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There She Is: Bess Myerson (1924-2014)

‘I never wanted to be Miss America, even when I was 7. But I wanted to be pretty. I wanted to be loved.’

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Bess Myerson after being crowned Miss America 1945. (Associated Press)

Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America, died last month at age 90—her death was confirmed publicly today. This piece was originally published January 14, 2011.

There’s a famous story in my family: My grandmother had gathered her family in the den for the ritual communal-watching of the Miss America Pageant. “My God,” she said in awe, as the preening, perfectly groomed contestants took the stage in eveningwear. “They’re all so tall and thin and gorgeous! Wouldn’t you just kill to look like that? To be that tall and perfect and thin?” And then, without missing a beat or betraying the barest flicker of irony: “Who wants an ice cream sundae?”

My high-achieving, second-wave feminist mother, who made a point of tuning into the pageant every year “to remind myself how much I hate it,” had a somewhat different take. I remember asking her when I was 6 or 7 why so many of the finalists seemed to come from the South. I’m not sure I realized this at the time, but, looking back, I think it was my way of wondering why there was never a girl who seemed “like us.”

My mother replied, with a rough edge of bitterness in her voice: “Because that’s where all the blonde Barbie dolls with too many teeth live.”

It was not always thus.

In 1945, the Miss America Pageant constituted a symbolic return to normalcy for the country; a promise that a still-smoldering Europe and a Japan about to face its first devastating nuclear winter could not keep patriotic Americans from leering at a bunch of lissome young beauties parading across a stage in flattering but modest swimwear.

Its winner, however, a leggy 21-year-old brunette named Bess Myerson, was decidedly unorthodox. Myerson represented New York City, a place that many still see as somehow un-American. (There have only been two other New Yorkers named Miss America, including Vanessa Williams, famously the first black woman to win the pageant.) Myerson was a college graduate—unusual for contestants at the time—who had entered the pageant on a lark when she heard of its offer of scholarship money, hoping to win enough to buy a new piano. She was also the first and as yet only Jewish girl to win the crown.

But that could change on Saturday, when Loren Galler Rabinowitz, the reigning Miss Massachusetts, becomes the first Jew to compete for the Miss America title since Myerson. Like Myerson, Galler Rabinowitz entered the pageant for practical reasons. The Harvard graduate and two-time national ice dance champion is about to start medical school, and she hopes to take advantage of the scholarships the program offers for women going into medicine. “A lot of my friends were taking a gap year in order to make money for school—taking jobs at banks and things,” Galler Rabinowitz says. “I wanted to spend a year doing public service, which I’ve always been extremely passionate about. And this year seemed like my last opportunity before jumping on the hamster wheel of med school.”

The pageant circuit remains a pretty Christianized affair, with so many contestant espousing their faith in Jesus (not to mention “opposite marriage”) that you’d think they’re planning a run for, well, the governorship of Alaska. Feminism, an atavistic sense of ritual modesty, the sense that there were more productive ways to spend one’s time (you might think Galler Rabinowitz would belong to the latter category): All may have conspired over the years to keep Jewish girls who were more than pretty from gathering in Atlantic City. Galler Rabinowitz believes part of the problem is simply geographical: “Pageants are biggest in the South, and Jews tend to be concentrated in the Northeast,” she says. “It’s just not part of the cultural purview.”

Bess Myerson, however, isn’t sweating the reasons, and she warns against attaching an unhealthy importance to this latest milestone. “I’m very excited to have another Jewish girl in the running, but there should be another Jewish girl in the running,” the 86-year-old Myerson told me via a representative of the Anti-Defamation League, with which she has been associated since her pageant days. “I’m very proud, but it shouldn’t be a big deal.”

Fair enough. But in 1945, her selection was a big deal, for Jew and Gentile alike. Weeks before the pageant, judges received phone calls from irate pageant watchers warning them not to choose “the Jew.” Hoping to stave off trouble, pageant officials pleaded with Myerson to change her name to the deracinated “Beth Merrick.” After her win, not a single official sponsor, from the notoriously anti-Semitic Ford Motor Company to Catalina Swimwear, requested that she endorse their products; she was barred at the last minute from a scheduled appearance at a restricted country club in the South. The Daughters of the American Revolution, it seemed, did not care to share crab salad with a Daughter of Israel. (Who says she would have eaten it anyway?)

Despite this ugliness, the Jewish community was understandably jubilant over Myerson’s win. One of the less discussed aspects of the Nazi regime, in both incipience and aftermath, is its lasting imprint on many Jews’ sense of physical self-image. (Someone calling you ugly seems rather trivial when that same person is also trying to kill you.) But even relatively trivial wounds can leave lasting scars: Primo Levi hypothesized that much of his crippling shyness toward the opposite sex was caused by the Aryanization laws and ubiquitous Nazi propaganda depicting the Jew as physically and sexually repugnant. His admission is instructive; it would take a self-confidence bordering on the pathological to avoid internalizing at least some of that crap.

A beautiful Jewish girl being named Miss America—“our ideal,” as Bert Parks would remind viewers—went a long way in helping to repair some of this damage. It’s an overstatement to compare the results of a beauty pageant with the U.N. resolution recommending the creation of Jewish state in Palestine, but Myerson’s historic win was nevertheless an important step toward the reinstatement of the status of “fully human” to the devastated Jewish people. Even if much of the world was not quite ready to see it that way.

Bess Myerson could have (and perhaps should have) ushered in a worshipful golden age of Jewish femininity. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. As Jewish men began to shape American pop culture of the postwar years, they often asserted their independence from the painful (or embarrassing) history through less-than-flattering portrayals of their mothers and sisters and cousins, robbing Jewish women of their femininity and sexual power in the public imagination for generations. In the work of Woody Allen, early Philip Roth (although I believe that Portnoy’s Complaint is intended as a satire of these attitudes, not an endorsement), Paul Mazursky, Herman Wouk, and the like, male “Jewish” traits—intellectual sophistication, sensitivity, even neurosis—were portrayed as endearing and even sexually combustible to the right (Gentile) woman; Jewish women (as I scarcely have to tell you) were portrayed as loud, pushy, materialistic, emasculating, crass, and seemingly devoid of any complicated inner life. If they were at all attractive, it was in spite of their Jewishness, not because of it, or the attractiveness had come at great (often surgical) expense.

It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to uncover the seething self-hatred that is the flip side of the JAP stereotype; the furious suspicion that no matter how beautifully you dress, how vigilantly you starve yourself, how meticulously you carve up your body and your face, that you’re never going to be quite good or pretty or lovable enough. That on some level, that schlemiel you married is always going to be holding out for Mia Farrow (or, today, Leslie Mann). Even Ari Ben Canaan, the anti-Portnoy, winds up with the shiksa at the end.

I never wanted to be Miss America, even when I was 7. But I wanted to be pretty. I wanted to be loved.

It’s a feeling Galler Rabinowitz knows well. “I wish I could say it was something I’d never thought about,” she says, sighing. “I come from the world of competitive skating, which is even more aesthetically focused than pageants, and I didn’t fit the aesthetic there either. It took me some time to realize that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s about feeling comfortable and proud of who you are.”

It takes some time for all of us. Maybe it’s silly, but for the first time in years, I think I’ll be tuning into the Miss America Pageant this weekend, cheering on Miss Massachusetts in a frankly chauvinistic (and let’s face it, somewhat embarrassing) gesture of ethnic solidarity. I don’t care if she wins. I just care that she’s there. Bess Myerson is right; it isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a big deal. It won’t be for my generation’s daughters. But it still is for me.

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Appreciated this essay. “it would take a self-confidence bordering on the pathological to avoid internalizing at least some of that crap” — and I like the way Shukert links the broader cultural and political tides with the personal.

Dani Levi says:

Rachel will always be my Miss Israel, if only she could stop the Eurobashing.

J Carpenter says:

with thanks to Leo Rosten: “So what’s the matter? Is the bride too beautiful?”

Rachel says:

FYI: This is the first year that one of the Miss America contestants will be chosen by popular vote. You can view the details for voting for Loren at

Great piece. I had no idea about the anti-Semitism Beth Me– I mean BESS MYERSON — faced after winning. I hope Loren experiences nothing like that after she WINS! GO LOREN!

barbara says:

So tell me, which editorial genius at The Tablet HELD THIS ARTICLE BACK UNTIL THE VOTING PERIOD ENDED?

littlebadwolf says:

Years ago, I was lucky enough to interview Bess Myerson in her role as Consumer Affairs Commissioner of the City of New York. As beautiful as she was, she was even more kind and savy, and Bess Myerson can still serve as a role model for all Americans, not just young girls.

Bess Meyerson lived in the “The Amalgamated,” which is how we in the Bronx referred to the first cooperative housing development for workers, about three miles from where I lived, built by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union for their members. Most of the children in my elementary school lived in The Amalgamated. They were the children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. They were good students and strong believers, with me (the only child in our class with American-born parents), of the American dream. When Bess won Miss America, I was a teenager, bemoaning how my wild, curly brown hair (in an era without gels and mousses) and curvy body was so unlike the blonde, long-legged glamourous movie stars and fashion models. Her victory (with dark hair like mine!), certainly helped me boost my self image and the pride in our neighborhood reminded me of the joy, years before, when Joe Louis beat Max Schmeling. You go, Bess!

A great friday afternoon read. Thanks Rachel.

I was a young teen-ager when Bess Myerson won…but I do remember the thrill we all felt.
Your article brought back memories of years of watching ( and choosing favorites!) of this American
‘institution’…haven’t watched in years ( since Mr.Trump took it over) but you have inspired me to watch this week end.
Great article! Thank you.

Bert Parks? I assume that you mean Bertram Jacobson. See here:

Sarah V. says:

A small plug for a good book: Miss America, 1945: Bess Myerson and the Year That Changed Our Lives, by Susan Dworkin.

I started to live in the Bronx when I was 4. That was in 1934. So as an 80 year old, how could I forget that Bess Myerson would baby-sit for me. At that time she would play the flute before I went to sleep.
Dear Dolores Sloan, We lived in the Sholem Aleichem ” Hizer ” on Giles Place.
I lived in section G apt 11. My wife, then, Joan Rappoport lived in B11
I believe Bess lived in section C. We all went to PS 95 during the day,and the Arbete Ring Shule in the after noon. The Linke went to another Shule. We were all friends then, and to this day still are.
Some of our best friends lived in the Amalgamated.
Bess, and all of us will be rooting for Loren Rabinowitz.
Sy & Geri Weiss, Fort Lee NJ.

donyel ben aharon says:

To Dolores and Sy:
Thank you Sy for correcting Dolores. I grew up in Apt G-23 of Sholem Aleichem Apts. My paternal grandparents lived in Section F (CDEF had a West 238th St address) The Building comprised of Sects GHIJ was changed from 3451 Giles Place to 3470 Cannon Place some time in the 50’s. Building KLMNO still has a Giles Place address. My still living Aunt and “Bessie” grew up together. Rumor has it that “Bessie” babysat me once or twice when my Aunt was unavailable. I was an infant when windows flew open all over the Sholem Aleichem courtyards with people screaming “Bessie won! Bessie won!”

Paul Pitluk says:

Just as Sy and Jerry…I , too, was Bessie’s neighbor in the Sholem Aleichem houses. I lived in Section D on the 4th floor, apartment 42, adjacent to the windows of the Meyersons’ (I was too young to be a peeping-tom). I shall never forget the day that the photographers took promotional photos of Bessie in her white bathing suit on our “tar roof.” The great pride that we had still remains with me to this day. My best wishes go to Loren Rabinowitz…to follow in the footsteps of “our” Bessie.
Paul Pitluk

Barbara says:

My very first boyfriend was Jewish we were in the 6th grade in Imperial Beach, Calif. He called to ask me to go to the movies Saturday I asked my dad and he said fine then his mom had to talk to my dad and dad said he didn’t think at age 12 we were going to elope or anything. Then he said he knew quite a few Jewish boys during WWII and found them to be excellent sailors (pop was an Admiral). So every Saturday David’s mom would drive us to the movie and pick us up and David always bought me popcorn and a drink and put his arm around the seat behind me. I would truly love to go back to that time. Maybe it just seems more wonderful looking back than what it was but best memory of dating. This was in 1953.

normaLee says:

This is not only an interesting article but even more fascinating is the response of so many who commented. They share a collective memory of growing up in what was clearly a remarkable community. Before the days of playdates and afterschool activities, the families who share the Amalgamated experience seems lucky to have this common bond. Amazing: people remember their apt. numbers and buildings as well as their friends’. All this seems a microcosm of how the Jewish community was so unified back then as opposed to so amorphous today.

Thanks for Joy, Donyel, Paul and Sy for setting me straight as to Bess’ exact homesite. So glad you all have such great memories of a wonderful place to live. I lived at 215 E. Gun Hill Road, and went to P. S. 94. Community has always been important to me, probably because of my roots in the part of the Bronx my folks settled in. I remember a safe neighborhood, where young children could play outside without adult supervision and where my girlfriends and I could take the subway (a nickel each way) by ourselves down to see “Oklahoma” ($1.80 balcony matinee seats), walk about a bit afterwards and come home by dark.

But that could change on Saturday, when Loren Galler Rabinowitz, the reigning Miss Massachusetts, becomes the first Jew to compete for the Miss America title since Myerson.

Please remember Cornelia Collette Lerner, Miss North Carolina of 1970.

these comments are so great!

Patrick Crabtree says:

I have been following Miss America for many years and often feel connected in some strange way. When I was in college at Southwest Texas State University, I worked on the committee that put on the Miss Southwest Texas State University. I attended the Miss Texas Pageant to support my friend Beth Anne Helle. I saw Shirley Cothran crowned Miss Texas and during the reception, I told her she would be the next Miss America. I have her picture to this day signed thanking me for the confidence. I also met Terry Meeuwsen. I loved the pageantry of the day. My days at SWT (Texas State) did a Jewish woman compete.

Another story, Yolande Betbeze attended the high school my mom and her sister attended, as well as my dad’s sisters. They knew her. The town…..Mobile, Alabama. Yes, the home of America’s Junior Miss, which Miss America supported for many years. I worked for the school system and we hosted the contestants and saw Julie Bryant (Miss Georgia)crowned. No Jewish woman there either. Although I know one tried out for Miss Mobile (did not win). I am now teaching in Georgia and one of our union (GAE/NEA) members was fourth runner up 3 or 4 years ago in Miss America. Still not a Jewish woman in a place where there is a large Jewish population.

I was most impressed with the pageant this year. It recaptured the pagentry, glamour, and wholesomeness I saw back when Shirley Cothran was crowned. It was sexy without the lewdness I sometimes see in Miss USA/Miss Universe. Thank you! I am also glad to see that Miss America is now recognizing Vanessa Williams again, showing that a bad choice doesn’t stop one from redeeming one’s self. (Very Jewish) Now I say, where are the beautiful Jewish women? Why aren’t we questioning their covert anti semitism? Throughout Jewish history beautiful women were heroines.. Doe we need to remind them of that? Without Judaism, there’d be no Christianity?

Patrick Crabtree says:

Maybe Myerson winning Miss America was an attempt trying to make up for America not defending the Jews against Hitler and this was them trying to say, “we’re not antisematic.” America embraces all……….Hmmmmm.

Rebecca says:

To follow up on Joel’s comment, also there Lynn Hackerman (Weidner) crowned as Miss New Jersey in 1971 was also a contestant in the Miss America Pageant and a current board member for Miss America

I too grew up in the Sholem Aleichem houses, apt D-13 (Hi Danny! It’s Cindy, Ken Morris’s ‘baby’ sister. I remember with what what pride my mother spoke of Bess Myerson, that she was from our buildings and that she was Jewish. Lots of crap to dig through about Jewish beauty and women’s self-image in general. The hours spent ironing hair and wishing for shicksa qualities. FINALLY at age 54 I feel thrilled to be and look Jewish. It was a long haul, but I am at last there: total self-acceptance, “bad” hair, and all that comes with that: brains, humor, and perspective!

EXCELLENT! I watched the Miss America pageant every year when I was little with my whole family– and yes, fressing Breyer’s choc/vanil/straw sundaes!
Luckily the men in my family used to watch those girls and go “feh! too thin!” which has shaped me in so many, many ways…

Pottering says:

According to the US Census Bureau about 2% of the US population is Jewish, so you’d expect the numbers to be very, very low winning Miss America. That’s assuming of course Jewish girls enter at the same rate as non-Jewish girls, which it would appear from some of the comments they don’t.

Yaakov Hillel says:

The fact that the percentage of Jews as for their total among the world population, and the western civilizations show their strength in nobel prize winners,finding them help among the best helpers in world disasters, both Israelis and others from different countries. The greatest amount of partisans in WW2 who fought the Nazis whether from Jewish partisan like the Bielski brothers, and many other Jewish partisans who were mixed into other national groups became the largest national partisan group to fight the Nazis, with great distinction in heroism. These are the real issues and not the belittling of women showing off their starved bodies in swim suits with their buttocks to satisfy the needs of male chauvinists. I am of the impression that on a national basis, the Miss x pagent gives far less respect of nations than adding it by marching these girls around in circles to be chosen as slave were once chosen or in a cattle fair chosing who has best slices of choice portions.

Helen T. says:

I went to the High School of Music and Art from 1946-1950, and we were so proud to say that Bess Myerson was a graduate. There was a subway poster about her, and since most of us traveled a distance to get to school, we got to kvell regularly.

In 1967, I was the winner of the Miss Dunkirk-Fredonia Pageant in WNY. The Miss NYS Pageant, held in Olean, was quite the experience. Most telling to me was the request upon first arriving on Pageant week for the church I wished to attend on the Sunday after the Saturday night pageant. I declined, and after a “shocked” Why not?, I replied that I was Jewish.

I felt the sense that they already had done the “Bess Myerson” thing, so I had best not be too hopeful.
Participation in that was a learning experience in many ways, which I will never regret. Gained some real world knowledge.

a picture from ’45, is this your own pic collection? great stuff you have there


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There She Is: Bess Myerson (1924-2014)

‘I never wanted to be Miss America, even when I was 7. But I wanted to be pretty. I wanted to be loved.’

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