Bess Myerson, first and only Jewish Miss America, 90

Bess Myerson, the only Jewish woman to be crowned Miss America, died on Dec. 14 at her home in Santa Monica, the New York Times reported. She was 90.

Bess Myerson, 1957 photo/wikipedia

Myerson was a spokeswoman for the Anti-Defamation League and donated $1.1 million to help found the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.

After being crowned Miss America in September 1945, days after the close of World War II, Myerson fell victim to anti-Semitism that was still prevalent, the Times reported, as companies declined to have a Jew endorse their products, country clubs and hotels refused to admit her, and appearances were canceled.

The Times reports that she then went on a six-month tour for the ADL, speaking out against prejudice.

Myerson had a career in public service, leading two New York City departments — consumer affairs and cultural affairs — before becoming a spokeswoman and national commissioner for the ADL. Myerson also served on various boards and commissions under presidents Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

Throughout the late 1970s, Myerson became one of the faces of Ed Koch’s mayoral campaign. She appeared on his posters and was often seen holding hands with him in public.

In the late 1980s, Myerson became romantically linked to wealthy sewer contractor Carl Capasso and subsequently was involved in a series of legal controversies, or what was known as the “Bess Mess.” In 1989 she was acquitted in the bribery of a New York judge.

Following that, she stayed out of the public eye for the rest of her life.

Myerson was born in the Bronx in 1924 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. She lived in the Sholem Aleichem Cooperative Houses with a few hundred other Jewish families and attended the High School of Music and Art. As a talented piano player and performer, she went on to play at Carnegie Hall and appear on television shows such as “I’ve Got a Secret.” — jta