Bess Myerson, America’s first and only Jewish Miss America dead at age 90

It is tough to think that in this day and age there are still ethnic “firsts and only,” especially when that record stands for over 70 years. Bess Myerson died in her Santa Monica home on December 14th but history will know her as America’s first and only Jewish Miss America.

Myerson was crowned Miss America in 1945, the year that WWII, fought to abolish the Nazi scourge was won. Like all wars, the letting of blood is expected to mean something… a change of direction, an acceptance or even a renaissance. Myerson’s victory at Atlantic City’s Warner theater was hailed as a signal that not only did the hate and virulent anti-Semitism fall to America’s will overseas, but here at home we were willing to put our ideas into practice by looking at this phenomenally talented Jewish girl as a model of what American beauty standards could embody. Bess Myerson was not only beautiful she was smart and musically gifted.

But an item in the January 5, 2015 New York Times by Enid Nemy and William McDonald, revealed the ugly truth. The Times authors wrote:

“Ms. Myerson, the only Jewish contestant, represented more than New York City, her daughter, Barbara Carol Grant Reilly, said. “The Jews said, ‘She’s got to win in order to show that we’re not just nameless victims,’ ” Ms. Reilly told New York magazine in 1987. “It became more than a beauty contest. The Jews in New Jersey called one another, and they all came to Atlantic City that night.”

 As the crown was set on her head, the announcer shouted, “Beauty with brains, that’s Miss America of 1945!”

 Ms. Reilly 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 her self, ‘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.”

Cutting the tour short, she returned to New York, where she agreed to embark on a six-month lecture tour for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, speaking out against prejudice with a speech titled “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate.”

The Times article goes on to rehash scandal and newspaper selling innuendos about Myerson’s career after Miss America. I read that too, but seized on the fact that America still spills generations of blood overseas on political and social ideals, but just can’t seem to embody them here at home. We can look at racial and social progress here in broad strokes and concur that America is far better off now than it was 70 years ago, but to make real progress, the devil is in the details!

Follow Will on Twitter @WillJWright

Photo courtesy: Jewish Women's Archive

Photo courtesy: Jewish Women’s Archive

Photo courtesy of The Jewish Women's Archive

Photo courtesy of The Jewish Women’s Archive

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