale area.

She was in her mid-70s, but she carried herself with the same grace and dignity that bore up her beauty queen crown decades before. She hadn't forgotten the lessons of beauty, learned, as RNS' Kevin Eckstrom says, by her ancestor Queen Esther. 

After her speech, I had a short interview with her, then ended with: "You're still very pretty." She smiled, briefly closed her dark eyes and nodded graciously.

Photo: Bess Myerson in 1957. Public domain photo via Wikimedia.

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