Bess Myerson, a New York house painter’s daughter who was crowned Miss America in 1945 and whose vibrant career as a television personality and consumer affairs activist was sullied by a tawdry municipal scandal involving her lover, has died at 90.
According to public records, she died Dec. 14 in Santa Monica, Calif., her town of residence. Her death was not announced publicly, marking an uncharacteristically obscure end to a life of dazzle and tumult.
A raven-haired, hazel-eyed beauty who stood 5-foot-10, Ms. Myerson was a captivating figure from the moment she was named the first — and still only — Jewish Miss America. Born to immigrant Jews from Russia, she was raised in a Bronx housing project and embodied an up-from-poverty success story that made her an overnight sensation and possibly the best-known Miss America in the contest’s history.
For decades, she enjoyed something close to reverence among a generation of Jews who had lived through the Holocaust and found in her win a symbol of Jewish assimilation and acceptance in an otherwise hostile world.
“In the Jewish community she was the most famous pretty girl since Queen Esther in ancient Persia,” author Susan Dworkin wrote in “Miss America, 1945: Bess Myerson’s Own Story,” a book published in 1987.
Behind the scenes, Ms. Myerson faced a thornier reality. In a time of rampant anti-Semitism, the Miss America pageant director urged her to change her name to make it sound less Jewish; she refused. As a Miss America representative, she found country clubs canceling her visits and corporate sponsorships dropping away.
She became a spokeswoman for the Anti-Defamation League and raised millions of dollars for the new country of Israel. She lectured high school students about tolerance: “You can’t be beautiful and hate,” she often said.
More than a bathing beauty, she had once been a promising talent as a pianist and could hold her own, charming large audiences. She was a fixture on TV quiz shows in the 1950s and 1960s — notably swathed in mink on “The Big Payoff” and as a panelist on “I’ve Got a Secret” — and she parlayed that visibility into a career of public service.
In 1969, Mayor John V. Lindsay named her New York City’s commissioner of consumer affairs, and in the 1980s she was Mayor Edward I. Koch’s commissioner of cultural affairs. In the 1960s and ’70s, she won presidential appointments to boards or conferences focused on crime and violence, workplace issues, mental health and world hunger. She became a consumer consultant to Citibank and Bristol-Myers, the pharmaceutical company.
She also cultivated a high profile through her columns for the New York Daily News and Redbook magazine and a syndicated TV show on consumer affairs. Those jobs extended from her reputation as a hard-driving consumer watchdog under Lindsay.
In 1971, she helped push through one of the toughest consumer protection acts in the country. It called for clearer dating labels for perishable foods and for the inclusion of unit prices on foods to allow buyers to comparison-shop more easily.
She said her Miss America title often was a hurdle to her work in consumer activism.
“When our department served a subpoena on a supermarket, there was a picture in the paper of the president of the supermarket, in his business suit of course, and a picture of me in a bathing suit,” she told the Detroit News. “I think putting labels on people is bad enough, but putting yesterday’s label on somebody is very bad.”
She said such stereotypes toughened her mettle and turned her into a wily political survivor.
She lent her celebrity to a string of Democratic candidates in New York, not the least of whom was Koch, who was an obscure Greenwich Village congressman before winning the mayoralty in 1977. He squired her around, and they often were seen holding hands on the hustings. Such sightings helping tamp down speculation that Koch, a lifelong bachelor, was gay; at the time, homosexuality almost certainly would have ended a political career.
Koch won that race, and Ms. Myerson became a frequent presence at Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s residence. In return, he supported Ms. Myerson’s unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 1980. She lost the Democratic primary to then-Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, who was defeated in the general election by Alfonse M. D’Amato, a Republican official on Long Island.
Not long after, Koch named Ms. Myerson commissioner of cultural affairs. But Ms. Myerson’s place in the political firmament soon began to slip. In 1987, she was forced to resign from the $83,000-a-year city post amid bribery and conspiracy charges stemming from her personal life.
The city tabloids dubbed it the “Bess Mess.”
In the early 1980s, she became the companion of a wealthy New York sewer contractor Carl A. “Andy” Capasso, who was married at the time and was more than 20 years her junior.
Capasso was convicted in 1987 of evading hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes, and he served two years in prison. A grand jury probe into Capasso’s business deals revealed his messy divorce while seeing Ms. Myerson and an ugly legal battle over alimony payments.
Ms. Myerson was accused of trying to influence a judge in the Capasso divorce case by giving the judge’s emotionally troubled and seemingly unemployable daughter a $19,000-per-year city job as her assistant in the Department of Cultural Affairs; the job did not last. The judge, Hortense W. Gabel, was a social friend of Ms. Myerson’s and dramatically reduced Capasso’s alimony payments.
In October 1987, Ms. Myerson, Capasso and Gabel were indicted for conspiracy, bribery and mail fraud — in effect, colluding to fix the alimony payments in Capasso’s favor. But the star witness, the daughter of the judge, appeared by all accounts to be unreliable, and the jury acquitted the defendants of all charges in 1988.
Bess Myerson was born in the Bronx on July 16, 1924, and was the middle of three daughters. A brother died of diphtheria at 3, leaving her mother in a state of perpetual anguish.
According to Dworkin’s book, the Myerson matriarch insisted that her daughters learn music so that they could support themselves as teachers if they ever were widowed.
Ms. Myerson graduated in 1941 from the High School of Music and Art, where she also picked up the flute, and in 1945 from Hunter College. She modeled to earn pocket money and won the Miss New York City pageant. She later earned a spot in the Miss America contest.
She entranced the judges in the beauty contest and also won the talent portion playing a piano concerto by Grieg and then the Gershwin song “Summertime” on flute. Within a few years, the telegenic Ms. Myerson began appearing on TV quiz shows and in commercials.
Her first marriage, to Allan Wayne, ended in divorce; she said he was physically abusive and an alcoholic. She later was twice married and divorced from tax and theatrical lawyer Arnold Grant. Survivors include a daughter from her first marriage.
Ms. Myerson endured periods of ill health, including a diagnosis of ovarian cancer in the mid-1970s and a brain aneurysm in the early 1980s. She was in debt after her Senate run. She did not want for male companionship, but relationships ended sourly and publicly, People magazine reported. She pleaded guilty to shoplifting $44 in cosmetics and other goods in 1988 while en route to visit Capasso in a Pennsylvania prison.
A flurry of books sought to capitalize on the Bess Mess. Ms. Myerson insisted her reversal of fortune was only temporary. “I’m like a phoenix,” she once told New York magazine. “I rise from the ashes.”